In Adam Sandler's latest vehicle Pixels, there's been a misunderstanding with an anonymous race of aliens who have taken the form of pixelated arcade monsters to challenge earthlings to a series of live-action video games to the death. It's not the worst idea I've ever heard, but the execution is so lazy and the characters are so dumb and unfunny it's hard not to root for the aliens.
We first meet our hero Brenner in 1982 at an arcade with his friends Cooper and Ludlow. This is the world of Space Invaders, Q*bert and so on, where the key to victory comes from anticipating the enemy's movements and memorizing each game's complex patterns. Brenner proves to be the most gifted of the three and he goes on to represent them at the World Arcade Tournament. The winning games will be videotaped and shot into space for alien life to intercept and then watch on their home VCRs? Forget about the science. A little person who calls himself The Fireblaster shows up with a mullet and an entourage to face Brenner in a final game of Donkey Kong. Brenner loses to The Fireblaster, a failure that we will see echo throughout the rest of his life.
Sandler plays the adult Brenner, who works for a company very much like Best Buy's "Geek Squad" installing entertainment systems in rich people's homes. His friend Cooper, played by Kevin James, grew up to become President of the United States. Pixels creates a world where the citizens willingly elected Paul Blart, Mall Cop as president, and yet I'm expected to root for these people in their fight against the aliens. Idiotic, I know, but when the aliens attack in a formation identical to Galaga, making Brenner the nation's only hope, the fact that the president already happens to be friends with him provides some storytelling thrift.
- “Hey, what am I doing in this movie?”
Along those same lines, Brenner happens to meet a pretty, single lady named Violet, played by Michelle Monaghan, who readers with taste will remember played Maggie in HBO's "True Detective." Violet's a top colonel in the military, turns out, and one of like four people in charge of plotting the defense strategy of what is really a horrifying brush with total annihilation. Their old friend Ludlow (Josh Gad) shows up to provide helpful conspiracy theories and an energy that oscillates wildly between self-effacement and cunning know-how, depending on what the plot requires. And don't forget about The Fireblaster (Peter Dinklage), now a known felon. They spring him from prison so he can help out in the battle against Pac Man and generally demean himself with dismal lines like "Tubular" and "I made your game my bitch."
The battle between the aliens takes place in different cities around the world in the form of Pac Man, Centipede and a blender of other games with no rules or coherent sense of stakes or consequences. Brenner's character arc amounts to little more than a vague lesson that maybe he should apply for better jobs and try out today's new, immersive video games. President Cooper redeems himself in the eyes of the public, tragically, and Ludlow ends up marrying a pretty lady who comes down to earth as a "trophy" in the form of an animated GIF, a plotline so offensive and sexist that it manages to circle back around to "who cares."
One last thing: If the aliens learned everything from that tape from 1982, then what business does the dog from Duck Hunt circa 1984 have on the battlefield? Never mind. It doesn't matter.
Pixels continues at the Carmike.