As has been evident from most of his films, Adam Sandler has a fascination for nostalgia of the past, and the 80s and 90s in particular. This comes across very strongly in his soundtrack choices. Pixels dives deep into the 80s vibe with its unusual take on the alien invasion/war of the worlds scenario, and it plays the usual tropes more for laughs. Pixels, which is best described as Independence Day versus Happy Gilmore, is actually a lot more enjoyable than it has any right to be, given that many of Sandler’s latest films have sucked big time. Pixels has less of the puerile, juvenile humour aimed at the lowest common denominator which is a staple of his films.
The clever premise is based on the fact that in the 80s NASA sent a satellite into space to try and contact intelligent alien life. The satellite contained some of the best representations of American culture, from its television programs (Fantasy Island, etc) and music (Hall and Oates, etc) through to other more esoteric items, including some of the top video arcade games from the era. But what was intended as a message of peace was misinterpreted as a declaration of war. The aliens decided to launch an attack on our planet, sending down destructive versions of Space Invaders, Pac Man and even Donkey Kong.
With the military at a loss about how to handle this unusual assault, President William Cooper (played by Sandler regular Kevin James) turns to his former best friend Sam Brenner (Sandler). Back in the 80s, the teenage Sam was a whizz at arcade games, and he knows the patterns and codes of these retro game creatures. Now he works for a company installing software and high tech tvs. Brennen enlists the help of Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), a conspiracy buff and gamer who is obsessed with the fictitious video game character Lady Lisa, and Sam’s former nemesis Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage), an obnoxious gaming champion who has spent the better part of a decade in prison.
Brenner even finds time to deliver a brief lecture on how superior the arcade games of the 80s are to today’s more violent video games that rely more on luck than mathematical skills and the ability to detect patterns.
Pixels is actually based on a 2010 short film from French filmmaker Patrick Jean in which the villains were classic 8-bit videogame characters. Pixels has been written by Sandler’s regular collaborator Tim Herlihy. This is not the first film in which arcade game technology has been used to kickstart a film – it has been a central plot device in films as diverse as 1984’s The Last Starfighter, War Games, Tron – and even the more recent Wreck-It-Ralph was set inside a video game.
Sandler’s films often feature characters who have squandered their potential but somehow find redemption. He does his familiar sad sack loser shtick here as the slacker character who has largely wasted his life and his potential, but who is turned into a hero when his prowess with ancient video game technology enables him to save the world from destruction. If not for his friendship with Sandler, James would probably find it hard to gain work in movies as he is, for the most part, terribly dull and unfunny. Here he does his usual bumbling shtick, and it is a stretch to accept this buffoonish person as the most powerful man in the world.
Brian Cox brings plenty of bluster to his thankless role as a straight laced and hawkish admiral with little time for Brenner and his nerd squad and he has little faith in their ability to solve the crisis when the best efforts of the military have been found wanting. Michelle Monaghan brings a touch of class and beauty to her role as Violet Van Patten, a lieutenant colonel whose banter with Brenner generates some sexual tension. Gad delivers another unsubtle and over the top performance and he spends most of his time delivering his dialogue in very loud fashion. Dinklage seems to be having fun here and he hams it up as the pint sized Eddie, whose character was apparently modelled after several champion video gamers of the 80s.
And as usual Sandler seems able to attract a bevy of guest stars willing to send up their own image, and here he manages to have tennis star Serena Williams and Martha Stewart pop up in self effacing cameos. And there are some scene stealing moments from a computer generated character Q*Bert, an isometric blob with very human characteristics.
The director is Chris Columbus, better known for family friendly classics like Gremlins, The Goonies, Home Alone, Mrs Doubtfire and a couple of early Harry Potter films, and he brings a touch of class to the inherently silly script. The action moves from Washington, to London to New York, where familiar landmarks are destroyed by the real life video game creatures. The film is loaded with clever pop cultural references, but many of them may go over the head of younger audiences.
Columbus is also a dab hand with the special effects and visuals, and there are some great moments when the arcade characters are brought to pixelated life. He also seems able to rein in his stars excessive and over the top mannerisms and Sandler’s performance here is less obnoxious and grating. There are some great individual moments throughout the film, but ultimately it is a little too long for what it wants to say, and in some parts the pace flags.
Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad and Brian Cox
Release date: 10 September 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television