Pixels review: No quarter for Adam Sandler

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

In ‘Pixels,’ aliens don’t get itWith a novel idea at its center, and some good jokes scattered throughout, “Pixels” is a relief from the self-serious action films that invade movie theaters at this time of year.“Pixels” is the cinematic equivalent of a Buzzfeed listicle entitled “50 Things Only ’80s Kids Can Understand.” “Remember Pac-Man?” the movie asks us. “Wasn’t it awesome?” But a movie has to be something more than a parade of nostalgia-inducing images.The core concept is clever — space aliens misunderstand a recording of old video-games as a declaration of war, and send digital monsters based on those games to Earth as their army.

There’s nothing coy about the movie’s marketing, from posters of a monolithic Pac-Man gobbling up the Golden Gate to trailers with Adam Sandler taking on an arcade’s worth of vintage video games come to life. This disappointing comedy falls apart before it begins because no one would behave the way its characters do, and their ridiculous choices drive the action. PG This sci-fi comedy of invading outer-space arcade gamers was filmed last summer on our major downtown streets, adding to already considerable traffic jams. Doubtfire” and the first two Harry Potter films, things are so much better. “Pixels” was inspired by an eye-popping short of the same title that portrayed New York being invaded by classic 8-bit arcade characters from outer space. This clever piece about 8-bit arcade icons destroying New York City enjoys a $110 million upgrade — a big chunk of which goes to star Adam Sandler, whose listless, disconnected demeanor for once fits the character he’s playing.

Few things strike greater fear in the heart of a moviegoer than the logo of Happy Madison, Sandler’s production company that unleashed such dogs as “Blended,” “Here Comes the Boom” and “Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser.” The action comedy “Pixels” fares slightly better, thanks to the clever premise of a 2010 short by Patrick Jean, which inspired this film. Aside from bursts of 8-bit quaintness rendered in cutting-edge 3-D, there’s little else here that’s clever or lively enough to hold your attention. This is a big-budget spectacle about 1980s nostalgia aimed at kids who have no emotional connection to the decade. “Pixels” is also insanely sexist, culminating with the winning male characters each rewarded with a woman.

Back in 1982, a time capsule was sent from Earth into outer space, and among the cultural markers contained was footage of people playing the popular video games of the era. Accompanied by dumpy childhood friend Will and conspiracy theorist dweeb Ludlow, Sam gets to show off his joystick-juggling, button-pressing, ball-rolling talents at the Worldwide Video Arcade Championship. In a surprisingly late first foray into high-concept action-comedy, Sandler plays Sam Brenner, whose gift for gaming as a teen somehow never translated into big things. Sandler teams with a hyperactive Josh Gad and a pixel-chewing Peter Dinklage as middle-aged versions of geeks who, in the early 1980s, excelled at playing video games like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Space Invaders.

Worse, this defeat gets forever immortalized in a video package launched in a NASA probe to showcase American culture to potential alien civilizations. It’s very funny, for example, that the aliens choose to talk to earthlings using images we’d understand – and so we get computer-altered images of 1980s personalities issuing the aliens’ threats. But when an alien race misinterprets their old-school amusements as a real-time intergalactic threat, and starts attacking Earth with monstrous versions of these pixellated pals, then who you gonna call?

But he is still best friends with Will (Kevin James) — who now happens to be the president of the United States. (Note: This might be the laziest plot point of Sandler’s entire cinematic career — and that includes playing twins of the opposite sex in “Jack and Jill.”) When a U.S. base is attacked by insectoid creatures that bear an uncanny resemblance to the game “Galaga,” President Will recruits Sam, Ludlow (Josh Gad) and incarcerated troublemaker Eddie (Peter Dinklage) to help battle the space invaders. Played at the opening by young look-alike dramatis personae, Sandler is an upcoming champion gamer, Kevin James his nebbish sidekick, Josh Gad a smart, socially incompetent dweeb and Peter Dinklage their snarly nemesis, a brash rival for the gamers’ world championship. And why would American boys, in 1982, be expressing their lust for Samantha Fox, when she was completely unknown until 1983, and then only in Britain? More and more, he’s adapting his goofball persona to match his late-40s age, portraying once-promising teens who become adult losers hoping to recapture some of their youthful glory.

Such dull contrivances pile up like Tetris tiles in Pixels, which also adds Michelle Monaghan as the token female invader battler and obligatory Sandler love interest. It’s certainly easier to buy him as a slouching, zinger-dispensing burnout than as a ladies man (“That’s My Boy”) or devoted father figure (“Blended”).

