It’s always interesting to see a movie star’s next project after they decamp to TV, since it’s often the one that drove them to it. Negative reviews are nothing new for Adam Sandler movies, but he takes such a thorough shellacking in critics’ appraisals of “Pixels” that it’s no surprise he made for Netflix’s hills after he was done filming was done there. (The controversy over racist jokes in his forthcoming Netflix movie, “The Ridiculous Six,” suggest he may not get a warm welcome there, either.) It’s not just that Sandler’s bad in “Pixels,” in which he plays a video-game nerd who becomes Earth’s savior when aliens who’ve taken on the form of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong et al. attack the planet, but that he seems disengaged, even bored, as if he trusted the movie’s concept to bring in opening-weekend audiences and didn’t care about much beyond that.
There’s a nifty idea at the “Pixels'” core — enough for, say, a two-minute short film like the one it was expanded from — and some reviewers find director Chris Columbus’ execution at least worthy of a look: Who wouldn’t want to see a stories-tall Pac-Man munching his way through the streets of Manhattan? (Okay, lots of people, but they’re not the target audience here.) The problem is the movie’s bro-centric plot, which several critics accuse of catering to the GamerGate crowd. (For fun — or “fun” — hop on a review that notes the movie’s lack of decent female characters and count the seconds until “SJW” pops up in the comments.) Bad reviews aren’t going to keep Sandler’s fans away, but it sounds like he needs to stop lazily counting on their support, or even that might start to erode.
Reviews of “Pixels”
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter
Within the rarified realm of 1980s videogame nostalgia,”Pixels” is no “Wreck-It-Ralph.” At isolated moments a tolerably amusing send-up of alien invasion disaster movies in which the attackers are video arcade-era renegades arrived to gobble up as many famous landmarks as possible, this one-note comedy runs out of gas within an hour (it is based on a short film) and should have been trimmed to a neat 90 minutes. Although ostensibly aimed at fortysomethings who grew up on Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and all the other games revered by first-generation players, this mildly suggestive PG-13-rated romp may well play best with the veterans’ little kids, who will find Frogger and Q*bert oh-so cute.
Matt Prigge, Metro
The key image in “Pixels” is Q*bert urinating. It’s not that it’s offensive or anything, but it is stupid — below lowest common denominator, existing only because someone ordered a poor programmer with crippling student debt to make a classic arcade character pixel-pee. It’s everything that’s wrong with the film in one surreal, can’t-unsee image: unlimited resources and a pretty good premise in the hands of people who just want to make bathroom jokes. Naturally one of those people is Adam Sandler. His latest vehicle — in which his team expanded upon a delightful two-minute French short — depicts a war between humankind and an alien race that has adopted the form of blocky early ’80s video games. But the real battle is between the high-concept, effects-heavy blockbuster and the slovenly, lazy, by this point arrogant cinema of its star — two things that go together like nuts and gum, which is to say because some overrepresented demographic likes them both.
Christopher Gray, Slant
Director Chris Columbus seems content to merely soften this entertainment into a work with a family-friendly sheen and a reasonably fleet foot. In one action sequence, a cheap facsimile of New York City is meant to become a “Pac-Man” grid. Instead of blurring the real and imaginary worlds, the film turns the game’s colorful ghosts into a fleet of Mini Coopers, and most of the scene is spent explaining the rules of the game to young viewers who’ve never played it. A shred of visual imagination comes in the backdrop of a few throwaway shots during an invasion of Washington, D.C., as a sunny sky becomes a screen grab from “Space Invaders” in the midst of an orgy of destruction wrought by the likes of Mega Man and the chef from BurgerTime. A work so in thrall to vintage technology could stand to be a lot more interested in recreating it, but most of “Pixels” levels up its 8-bit images into a fugly (to borrow a word from the film) CGI that needlessly complicates the simple elegance of a Donkey Kong screen, and renders familiar avatars chunky and charmless.
Bryan Bishop, The Verge
As executed, it’s like “Contact” meets “Armageddon” meets sticking knives into my eyes, but what’s 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.
