Just like Back to the Future 2 predicted, here in 2015 we seem to be obsessed with nostalgia. It’s nowhere more obvious than in our movies, with some of the most (Jurassic World) and least (Terminator Genisys) successful films of the summer betting squarely on people’s love for looking backward.
Joining the chorus is the new Adam Sandler comedy Pixels. It’s been sold as a playful callback to arcade games of old, in which a team of video game experts are called upon to save the world when an alien race starts attacking Earth with creatures from ‘80s gaming classics. It’s such a bizarre set-up that before I saw it I started wondering if there wasn’t some other element that hadn’t yet been revealed. Nobody would actually make this movie unless there was a clever reversal or inspired twist, would they? There had to be something… right?
To begin with — and this is going to tell you a little bit about how terrible movies get made — Pixels began life as a short film. Patrick Jean released his movie in 2010, and the premise was nice and clean: somebody puts an old television out on the curb in New York, and magically, 8-bit computer graphics begin pouring out of the screen. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Frogger: all of the original arcade hits start rampaging through Manhattan, turning everything they touch into pixelated blocks. Eventually an 8-bit bomb goes off, sending shockwaves throughout the city, and turning our planet itself into one massive, three-dimensional pixel.
As a metaphor it wasn’t exactly subtle, but it did exactly what a two-and-a-half-minute short should do: successfully execute a clever visual idea while giving the audience something to chew on. Adam Sandler’s production company, however, seemed to see feature film greatness in Jean’s movie, and snatched up the rights. Run the concept through the Sandler Movie Factory, and you get what’s hitting theaters now.
Sandler plays Sam Brenner, whose life was ruined as a teenager when he lost the 1982 worldwide arcade game championship. Cut to the present day, and he’s a Geek Squad-style TV installation guy who just happens to be best friends with the president of the United States (Kevin James, and no, I am not making this up). When a military base is attacked by huge creatures that look just like Galaga, Brenner is called to the White House to consult, and after teaming up with their other childhood friend Ludlow (Josh Gad), Brenner and the president realize what’s going on. An alien race has misinterpreted video game footage sent into space 30 years ago as a declaration of war, and has sent physical versions of those games to destroy humanity — and only Brenner and his team of misfits arcade gamers can save us.
As executed, it’s like Contact meets Armageddon meets sticking knives into my eyes, but what’s most frustrating is that, philosophically, the concept is actually intriguing. There’s something about the idea of our own recycled pop culture coming back to do us in that feels timely and unique, a meta commentary on the sad state of reboots and ultra-franchised everything. But that would require some daring, or at least some basic situational awareness, and Pixels can’t be bothered with either. Instead, it’s the kind of movie that’s emotionally tone-deaf enough to expect us to root for a hero that puts the moves on a recently split single mom while she’s drunk and crying (in her bedroom closet, no less), and thinks that leaving awkward empty pauses after random lines is the same thing as making a joke. And did I mention the gag about Q*bert peeing himself?
Did I mention the gag about Q*bert peeing himself?
Now, if you’re one of the straggling Sandler defenders, let me clarify that I like dumb comedies. I even like many of Sandler’s dumb comedies. The actor hit upon a winning formula in the late ‘90s: take cookie-cutter story structure, plug in Sandler playing an idiot version of some common character, and let stupid things happen. It was fun, breezy, and it worked, and in odd cases like The Wedding Singer it worked so well that the movies actually seemed kind of, well, good. But even the most devoted fan will have to admit that in recent years Sandler’s been coasting (Grown Ups) if not flailing (That’s My Boy), and with Sony Pictures execs feeling increased animosity toward the star, it’s no surprise that he’s moving away from theatrical movies altogether.
But that’s not really the solution for him or audiences. One of the biggest problems with Hollywood is its slavish devotion to repeatable success — or more specifically, the illusion of repeatable success. If a formula worked once, studios are happy to cede control and crank it out again and again, even when it’s clear things are no longer working. And when you’re talking about a star whose very brand is built upon the idea of not giving a shit, you end up with Pixels — and the middle finger once directed at the establishment ends up aimed right at audiences instead.
If Netflix is creatively blank-checking Sandler, none of that is is going to change — but at least he’s moving to a place where he won’t have to worry about critical or commercial failure. I do wonder, though, what would an alien race, monitoring our movies and television, think of a planet that puts out something like Pixels as mass entertainment? Would they consider it a declaration of cultural war? Would they send emissaries down to smite us, wiping the slate clean — and would we deserve it?
Pixels opens on Friday, July 24th. Spend your afternoon in the park instead.