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Game Over

Columbia Pictures
 106 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Chris Columbus 
Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James 

There are actually two cinematic Adam Sandlers. The first guy hangs around with buddies like Rob Schneider, Kevin James, and David Spade, along with a stable of similarly inclined writers and directors and cranks out lazy, prurient, toilet oriented, highly unfunny comedies. The second is the more serious, restrained actor who works within a script for quality directors like Jason Reitman and James L. Brooks. Most Sandler movies fall squarely within one category or the other. But then, there’s his latest, Pixels, which incorporates elements of both categories and doesn’t quite succeed at either.


Pixels was directed by Chris Columbus, who, while not likely to garner an Oscar nomination any time soon at least has made some intelligent films in his career, such as the first two Harry Potter movies. So that would indicate that Pixels is a higher end Sandler film. On the other hand, it co-stars Kevin James as an old buddy of Sandler’s who has become the President of the United States. At least, David Spade isn’t his VP. And, it’s written by Tim Herlihy (who is a member of Sandler’s posse) and Timothy Dowling (who isn’t). With all these conflicting influences, it’s no wonder the movie is somewhat muddled.


The main reason that Pixels doesn’t really work actually has nothing to do with Sandler, James, Columbus, or the writers. It’s the basic concept. The movie is based on a two-minute French short that probably was a clever concept for two minutes. But, like the famed cartoon, Bambi vs. Godzilla, it simply can’t sustain a feature length, big budget summer release. And actually, Sandler is a smarter choice for the lead than an alternative like Mark Wahlberg might have been.


Pixels is based on the premise that a U.S. deep space probe from the 1980’s was intercepted by an alien race. Among the messages that were intended as greetings and introductions to Earth’s culture was some footage from a video game competition. Unfortunately, the aliens took that message as a threat and launched their own counterattack. However, instead of launching whatever diabolical weapons of their own these space invaders had devised, they choose to attack with giant versions of various video game characters that cause whatever they shoot at to pixilate and crumble apart in a series of tiny blocks. So we get the traditional earth under attack footage, except with brightly lit, crudely animated Pac-Men and Centipedes leading the charge.


Since our conventional armed forces are helpless against the alien attack, the President in desperation turns to his old schoolyard pal, Sam Brenner (Sandler), who was actually one of the competitors featured on the footage sent into outer space. He recruits two other competitors, conspiracy nut Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) and current convict Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage). Armed with Ghostbusters-styled ray guns and dressed like the Ghostbusters NASCAR team, Sam and his team take on giant versions of the arcade games of his youth.


The first sign that Pixels is in trouble is the special effects. This is a major summer release, coming on the heels of Jurassic World, Mad Max, and Ant-Man, all films that set a high bar for CGI artistry. However, Pixel‘s entire concept is based on recreating the crude computer graphic style of the early arcade games. Dropping Pac Man onto New York City streets is no problem in a two-minute low budget short but a major one here. Columbus and company can never decide how the effects should be styled, so they wind up being neither, realistic nor funny, and the action scenes involving people endlessly blasting the creations to bits (or getting pixilated for their failed efforts) is about as exciting as watching the actual video game footage might have been. The movie does generate a number of 3D moments when something gets pixilated and flies in all directions, but the end result is exceedingly lame.


Stripped of any semblance of humor or excitement in its action scenes, what’s left in Pixels is a somewhat typical Sandler comedy, albeit one subject to the constraints of a PG-13 rating. Surprisingly, this isn’t the disaster it might otherwise seem, even though Sandler gets little help from his supporting cast. Kevin James tries to walk a line between Paul Blart and The West Wing and manages to be less funny and less believable than either. Josh Gad makes the Tasmanian Devil from the Bugs Bunny cartoons look sedate in comparison. As for Peter Dinklage, although he’s given a few good lines, let’s just say that the stunt casting of him as a tough con is a huge flop.


Left to his own devices, Sandler is actually given a number of fairly good comic lines to deliver, and his laid back demeanor works well in contrast to the far more excitable performances by Gad and Dinklage. He actually has decent chemistry with love interest Michelle Monaghan, playing a colonel who’s by far the smartest and most competent person in the movie. Sadly, she’s relegated to mere straight woman status. The script does give Sandler a convenient, blustery buffoonish military foil in Brian Cox, but Cox plays the role straight enough that Sandler’s putdowns work.


One bit of “casting” that does work is Q-bert, the video game character from the 80’s who winds up with Sandler and company as a prize for besting the aliens in one battle. The similarities between Q-bert and the Minions are considerable, but the loveable little guy is wacky enough to be funny. It also helps that his “role” is rather small, so he doesn’t wear out his welcome, as do the larger scale special effects in the movie.


I honestly think that Sandler gave a good effort in this movie, and he might have made a good light adventure hero in the right vehicle. Unfortunately, Pixels isn’t the right vehicle. Instead, it seems to have been greenlighted solely on the basis of its two-minute source short without any thought given as to how to fill the remaining 103 minutes of screen time in the film. True, Pixels is better than such recent Sandler fare as Jack and Jill and That’s My Boy, but so is a test pattern. In comparison to other recent CGI action films however, it’s strictly Game Over.

Read other reviews of Pixels:


Pixels (2015) on IMDb