Photo: Courtesy Sony Pictures

Director(s): Chris Columbus

Writer(s): Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling

Cast: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Jane Krakowski, Affion Crockett, Ashley Benson, Matt Lintz and Lainie Kazan

Reviewed by: Ian Evans on

Release Date(s)

Jul 24, 2015 - Wide

Sometimes reviewing an Adam Sandler film makes you feel bad, like you’re kicking a guy when he’s down. But when he releases a film like Pixels, you begin to wonder if he likes the abuse.

On paper, Pixels looks like it could be a fun film. Sandler plays Sam Brenner who, along with friends Will Cooper (Kevin James) and Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), used to rule the video arcade. Brenner’s glory days are behind him. He’s a TV installer whose biggest claim to fame is his friendship with Cooper, who inexplicably is now President of the United States. When aliens misinterpret videos of arcade games as a challenge for war, Brenner, Cooper and conspiracy theorist Ludlow must team up with their old nemesis Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant (Peter Dinklage) to save the planet.

It’s a setup for the standard little guys win film, where nerds show that their oft-ridiculed skills are now more important than a Navy SEAL’s brawn. There’s a chance to mine 80’s nostalgia here too, with arcade and MTV references galore and a soundtrack full of tunes from Cheap Trick and Loverboy.

Yet director Chris Columbus and screenwriters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling have a sloppy mess on their hands. There’s more excitement in the scenes where the younger versions of the characters win at their arcade games than when the grown ups are saving the planet for real. Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage work hard to make their roles funny, while Sandler, playing his usual man-child role, barely seems to wake up for most of his scenes. It’s truly bizarre watching him work. He can actually be quite good in more dramatic roles, but the sports car-like comic energy he used to display seems to have been replaced by a minivan of mediocrity. Of course, this is a Sandler project, so even a schlub like him is able to land an attractive lieutenant colonel and weapons expert, played by Michelle Monaghan, who obviously pulled the short stick in the Sandler love interest casting sweepstakes. Kevin James is barely worth mentioning either. He’s great at physical comedy, but doesn’t get a chance to use it here.

Columbus once gave audiences one night of madness in the classic Adventures in Babysitting, but that story was more epic in scale than Pixels and that’s even with the whole darn world at stake. You’d think that giant arcade games brought to life would be perfect for an immersive 3D experience, but the 3D here is almost an afterthought as opposed to a necessity and the effects in general are uninspired, as if the effects team asked another film if they could use a few minutes of render time each night before they shut the workstations down. The laughs in Herlihy and Dowling’s script are very few and very far between and again those laughs seem to have had a 500 foot restraining order in effect with Sandler and James’ characters. It’s like Sandler doesn’t even have the energy or interest to muster up one of his bodily function gags.

The great thing about arcade games was that you could always start over with another quarter. It’s too bad that Sony couldn’t just start the game over. Keep Gad and Dinklage (and okay, Monaghan) and recast Sandler and James’ roles with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Since that’s not going to happen, this is one game that’s in need of unplugging.