Justin Chang, Variety
An adorable life-sized version of Q*bert is easily the most engaging character in “Pixels,” a dimwitted ’80s nostalgia trip best appreciated by those who have waited years for Adam Sandler’s fine-grained intelligence and Chris Columbus’ filmmaking mastery to finally converge. For the remaining 99% of the moviegoing population, this slapdash, casually sexist revenge-of-the-nerds fantasy offers some mild visual distraction with its massive CGI renderings of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and other old-school video game characters that have been co-opted here by malevolent space invaders, challenging Earth to the mother of all intergalactic arcade battles. Over the years, the actor’s delight in playing the egregiously stupid man-child has slowly calcified into laziness bordering on fatigue; where Sandler once exulted in our outrage (and frequently, our laughter), he now seems barely capable of mustering enough effort to carry a scene, let alone advance to level 255 of “Galaga.” There’s no joy left in his shtick.
Tim Grierson, Popular Mechanics
A typical Sandler comedy is a shaggy, lazy concoction, with the anti-PC jokes almost a dare to incite the easily offended. But although Columbus is nobody’s idea of a comic auteur, he brings a professional sheen to this big-budget, effects-heavy action-comedy. That’s a change of pace from Sandler’s usual lowbrow, low-energy laughers, but it’s a change that doesn’t pay off. The star shows no signs of being energized by the novelty of working with green screens or a more plot-heavy story. Instead, his general indolence is even more noticeable and off-putting, the actor’s small-scale appeal smothered by the film’s scope and stakes.
Matt Singer, ScreenCrush
By now, Sandler’s disinterested performances have become such a cliché, that film critics bashing him for his disinterested performances has become a cliché unto itself. Sandler’s stardom was built on his ability to summon boiling volcanoes of comedic rage, but these days he only seems to play one-dimensional schlubs incapable of registering any emotion beyond gloomy exhaustion. The list of incredible activities Sandler shrugs his way through in “Pixels” includes hanging out in the Oval Office, chasing giant video game centipedes through the streets of London, and becoming one of the most famous people in the world. Through it all, Sandler remains utterly impassive, maybe because no matter how little he exerts himself onscreen, audiences keep showing up to his movies.
Jordan Hoffman, Mashable
In scene after scene, Sandler’s bozo loser schtick brings “Pixels” to a screeching halt. As the high concept is gaining momentum on one end (aliens from space misinterpreting our gaming classics as a call to war!) Sandler is hogging the screen with his humiliatingly unfunny self-confidence conflict and love interest arc. The silence, where there was supposed to be laughter, made the screening I attended uncomfortable.
Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York
The truly mystifying thing about the movie is how desperately it caters to Gen-X junk nostalgia without bothering to think that maybe those Reagan-era kids have grown up a bit “Pixels” plays the “Ghostbusters” card hard, clothing its warriors in matching jumpsuits and swarming them with cheering New York crowds. But these gestures feel unearned. The movie’s graphics have a blockiness that registers as cheap, not sly, while even the presence of Peter Dinklage as a vain video game champ can’t help but play like a casting stunt. Sandler’s exhaustion is obvious. How many extra lives does the guy get?
Inkoo Kang, The Wrap
Sandler may have signed on to “Pixels” to cash in on fading nostalgia for the ’80s and Reagan era-set cultural products (like his own “Wedding Singer”). But the film’s aggressive self-pity, abrasive insularity, and repellent male entitlement — however seemingly benign their iteration here — speak to the contemporary video-game culture, too. If there’s a sequel, they can subtitle it “Revenge of the Nerds Who Don’t Realize They’ve Already Won.”
Mike Ryan, Uproxx
I hate doing the “if only this movie starred someone else” game, but when I picture this movie starring, say, Seth Rogen instead of Sandler, all of a sudden, a lot of the problems go away. We wouldn’t have to shoehorn Sandler’s buddy Dan Patrick into the movie. We wouldn’t have to include Sandler’s bad jokes. Instead, we would just have a fun summer action-comedy with a kind of clever idea about old video games. I mean, this really should have been easy. But it’s never easy with Adam Sandler.
Stephen Whitty, Newark Star-Ledger
Ultimately, the whole thing turns into just a low-grade “Ghostbusters” knock-off, with our heroes running around in matching jumpsuits shooting “light cannons” at CGI menaces (and, unfortunately, nothing nearly as funny as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man to shoot at). There’s a happy ending, one more slightly risqué sex joke, and roll credits. “Game Over,” the movie declares. But that was true before it even started.
And just for fun, here’s a video review that calls “Pixels” “a maggot-oozing head wound of a movie.”