It takes a lot to make me hate a movie about '80s video games. I consider TRON a minor classic, and soaked up TRON: Legacy, even though it was pretty much just a two-hour, 3-D Daft Punk video. I know every beat of WarGames by heart. Over the years, I've put a college education's worth of quarters into Centipede, Tempest, Asteroids, Missile Command, Gauntlet, and Space Invaders. At the recent 40th anniversary screening of Jaws, I freaked out because I spotted a vintage Spacewar! cabinet in the background of a shot in an Amity Island beach bar. I'm pretty much the target audience for Pixels, and I hated it.
It's Adam Sandler's fault.
To be fair, Sandler's zoned-out performance isn't the only awful thing about Pixels. But since Sandler's production company Happy Madison optioned French director Patrick Jean's charming 2010 short film about video game characters who come to life and wreak havoc in New York City, it's fair to lay the blame for the ensuing debacle at his feet.
Sandler stars as Brenner, whom we meet as an awkward teenager in the summer of 1982. When he and his friends Cooper (Kevin James) and Ludlow (Josh Gad) wander into a video arcade, they are immediately entranced. Brenner is so good behind a joystick, he advances to the finals of the world video game championships, only to lose a Donkey Kong showdown to Eddie "Fireblaster" Plant (Peter Dinklage). Then we flash forward to the present day, where Brenner works in the Nerd Squad setting up home theater systems for rich people, like Violet (Michelle Monaghan), a recently divorced single mom who Brenner creepily corners in a closet where she's trying to cry and drink white wine in peace.
Sandler's friend Cooper has been much more successful in life: He's now the president of the United States. So when Guam is attacked by unknown alien forces, he recognizes our adversaries as Galaga, and calls in Brenner and his old arcade buddies to lead the fight to defend Earth.
To preemptively answer the question "What the hell did they think they were doing?" I'll say that they wanted to make a lighthearted parody of alien invasion movies like Independence Day and brought in veteran director of big-budget spectacle Chris Columbus to make it happen. There are some strong comic possibilities in ripping the ponderous genre, and they got as far as the setup: A space probe launched in the early '80s contained a message from Earth, and the aliens mistook a clip of Brenner's video game championship match as a declaration of war. The aliens, in other words, are as incredibly stupid as an Adam Sandler character.
But as Paul Blart: Mall Cop proves, a strong premise does not a good movie make. (Die Hard, only with a mall security guard. It could work!) The combination of Columbus' bland, corporate filmmaking and Sandler's tone deaf performance proves particularly grating. Sandler is not believable as a nerd for a single frame of Pixels. He's the kind of schoolyard toady who would taunt nerds with "clever" nicknames while the real bullies deliver the beatdown. Not that anyone in this crap shower is believable or funny. What kind of Bush vs. Gore debacle installed Kevin freakin' James as president? At least Dinklage appears to be having fun playing a variation of mullet aficionado Billy Mitchell from the now-classic video game documentary The King Of Kong.
The script is aggressively, belligerently, defiantly unfunny. "Why not cram a bunch of homophobic and sexist non-jokes into a silly video game parody?" asked no one ever, and yet Pixels did it. Columbus seems to be most concerned with 3-D renderings of 2-D video game characters like Centipede, the Duck Hunt dog, and Q*Bert, and he occasionally creates some cool images. But that's the only bright spot buried in this dire turd. The premise was handled so much better in a 10-minute segment from a 2002 Futurama episode called "Raiders of the Lost Arcade." Go watch that instead, so as not to encourage Sandler to make more movies.