Instead of finding new ways to be inventive, the screenwriters rely on action-movie tropes, and director Chris Columbus and the actors are left to try to make these scenes interesting. But “Pixels” is less Sandler’s film than it is director Chris Columbus’ (of the first “Harry Potter” and “Percy Jackson” flicks), who relies on his strength wrangling inventive visuals. Having been recently ditched by her husband (for a 19-year-old named Sinnamon), she’s unreasonably susceptible to Sam’s “charms,” even though she’s his better in every way: looks, smarts, maturity, fight moves. Ultimately, these underscripted characters are no Ghostbusters, particularly as Columbus chucks the balance between visual oooh and visual overkill in the late going.

Forget the elite military and special services — Will calls up Sam, the one-time video game championship runner up, hoping he might spot some arcade-inspired pattern in the airborne attack. The special effects are good — a car chase with a giant-sized Pac-Man is well done — and Torontonians will have fun playing Spot the Landmark, even though our city is once again subbing for New York. The heroes use light-emitting weapons to take on an armada of video game characters, scenes that work better than they should, mainly because the energetic Dinklage and Gad earn as much screen time as Sandler.

Traditionally, movies have the president resemble the sitting president, but “Pixels” takes place in a post-Obama near future, with Kevin James as an overweight president from the Northeast, of a similar look and vintage as Chris Christie but without the latter’s bluster. An anemic theme about Sam’s lack of confidence doesn’t help, and neither does another, wistfully lamenting how the brainteasing patterns and skill-honing of classic games have given way to the mindless violence and too-easy reset buttons of today.

When she rejects him but ends up driving behind him on the street, he declares to no one: “She went from zero to psycho in 3.4 seconds.” Because women are crazy, get it?! And the disjointed timeline grows annoying: 1970s rock songs are used to imply 1982 new wave, and the 1982 space probe includes Max Headroom and Madonna, who didn’t arrive until a few years later. Sandler doesn’t appear to be trying terribly hard, and Gad gets sucked into that humor vacuum, going after laughs with a palpable desperation and adopting Sandler’s signature move of yelling for no apparent reason.

There’s even a dozen good jokes for the female supporting character, a weapons expert played by Michelle Monaghan, fresh off last summer’s impressive dramatic turn in HBO’s “True Detective.” The battle scenes are joyfully goofy, with familiar 8-bit figures from the past chewing fire trucks apart and throwing endless supplies of barrels at Earthlings. Meanwhile, the normally funny Jane Krakowski is utterly wasted as an irrationally jealous first lady, relegated to a scene in which her husband is afraid to admit that another woman is pretty. There’s a spirit of carefree nihilism in their pixelated destruction, and since their troops are play-pretend creatures, blasting them doesn’t carry the slightest smidge of real revenge. The sight of Pac-Man gliding through the city street, gobbling up everything in its path, is amusing in the moment, but without any real sense of threat, the action can’t really hold interest for an entire long sequence.

Golden Globe winner Peter Dinklage, sporting a mullet, fares no better, with the humor of his one-dimensional character relying on his egotism and attempts to have a threesome with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart. The process also darkens the colorful palette. ▪ “Pac-Man”: In the movie, a giant yellow ball goes on a chomping spree through the streets of New York as the heroes do battle in Mini Coopers.

Columbus filmed the chase sequence over 31/2 weeks by having the actors followed by a yellow golf cart, which was later replaced with a computer-generated Pac-Man. ▪ “Centipede”: “I wanted ‘Centipede’ to be a surrealistic three-dimensional moment,” said Columbus. “For me, I pushed it into ‘Yellow Submarine’ territory where, in the middle of that scene, it just totally turns psychedelic. You shouldn’t do any mind-altering drugs before you watch that particular sequence of the film.” ▪ “Donkey Kong”: “The ‘Donkey Kong’ sequence is one that we could have done 90 percent CGI, but we literally built the game from scratch,” said Columbus. “We built the platforms. When you walked into that soundstage, it was mind blowing to see actors 100 feet in the air on harnesses running around from barrels that we later added. An Emmy-nominated comedy actress, she’s given few lines here — none funny — and is left with nothing to do but gaze adoringly at the goofy president.

Too bad they couldn’t get their digital hands on this script. “Pixels,” a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some language and suggestive comments.” Running time: 106 minutes.

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