Pixels has exactly four things going for it: director Chris Columbus, Michelle Monaghan, the special effects, and the central gimmick. Everything else is a mess.
Said gimmick is that, in the 1980s, NASA launched a space probe that was carrying a kind of time capsule featuring aspects of human culture (NASA actually did versions of this). Included was footage of early arcade games from the 1980s. Unfortunately, some aliens – a race of light-based beings or some such – took the footage as a direct military challenge from Earth. So some thirty-odd years later, they arrive in the form of those very same arcade games, ready to throw down.
This brings us to the aforementioned special effects. The aliens stage a series of assaults, each based on its own game: the ships from Galaga attack a U.S. airfield, the balls and paddles from Pong decimate the Taj Mahal, the centipedes from Centipede descend on the English countryside, Pac-Man goes tearing through Manhattan, etc. While I wouldn’t exactly call the effects realistic, they do feel weightier and more grounded that the average computer-generated extravaganza these days, and Columbus does unflashy but solid work orchestrating his camera around them. When anything gets hit by a blast from the aliens – a person, a car, a building – it’s “pixelized” into a shower of shimmering blocks. So when the Galaga assault blows a hole in the airfield’s command room wall, and the commander stumbles out onto the concrete, kicking over some of the “pixels” as he goes, it has a visceral thrill of the concrete to it.
True to the arcade game ethos, the aliens give Earth three “lives” – we can loose two of the assaults, but on the third loss it’s game over and the aliens will eradicate humanity. You’d think, given the strict duel-like honor code they seem to live by, the aliens would ensure we have some obvious capacity to fight back. But humanity winds up having to figure that out on our own, and eventually American forces come up with some light guns that blast the aliens to smithereens.
That effort is lead by U.S. President Will Cooper (Kevin James) and his best friend from childhood, Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler), who has a job in DC installing household entertainment systems. This setup is pretty ludicrous, but it actually comes off less ludicrous than it sounds. Sam was an arcade prodigy as a youth, and the smash cut from the prologue at a 1980s arcade contest to current times, when we find out the promising Sam is now doing installations and his sidekick has risen to the presidency, is rather funny. What is less funny, and what eventually stumbles into the lazy and absurd, is the way Will brings Sam in as an advisor once they realize the nature of the invasion. Ludlow (Josh Gad) is the conspiracy theorist who was also at the arcade contest, and who resurfaces years later as the guy who discovers the aliens’ video message.
Then there’s Violet (Michelle Monaghan), an army official at DARPA, who actually bumps into Sam before the invasion when he shows up at her house to install an HD TV under her son’s supervision. Violet gets a text from her husband, who recently left her for a 19 year-old pilates instructor (“Sinammon” with an “S”), and she winds up crying in the closet with some wine. So Sam comforts her, misreads the signals, and tries to kiss her. That this entire scenario is not unbearably painful is a testament to Columbus’ adroit direction, and to Monaghan’s apparent decision to play her character as if she just stumbled in from one of those delightful battle-of-the-sexes comedies from the 1950s.
But while Monaghan keeps the fun going throughout Pixels, Sandler and James slip back into their usual schtick, phoning it in for the rest of the film. The only remaining relief is Peter Dinklage, who shows up as Eddie, Sam’s opponent from the arcade contest. Dinklage plays Eddie as a mulleted, bearded, supremely confident peacock, who speaks in an absurd baritone bitten out through his teeth. But even this is a bit one note, and wears a thin as the proceedings continue.
The script is based on a delightfully oddball shortfilm by Patrick Jean, and many of the best visuals – like Tetris blocks collapsing buildings a section at a time – are drawn from it. But the plot layered on top is the kind of thing a gaggle of screenwriters might spitball together over a weekend. Most every idea and plot turn is the first thing you would expect given the setup. Columbus stages some competent action scenes, especially the Centipede and Pac-Man moments, but it’s not enough to overcome the rote nature of the proceedings.
Maybe the biggest loss, and the thing the film should obviously have tried for, given its setup, is that it never really nails the feeling of being inside a video game. There are moments where it brushes up against that experience, especially when Sam and Ludlow are blasting away at the centipedes descending from the sky. But Columbus, while a competent director, merely stages the action, and doesn’t stretch himself to the point of actually entering the camera into the video game experience. As a result, Pixels is just a subpar satire on the alien invasion genre, one that happens to have some respectable special effects and some exceedingly unusual aliens.