‘Pixels’ Review: Now You’re Playing With Pedestrianism
It’s a very common fantasy, that the things we love as children will somehow pay off as adults. That our encyclopedic knowledge of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe might one day come in handy during a Final Jeopardy round. That a major life-changing job interview will actually end with, “I’m sorry, but what we’re really looking for is someone who knows all of the songs from My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Rainbow Rocks by heart.”
It is also, and this is very important, our current reality. Popular culture drives so much of the world economy that a film like Pixels, in which pathetic lifelong “nerds” finally get to prove themselves on the world stage, feels quaint and at least a little pathetic. We’ve come a long way since The Last Starfighter. Now, the geeks that a movie like Pixels makes fun of get to make multimillion dollar movies like… well, Pixels, ironically enough.
But Pixels is shockingly impervious to irony, self-awareness and genuine wit. It’s too busy copying the outdated Independence Day knockoff genre to properly acknowledge the sublime goofiness of its own concept, in which pixelated aliens attack the planet Earth using the characters and mechanics of Golden Age video games, and which can only be defeated by the people who mastered the original arcade versions. Of which, apparently, there were only three: Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler), Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) and Eddie Plant, aka “The Fire Blaster” (Peter Dinklage).
So instead of a non-stop barrage of in-jokes and pop culture riffs, we get a version of “video games come to life” that takes itself halfway seriously. Most of the jokes are reserved for outdated “nerds vs. jocks” routines and even crasser archetypes about middle-aged virgins living in their grandmother’s basement. The cast is willing to play along, and Dinklage in particular steals the film as the thuggish tough guy arcade expert whose demands to the U.S. government, in exchange for his Pac-Man expertise, are actually kind of funny. But the comedy almost uniformly falls flat throughout this movie, leaving only the serious side to latch onto for a modicum of entertainment.
Fortunately, the serious half is where Chris Columbus’s film shines… for about half an hour or so. In brief spurts the movie’s real-life versions of Centipede and Pac-Man make for a rather fun time at the movies, leading to exciting car chases and laser gun battles which wind up just short of “badass,” but which consistently come up short thanks to unwelcome, unfunny broad comedy interludes. There’s an old woman jazzercizing in the foreground during the Centipede battle, oblivious to the life-or-death danger behind her, and that’s just not funny, damn it.
One wonders whatever happened to Chris Columbus, the writer of Gremlins and The Goonies, who became famous for injecting his films with levity and character and creativity. He seems at home in the chaos of Pixels, the big crazy action and the impressive visual effects, but incapable of making either the comedy or the human drama worth sitting through in between boss battles. The film entertains in fits and starts but overall comes across like the blandest possible version of a genuinely amusing concept.
Pixels was custom made to appeal to all audiences, but not in the way that actually works. There isn’t something for everyone, there’s just nothing for no one. Every gag has been blanched, every clever idea oversimplified, and every high concept lowered to the lowest possible level. Strip all the humor, intelligence and excitement away from a movie and this is what you get: the most generic summer blockbuster of the year. Pixels may be worth a handful of quarters, but in this heat, so is sitting in any dark room with the air conditioning on full blast.