Can I borrow you for two minutes? I want to show you something.
It’s a short film called Pixels, created by Patrick Jean and released online five years ago. The movie takes place in Manhattan, and unfolds wordlessly as the Big Apple becomes the victim of arcade game torture porn. Tetris blocks fall into skyscrapers and cause them to collapse on themselves. Pac-Man roams the streets, eating up subway stations with an insatiable appetite. Donkey Kong stands atop the Empire State Building, chucking barrels down at the streets below. A fleet of alien ships ripped straight out of Galaga rip through the skies above New York, blasting everything in sight, leaving pixelated carnage in their wake. In the end, the entire city becomes pixelated, and before long, the pixels cover all of Earth, turning our planet into nothing more than one gigantic pixel among the stars.
Jean’s movie is beautiful and bizarre to behold, an unusual and imaginative look at the way the digital and physical realms are colliding, and what it means for us as a species and our place in the future. Or, maybe, it’s just a really cool visual project. Either way, it’s a lot of fun, and it’s the only movie named Pixels that you have seen.
But it’s not the only movie named Pixels that you can see.
This weekend sees the release of a feature-length Pixels from Sony, director Chris Columbus, and Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison gang, based on the aforementioned 2010 short. It takes all of the visual splendor of the original short and tosses it into a blender with Sandler’s signature shenanigans, resulting in a juice that isn’t exactly undrinkable, as long as you can stomach a whole lot of nasty pulp.
Pixels begins in 1982, and follows Sam Brenner (Sandler), an arcade prodigy who can beat any game put in front of him due to his uncanny ability to see “the pattern.” Every game, that is, except for Donkey Kong, because it has no pattern. Brenner’s weakness prevents him from becoming the winner of the 1982 Worldwide Video Game Championship, damning him to Second Place Hell for all eternity, crushed under the boot heel of Eddie Plant the Fireblaster, an arrogant wiz kid who will one day grow up to be Peter Dinklage.
Brenner walks away from the defeat unable to make much of himself, growing up to become an electrician who installs great inventions, rather than creating the inventions himself, like he always wanted as a kid. His failures are especially stark in contrast to his pal President Will Cooper, nicknamed Chewie because he used to wear a Chewbacca mask as a kid, and called President because he is the President of the United States of America. Also, he’s played by Kevin James. In the world of Pixels, Kevin James is the President of the United States. I’ll allow you a moment to chew(ie) on that.
Chewie calls upon his old friend Brenner after an alien attack in Guam, one that was seemingly perpetrated by … Galaga? Yep, the 1982 arcade games of Brenner’s glory days are rebelling against mankind, thanks to a time capsule loaded up with footage of said games, shot out into space in the ’80s, and misconstrued by faraway aliens as a declaration of war. Chewie needs Brenner to team up with his old arcade ally Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), now a perverted conspiracy theorist, and a grown-up Eddie Plant, fresh out of prison and still as much of an ass as ever, in order to put their button-mashing knowhow to good use against the invading alien army.
In the world of Pixels, Kevin James is the President of the United States. I’ll allow you a moment to chew(ie) on that.
What ensues is what you would expect from an adventure movie made by Columbus, one of the key creative minds from Steven Spielberg’s early Amblin era, with movies like The Goonies and Gremlins under his belt. But it’s also what you would expect from an adventure movie made by Sandler and his team. In other words: something pleasant in some places, very unpleasant in others, and wildly uneven overall.
Here’s what’s good: Columbus begins Pixels with a terrific 1980s sequence; it’s easy to picture how the entire story could have taken place in this era with these fantastic kid actors, and resulted in a very fun throwback summer movie. Here’s what’s bad: Sandler interrupting this heartfelt vibe with his usual Sandlerisms, playing a character that does not at all connect with the Young Brenner of 1982, nothing more than the man-child he almost always plays these days.
Good: Pixels has some excellent actors outside of the classic Sandler crowd, like Brian Cox and Michelle Monaghan. Bad: Cox is way too good for the material, and Monaghan is as well. Really, she is way past the point in her career where she should be joining the likes of Veronica Vaughn and Victoria Bennett in the pantheon of Sandler’s screen girlfriends; this is someone we should be talking about for a Marvel movie, not a Sandler movie. The chemistry between the two of them is so awful that it actually makes Monaghan look bad, a very difficult feat for such a great actor.
Worst: Kevin James is the President of the United States. I say we let the aliens win.
Pixels kicks ass in its action scenes, the pixelated destruction yielding some legitimately inventive moments of chaos and carnage. But (A) you can watch the two-minute Pixels and get the gist of what the inventive action looks like, and (B) these moments often come at the hands of Sandler, the least likely and least authentic action hero in the universe. Bulletproof was a long time ago, but honestly, that version of Sandler would have been a welcome sight here, someone who is at least willing to deploy F-bombs and other foul-mouthed one-liners that could maybe come close to matching the creativity of this movie’s action.
It’s never totally clear who Pixels is for. The action is universally cool, but the tone, and the subject matter, don’t line up in any kind of straightforward way.
A dirtier Sandler could have been one solution, because as it stands, it’s hard to see how Pixels will appeal too much to a young audience. Sure, Q*bert is adorable, and kids are going to crack up when they see the pixelated cube-jumper sucking down cheese balls and peeing himself in fear. But they are not going to know who Q*bert is. They will know Donkey Kong, because he is an enduring icon, but will they know Max Headroom? They will know Pac-Man, but will they know Toru Iwatani, the creator of Pac-Man, who shows up here with an admittedly amazing cameo? Probably not.
Really, it’s never totally clear who Pixels is for. It lovingly looks back at a period 33 years gone by, but with humor aimed at a very young audience without any nostalgia for the era. The action is universally cool, but the tone of the movie, and the subject matter, don’t line up in any kind of straightforward way. There are some legitimate laughs here and there, but there are even more legitimate moments of unintended uncomfortable silence — like Sandler and Monaghan’s first scene together, one of the biggest comedic misfires I can recall encountering this year.
There’s a good movie lurking somewhere in Pixels, but it lives in the past — in the opening sequence’s 1980s, perhaps, and maybe in the days before Happy Madison got involved. Luckily, that movie does exist, and you can watch it at the bargain price of two minutes and zero dollars.