How bad is Pixels? That seems to be the question on the tongue of most people if the internet is anything to go by. To what degree will it suck? How far will its Tomatometer drop in the end? The arms race to the most savage takedown of Adam Sandler’s latest film is in full swing. Yet the reality is that Pixels isn’t even that bad. It isn’t good either. It’s just aggressively hollow, oppressively devoid of life.
Pixels is a comedy where the jokes pour in but only a few warrant a laugh. The rest are neither particularly offensive or cringeworthy — they merely exist. In my theater they washed over a mostly silent audience. The handful of kids in the audience laughed at the obvious sight-gags, but even those didn’t seem particularly genuine. Most of the clever jokes were ripped straight from the short film the movie is based on.
Pixels is an action movie without any decent action. Instead we get some schlubby guys acting against CG effects that look cool but barely do anything interesting. Is the joke that they are schlubby guys saving the world? Not really. In fact, when the time comes they’re all acrobatic marathon runners with professional driving skills that never get winded. They never really talk about it either way.
Pixels is a nostalgia trip without any actual nostalgia. Various 70s and 80s-era properties are mined for visual gags, but they’re just there for Adam Sandler to sneer at and say “Donkey Kong!” or “It’s Pac-Man!” The mechanics of the various games are represented plainly and rarely for humor, and then they’re over-explained by the characters. When they go to battle with Pac-Man in ghost-colored cars and Pac-Man eats a power pellet, the film comes to a complete stop to explain to everyone what that means for our heroes, as if we don’t already know. It’s a far cry from Wreck-it Ralph, a kids movie that assumed its audience would get the jokes.
Pixels mines its characters from King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, the documentary about a years-long rivalry for Donkey Kong dominance. But where the documentary takes an oddball cast and uncovers nerds with heart and fascinating villains, Pixels is content to ridicule its cast of “Arcaders”. The film heavily suggests that the heroes would be complete losers if not for the alien invasion, even Kevin James’ character, who happens to be the President of the United States.
Pixels is full of actors collecting a paycheck. Sandler and Kevin James do their usual thing, while great actors like Sean Bean, Brian Cox, Michelle Monaghan, and Peter Dinklage feel out of place. Dinklage may be the worst offender, with a performance that would have been more honest if he were just screaming “I hate this, I hate this,” rather than delivering his lines. At least Brian Cox still acts his ass off despite giving very little to work with.
You never get the impression that Adam Sandler and crew have much reverence for video games or the arcade classic culture they mine these ideas from. The plot, despite a somewhat clever setup for the alien invasion, feels like comedy genre tropes on autopilot, down to a romance subplot that runs its course only a few minutes into the film. If anything, Pixels is a canvas for the Happy Madison comedy buffet — a deluge of unrefined jokes that desperately attempt to punch up and punch down at anything and everything in sight with little effect.
Despite all this, Pixels isn’t strictly bad. At least, it isn’t bad in any particularly interesting way. There are no obvious plot holes, no violently offensive jokes, no particularly painful performances, no laughable special effects. There is no trainwreck on display here, nothing good or bad to really sink your teeth into. Ultimately, rather than revel in how bad it might be, it would be better if we just forget it ever existed.