As the critics’ reviews start rolling in for Adam Sandler’s latest film “Pixels,” it should come as no surprise — at least to anyone who’s been paying attention to his career and his leading roles over the last 10 years — that the consensus is overwhelming: it’s absolute crap.
The technicolor spectacle of the visual effects isn’t enough to distract from how the characters themselves seemed bored of the movie they’re in. While that’s hardly a unique flaw, what rankles about “Pixels“ is the tantalizing glimpses of what could have been: it’s just enough to get your hopes up and then crushes them when it fails to deliver. If you’re looking for a movie to scratch your nostalgia fix this weekend, you’re better off re-watching “Wreck-It Ralph.”
“Pixels” has a great premise for a summer movie: mistaking the footage of a 1982 video game tournament as a declaration of war, aliens invade the Earth in the guise of arcade game characters. Though the plot is thin, it hardly demands any more suspension of disbelief than any other blockbuster. But although it’s ostensibly a love letter to the games of the eighties, “Pixels” still feels somewhat like that classmate you try to avoid at your high school reunion because you don’t want to get trapped into their reminiscing.
Before being optioned by Adam Sandler’s studio, Pixels was a two-minute animated short by French director Patrick Jean. Whimsical and somewhat apocalyptic, it tapped into a collective nostalgia. Unfortunately, very little of its energy translates into the feature-length film, even when some shots are faithfully reproduced frame-for-frame from the short.
But what if … instead of being an awkward, self-conscious throat-clearer of a movie, “Pixels” took its strongest concepts and pushed them further? What if it allowed itself to actually be earnest about the themes it touches on, instead of covering it up with self-deprecating jokes to reassure the audience that it doesn’t take itself seriously?
Here’s a list of changes which I think could have made “Pixels” a great movie, if it had been brave enough to step away from the formula.
1. Replace Adam Sandler… with literally anyone else.
Adam Sandler’s been successful at getting the audience on his side in movies where he’s played the same stock character — a washed-up has-been with no particularly discernible talent, trapped in an eternal state of emotional adolescence. Over the years, however, that schtick has worn thin, and it seems like Sandler himself has lost any joy portraying such characters might have once given him. His cynical, somnolent performance as Sam Brenner in “Pixels” doesn’t so much provoke pathos as provoke the desire to punch the screen every time he comes on camera.
Replacing Sandler with a fresh actor — someone who can bring genuine emotion and earnestness to the role, would improve “Pixels” a hundred-fold, even without changing anything else about the movie.
2. Ditch the rom-com trappings, the sexism, and the toilet humor.
Long before we ever see Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan) on the screen, we already have an eerie sense of what her role in the plot is going to be. Her son reveals that the lavish living room entertainment system that Sandler’s character is helping set up is his mother’s way of getting back at his father for cheating on her. While she shoots down Sam’s not-quite-advances fairly early on, Violet is yet another example of a female character reduced to a mere objective for the main character to “win.” Violet’s reduction to being a passive plot device is especially grating considering she’s the one who hands Sam the keys to victory.
Besides, we’ve already seen Adam Sandler winning over the girl in almost every movie he’s been in, so their “banter” ends up just being more meaningless noise.
Other offenses under this category include homophobia played for laughs, a female character literally being referred to as a trophy, and a character wetting themselves in terror. It’s hard to see what value or humor these moments adds to the premise, and it makes the movie seem tone-deaf, offensive, and woefully out of touch with contemporary society.
3. Celebrate diversity in games and gamers.
The movie points out, quite obviously, that gaming is no longer something confined to arcades. What it fails to showcase is the diversity in who plays games, and where they are played.
Of the four main players on Adam Sandler’s team, all conform to the American stereotype of the gamer as white, middle-aged male — despite a study by the Entertainment Software Association that shows 44 percent of gamers are female, and that gamers can be found on all parts of the age spectrum. While it’s not surprising that “Pixels” falls back on the stereotype (though Peter Dinklage certainly adds a lot of humor to the role), what makes it particularly vexing is that someone invited members of Girls Who Code to our screening. It could have been a great chance for them to see a movie that shows girls what they could do if they chose to pursue coding and gaming.
“Pixels” also missed the opportunity to showcase the growing interest in eSports (competitive computer gameplay), as well as mobile and casual gameplay. It’s certainly not a rarified activity: according the the ESA’s findings, 42 percent of Americans play some kind of video game. The top three genres are social games, action, and puzzle games. A little more than one-third of players, 35 percent, also play on their smartphones, and developers anticipate more mobile gaming taking that space as smartphone technology continues to improve. In case alien invaders mimicking video game villains ever become reality, there’s already a well-practiced civilian populace used to smashing buttons and swiping their screens at high speed.
4. Look forward, not back.
In a movie that is presumably designed to evoke a nostalgia for retro gaming, it’s easy to see how one could make the mistake of thinking that the whole point is to look to the past. If “Pixels” were created as a straight-up 80’s period piece, its offenses wouldn’t be so striking, but its conceit is in implicitly setting up the past as something to be aspired towards.
What makes nostalgia so powerful and so bittersweet is the unspoken recognition that the reality of things may not be quite as good as we remember them being. We know that ultimately, we may be longing for a fantasy that never was. “Pixels'” ultimate failure is that it champions a very narrow-minded, narcissistic view of games — one that encourages clinging to the past without any self-reflection. That’s a failure to acknowledge how far we’ve come since, and no way to show respect for a medium that has done much to change how we consume content today.