There’s a rich vein of affected snobbery running through the critical response to “Pixels”, a nasty invective aimed squarely at Adam Sandler and prejudiciously dismissing anything he’s involved in, with everyone trying to 1up each other in how caustic they can be. I don’t really get the pre-emptive hate: his back catalogue is no better or worse than many others and while I’m no Sandler super-fan I count “Happy Gilmore”, “The Wedding Singer” and “50 First Dates” among my favourite ‘comfort films’.
This is a tough summer to be releasing a big budget blockbuster in, and unfortunately “Pixels” is not going to change the fortunes of Sony and snap it out of its self-inflicted year of hell either. What “Pixels” does do is deliver a decent dose of family entertainment with impressive effects. It’s a very eighties movie – in theme, execution and reference – wearing the shiny new clothes of a modern effects blockbuster.
While the visuals are an enhanced (but not necessarily improved) version of those seen in Patrick Jean’s original 2010 short film, the plot is lifted almost directly from a “Futurama” episode called “Anthology Of Interest II: Raiders Of The Lost Arcade”. When a NASA space probe launched in 1982 is intercepted by an alien race, they misinterpret the recoridngs of popular video games as a declaration of war and launch an invasion of Earth based on what they have seen.
There’s not a shred of seriousness to be found in this film, with even heavyweight character actors like Brian Cox and Sean Bean hamming it up like they’re in a seaside pantomime. Let’s face it, when a film presents you with Kevin James as a Chris Christie-like President of the United States, there’s really not much you can really get annoyed about, unless you find lightweight nonsense somehow personally offensive. Of the principal cast, Josh Gad and Michelle Monaghan seem to be enjoying themselves although nobody’s having as much fun chewing the scenery as Peter Dinklage. His way-over-the-top performance borders on parody, making it feel like he was leading a one-man guerrilla operation to mock the film from inside. Curiously, given how involved he was with all levels of this production, it’s Sandler himself who seems muted, lacking his usual manic energy which either charms or irritates depending on how you take it. It’s almost like the disproportionate ferocity of the critical backlash has somehow warped space/time and travelled back to weigh upon his performance during the making of the movie.
“Pixels” is far from the worst film of the year. It’s not even the worst film in cinemas at the moment. It’s decent summer entertainment: it’s got great special effects (but the 3D conversion is poor so stick to the 2D showings), some great action sequences and even a few good jokes and one-liners in amongst the hit and miss grab bag of a script from Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling. Best of all, it’s not trying to set up a shared universe or be anything other than nostalgic about how awesome the Eighties and 8-bit video games were from the safety of rose tinted glasses thirty years thick. (If you’re a big fan of 8-bit animation, make sure to stick around for the end credits which retell the whole film in gloriously 8-bit style).
If you go into this to hate-watch Sandler, nothing he will do (or could do?) will change your mind. But if you go into “Pixels” looking to have a good time remembering the fun you had playing Pac-Man or Donkey Kong then you might just surprise yourself with how much you enjoy it. There will be worse ways to pass a couple of hours with the kids on a rainy afternoon during the long school holidays. I managed to have a good time and I suspect Mertmas will too, when I take him to see it.
By the way, if you haven’t seen it, here’s Patrick Jean’s excellent short film which ‘inspired’ the feature length adaptation: