Eighties nostalgia is weaponized in Pixels, a light sci-fi comedy that sees unknown aliens send giant arcade games to invade the earth. Why? Apparently they picked up some thirty-year-old signals and they took it as a threat. The attacks start with an enormous Galaga game raining destruction on an Air Force base in Guam, reducing everything in sight to glowing piles of multicolored blocks. It’s clearly a crisis for bumbling President Kevin James, who was once just a kid in an arcade cheering on his good buddies in their quest to be champion gamers. Now he’s a buffoon no one likes, with plummeting approval ratings. How he got to be president in the first place is anyone’s guess. And now there are these aliens threatening to destroy the planet. What follows is a nonsense adventure out to flatter every nerd in the audience for merely recognizing the references.
James recruits a goofy and improbable ensemble to fight back the aliens in elaborate large-scale replications of classic games. He finds his old arcade pals – now an AV technician (Adam Sandler), a conspiracy nut (Josh Gad), and a prisoner (Peter Dinklage, looking like Billy Mitchell) – and forces them to train Marines in video game strategy. The gruff general (Brian Cox) is hopelessly confused, but reluctantly lets a lieutenant (Michelle Monaghan) get special tech prepared surprisingly quickly. Soon the dweebs and the military have giant phallic laser guns blasting away at Space Invaders, Centipede, and the like as aliens demand three contests, winner takes planet. If you already find yourself asking questions like, “How?” or “Why?” or “Who cares?” this is not your movie.
The nerds, we’re told repeatedly, are the only ones who know how to play the games, and therefore the world’s only hope. This seems to me a misunderstanding of video games’ popularity. You’d think a group of Marines would know a thing or two about joystick-eye coordination, and could grasp the basic strategy of these old games, especially since it boils down in practice to shooting at large glowing objects. Plus, it sets up a dated nerds-rule/jocks-drool underdog fight that doesn’t make sense in our world of unfortunately male-dominated Silicon Valley and other bro-ish tech enclaves where the simple power categories of dorks and sports have scrambled. But I suppose this isn’t exactly the movie to go looking for logic or coherence. It doesn’t even bother to show us the aliens behind the DayGlo lightshow attacks, expecting us to enjoy the sight of it all while chuckling at its cast’s antics and not thinking about it too much.
The movie’s idea of nerds is as old as the games they’re fighting. But the action is rather well done, like a lighthearted riff on a Transformers plot structure in which incomprehensible extraterrestrial conflict tears through some major cities and their landmarks. I enjoyed seeing the vibrant geometric shapes colliding with earthbound obstacles. At least it is action different from what we usually see, collateral damage chaos smashing apart solid matter into bits of glowing blocks. There’s some charm to seeing a towering Pac-Man chomping through a maze of New York City streets, or cavernous red alien scaffolding arranging itself into a King Kong-sized Donkey Kong setup. But it goes on and on without feelings of real danger, and the characters just aren’t funny or interesting enough to earn our investment.
Remaking a French short film by Patrick Jean, writers Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling (frequent Sandler collaborators) create podgy connective tissue for silly spectacle in the form of limp childish comedy and halfhearted relationships. The jokes largely fall flat, without a sharp sense of perspective or humor. We’re supposed to care if these guys earn validation despite learning little more than that they’re good at thirty-year-old video games. And it’s yet another movie where goofy guys stumble their way to greatness while patient women stand next to the fun, scowling or smirking. This one goes the extra mile, casting people like Jane Krakowski, Ashley Benson, and Serena Williams (!) to show up in a few scenes and smile, like prizes to be won or symbols to be displayed. Playing into pessimistic nerd culture inferiority and resentment, the movie sets itself up as wish-fulfillment for people who wish playing arcade games could be enough to 1.) earn a living, 2.) make you an important public figure, and 3.) get you ladies to objectify.
So the human stakes are unconvincing and vaguely insulting. But at least the zippy adventure moments largely work. It’s not an altogether unpleasant experience, which most definitely cannot be said for most Sandler comedies of late. The director here is Chris Columbus, whose work on the first two Harry Potter films shows his facility with bouncy effects work and convincing design. He has a competent eye for faux-Spielberg awe and workmanlike entertainment, and proves once more that, when given a director instead of an enabler, Sandler is a decent everyman. As a schlub shooting 8-bit aliens, we can almost believe it. The problem is only when he stands next to painfully wisecracking sidekicks, or when we’re asked to care if he gets to woo the lady in uniform, win over her moppet, and get the respect of the world. When the movie’s in motion, it goes down easily. But then it stops, and there’s that hollow aftertaste.