PIXELS Movie Review – The Sandler-Pocalypse Continues
We live in dark times — quite possibly the darkest of dark times, pre-apocalyptic times, or to borrow a line and idea from the late, no-longer-lamented Community, “the darkest timeline of them all.” Times so dark that a Hollywood studio, apparently flush with cash or co-financiers with offshore bank accounts and money to launder, eager, of its own free will (corporations are, per the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC, people with rights and responsibilities, plus immortality) is more than willing to finance one Adam Sandler vacation (film) after another (film). Or maybe the apocalypse has come and gone and we, individually and collectively, simply can’t tell the difference. But we know this much: the Adam Sandler-led Pixels, the big-screen adaptation of an award-winning French short, arrives in finer and less fine multiplexes this weekend to battle any number of far superior films for box-office supremacy and the bragging rights necessary for an extended stay in multiplexes.
But forge ahead we must, searching, hope against hope, for a battery-powered flashlight to help us make our tentative way out of the darkness and into another sci-fi comedy, an alien invasion flick where the “twist,” unseen, energy-based aliens (or something) attack the Earth using 8-bit characters borrowed from early ‘80s video arcade games (nostalgia on line 1, all), and the central character, a zero by any definition, Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler, somnambulant), becomes a world-saving zero one stale, condescending pop-culture joke at a time, gets the “girl” (obviously a grown-up woman), Violet (Michelle Monaghan), a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force (or one of the armed services), a weapons expert, and recent divorcee. Not coincidentally, she’s also Brenner’s client the same day the aliens descend from the literal heavens to attack a U.S. base on Guam.
As we’re repeatedly told and shown briefly in an early ’80-set prologue, Brenner was once the “best of the best,” a video arcade gamer/savant who almost won the 1982 World Video Arcade Championships (second place is for losers apparently). Once he came in second, however, a petulant Brenner quit gaming permanently (semi-understandable given his age at the time), doing nothing significant or noteworthy with his life for 30 years, with the possible exception of working as an audio/video equipment installer for a Geek Squad analogue called the “Nerd Brigade.” (Jeff Goldblum’s Independence Day character saved the world and he was nothing more than a cable TV tech, albeit an overqualified one.)
Despite Brenner’s perpetual loser status, he remains on close personal terms with Cooper (Kevin James), one-time sidekick turned — inexplicably, of course — into the President of the United States of America. (Ponder that again: Kevin James, the POTUS; absurd, ludicrous, and ridiculous in equal measure.) While Brenner has a few problems, including sinking approval ratings and a neglected First Lady (Jane Krakowski), they’re nothing compared to fighting off aliens bent on conquering the world, one 8-bit video arcade game brought to singularly impressive 3D life (Pixels one and only highlight), albeit playing fair and giving the Earth’s champions multiple lives (three per quarter apparently). Brenner initially joins Cooper’s super-special task force as an advisor, but soon enough, he’s confidently leading a counter-attack against the aliens, with another video arcade enthusiast and conspiracy theory nut, Ludlow (Josh Gad), and former rival and current felon, Eddie (Peter Dinklage), as co-gamers. A third character, Professor Iwatani (Denis Akiyama), a fictional stand-in for the actual inventor of Pac-Man, Toru Iwatani, joins Brenner’s crew for a literal ride, but he’s quickly sidelined for Violet and Cooper.
Directed by onetime A-lister Chris Columbus (Rent, the Harry Potter series) with lackluster, uninspired semi-competency, Pixels follows an overly familiar trajectory, clinging to Brenner’s redemptive arc (that zero to hero thing) like a drowning man clinging to a spoon, the laziest of lazy verbal humor (often delivered with Sandler’s trademark condescending, self-loathing smirk), tedious, tiresome physical gags, cheap ‘80s nostalgia, and the best visual effects a $100 million production budget can buy. It’s those effects that make Pixels an almost bearable experience (operative word being “almost”), but it’s hard not to imagine another, Sandler-free iteration like Ernest Cline’s latest novel, “Armada,” that fully takes advantage of the premise’s inherent possibilities. Unfortunately, thanks to Sandler and Pixels, chances are we’ll never get the opportunity to see an adaptation of Cline’s novel on the big, middle, or small screen. On the plus side, we’ll always that similarly premised Futurama sketch to hunt down, watch, and rewatch. That sketch accomplishes far more in six minutes than Pixels in 98 of the longest minutes ever put on (digital) film.