Movie Review: “Pixels”

Adam Sandler, Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage, Michelle Monaghan, Kevin James, Brian Cox, Sean Bean
Chris Columbus

Adam Sandler has said that the goal of “Pixels” was to be a modern-day version of an early-period Amblin Entertainment film (think “The Goonies,” “Gremlins” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”), something entertaining but also absolutely bonkers, and plays by its own rules. By that measure, “Pixels” is a smashing success. This movie is ridiculous, but in watching it, you realize that it’s been a long time since a live-action summer movie had the nerve to be ridiculous. It’s been this superhero movie or that graphic novel, and with the exception of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” they’ve all been deathly serious. “Pixels” revels in its silliness, and in the process gives the audience some wildly entertaining battle and chase sequences as a bonus. This is one absurd, but fun, movie. If it had a theme song, it would be “Weird” Al Yankovic’s “Dare to Be Stupid.” That’s a compliment, for the record.

When Sam Brenner (Sandler) was a teen (in 1982), his future was impossibly bright. He was the best video gamer in town, but his hopes were crushed when smack-talking Eddie Plant came to town and beat him in a tournament. (Eddie is played by Peter Dinklage, who modeled his look after real-life Donkey Kong champion, and “The King of Kong” supervillain, Billy Mitchell. If you have not yet seen this movie, stop reading this and watch it right now. NOW, damn it.) The footage of that tournament was sent into space, where it was received by an alien race…and interpreted to be a declaration of war.

Thirty-three years later, the aliens arrive, in the form of the 8-bit video game characters that were in the video, destroying a US military base in Guam, and then a major international landmark. Sam now installs high-tech audio and video systems, while his teen years buddy Will Cooper (Kevin James) is the President of the United States. President Cooper, once he realizes what they’re up against, brings in Sam, and their onetime gamer friend-turned-conspiracy theorist Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) to advise the military, much to the military’s chagrin, on how to defeat their enemy. Later, when Sam and Ludlow show that they are better soldiers in this war than the actual soldiers, the government makes a deal with the now-incarcerated Eddie to enlist the help of the self-branded “Fireblaster” (that nickname is so very ‘80s, and so very douchey). They’ve already lost the first two battles, though, so using video game logic, if they lose one more, it’s game over for the planet.

Those who have seen Sandler’s films will recognize several of the beats here. Sam is a blend of Happy Gilmore’s washed-up underdog and the Zen calm of Sandler’s “Grown Ups” character (honestly, I can’t be bothered to look up his name, that movie was so bad). The meet cute, in this case with customer Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), is gleefully unhinged, the kind of thing that would never happen, but makes perfect sense in a cinematic universe where the plot needs to get to the next level by any means necessary as quickly as possible. And where people are crushed by Frogger.

Gad’s character, however, makes zero sense, even in this wacky universe. He is an endless stream of contradictions – the friendless virgin who berates men who could murder him with one finger, the shy guy who sings with the band at a party, and then dances inappropriately in front of the President. Even in a movie where all disbelief can be reasonably suspended, he stands out as a problem. (There is also the matter in which they handle the video game love of Ludlow’s life, but at the risk of spoiling the ending, we will only say that their solution is creepy, and seemingly biologically impossible.) Dinklage stands out in a similar manner. He’s trying a little too hard to be a jerk, and while it’s clear that he’s supposed to be a jerk, he sounds and acts more like a WWE villain – a guy angrily reading cue cards.

“Pixels” is the edgiest film that director Chris Columbus has ever done, which might be the most backhanded compliment of all time on a number of levels. His movies are impossibly safe, and yet, compared to the directors who have helmed most of Sandler’s films (Dennis Dugan, we’re looking in your direction), Columbus was the right guy for the job. He understands the scale of a film like this, having directed the first two “Harry Potter” movies, and given that his directorial debut was “Adventures in Babysitting,” it’s safe to say that he understands the ‘80s as well. For a movie that gets its laughs mostly from dated references, it’s nice to see a film like “Pixels” overwhelm a crowd like it did (and it did). Perhaps there is still room in the pop culture universe for some silliness after all.