Judging by recent box office receipts, 1990s nostalgia is in full force. But there still must be something said about the ‘80s. The decade that gave us day glo and Mario, shoulder-pad fashion and Pac-Man, still looms large for both the generation that grew up in that time and everyone else who wishes they could at least visit. And when it comes to the video game (excuse, me arcade) side of the Reagan Years, Pixels is offering an invitation engraved in eight-bit.
Essentially a selective memory time capsule, the action packed comedy and pseudo-epic is blinged out in ‘80s euphoria for the arcade games of the past, as well as a kind of catch-all of Generation X touchstones. For a story ostensibly about an alien invasion, even the antagonistic threats and demands come in the guise of faded VHS recordings from Madonna’s early MTV interviews.
When Pixels embraces this unapologetic longing for the time where gaming was still a social activity to every school kid and clique, it is as unthreateningly amusing as the pixilated CG-visage of a giant Pac-Man tearing up New York, or Donkey Kong towering in 3D.
It’s just such a shame then that far more insurmountable than DK’s cornucopia of barrels is the nagging insistence of a relic from a different era: 1990s Adam Sandler comedies. And unlike arcade nostalgia, this trip down memory lane is just a sad drag on what could have been an appealingly goofy premise.
Almost an experiment in splicing Roland Emmerich movies and Buzzfeed articles, the set-up to Pixels makes kooky enough sense: thirty-three years ago, NASA sent to space a video about American culture, which included images from 1982 arcade games. Sadly, aliens took this as a declaration of war, and created engines of death in the countenance of our favorite games: Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Galaga, and more. They even recreated the pixel glories of these images into beautiful 3D CGI-life.
Already a sweetly asinine concept, the sweetness drops when we meet the purported hero of the story, Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) a one-time arcade child prodigy until he came in second place at a national tournament to his archrival, Eddie Plant, aka Fire Blaster. Apparently, this shame caused him to grow into a 40-something “Nerd Driver” (think Geek Squad). Yet, he remains best buddies with his childhood pal, Will Cooper (Kevin James), who incidentally is now President of the United States.
So, when aliens in the form of 1980s arcade games attack, President Cooper, played with solid restraint by James, raises his old chum to a position of power. Brenner will lead the U.S. military’s gaming defense against these cretins, placing him in a position to also bring up conspiracy theory gamer Ludlow (Josh Gad), and a now imprisoned and adult “Fire Blaster” (Peter Dinklage). Oh, and he can also harass U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Violet van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), because she didn’t want to kiss him when they first met, which makes her like totally stuck-up.
And with familiar beats like that, Pixels’ brand of Happy Madison humor flushes away the goodwill earned by its goofy premise.
As the lead, Sandler is less animated than his CGI co-stars in more than one way. Lacking the grace of even a cutely cameoing Q*bert, he offers the same Billy Madison performance that he’s been giving for 20 years, only the movie itself is now also aware at how truly boring this has become. Indeed there’s plenty of lip-service about him being a 40-something schlub who needs to get his act together, but it’s still the same dog and pony show of phoned in immaturity and smiling grade school misogyny that we’ve endured for two decades.
Which is not to say that all the jokes and comedy beats are as leaden as the lead performance. While it’s just another day at the office for Sandler and James, Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage, newcomers to this formula, have a blast slumming it with the material. Gad, who’s rarely met an awkward, endearing creeper that he’s shied away from, brings some of the introverted “nerds vs. the world” overtones to life with his happy-go-lucky paranoia. He also is allowed to have a song and dance number sure to maintain the Gen-X flashbacks this whole enterprise is built on while simultaneously giving kids in the audience their eureka moment of “hey, that’s Olaf!”
More charming still is Peter Dinklage rocking a 1980s mullet and an 1880s Southern drawl. With a character who’s the winningest (and most arrogant) Arcader ever, Dinklage cooks his co-stars with smarmy ham. Or is that pulled pork?
When their powers combine, they’re not so subtly intended to evoke another Sony franchise where the heroes strut around New York City in matching jumpsuits. Alas, therein lies the limitation of Sandler’s comedy. Whereas the leads of the original Ghostbusters, even at their most sarcastic and deadpan, inhabited a surprisingly real Manhattan that fed into its perfect movie-long joke, the heroes of Pixels are hamstrung by a script as lazily slapped together as any other Happy Madison production, shattering any chance at stakes or emotional investment when the world never even feels alive inside the frame, never mind outside of it. With a glossy setting more unnatural than pixilated hellhounds, the humor is largely scatological, sophomoric, and ultimately undermining to the fun of the whole concept.
But to be sure, the concept is at times quite funny. The movie even rallies together for its best bits at the hour-mark since the human interactions are kept to a minimum as the video game set-pieces are piled on. Seeing Mini Coopers flash like Pac-Man’s blinking ghosts around the Big Apple Grid can only be challenged by seeing an army of video game characters, including dancing Smurfs, attack Washington D.C. While director Chris Columbus feels surprisingly disinterested for most of the movie’s scenes, there are hints of mischief and joy when he plays with the verticality of the original Donkey Kong game or the zaniness of Centipede pixels turning into modern day gremlins.
Most of these set-pieces will work well enough for gamers and families to bask in ‘80s nostalgia. But as a whole, the movie isn’t just coasting on memories; it’s drowning in them, particularly those for a time when Adam Sandler comedies were funny.