Adam Sandler has built his reputation as one of cinema's all-time comedy greats on being the goofy, loveable underdog, able to overcome any challenge by playing the fool – always whilst poking fun at the irony of such a fantasy. Pixels, his latest star-vehicle adapted from a viral short film (which you can watch here), is his most sophisticated and subtle satire yet, an absolute zenith of the self-referential "masturbatory white geek power trip" genre, the conceit of which has aliens mistaking footage of a 1982 arcade championship for a jingoistic "winner takes all" declaration of galactic war.
Of course, one geek alone isn't enough to defeat an alien invasion. Each of the supporting cast of nerds turned saviours are actually clever commentaries on the big issues affecting geek and gaming culture at large – and the masterstroke is they're ironically disguised as even more clichéd, garish and 2D than the arcade games of their youths.
There's Peter "Fire Blaster" Dinklage as the cool, egotistical childhood rival, who reveals some bold commentary on the ethics of eSports by cheating at Donkey Kong in the aforementioned championship. There's Michelle "Violet" Monaghan as a DARPA agent, whose performance mirrors how Hollywood and the games industry objectify women, and quite rightfully decry their rejections of men and of "equality" as frigid snobbery. There are others but, it must have been the IMAX glasses, they seemed to blur into one bland white blob occasionally punctuated by "ethic minority" characters who were, thankfully, quickly emasculated before they could have a bad influence.
The best character of course, is Q*bert, a cute little hoover-nosed alien with Stockholm syndrome who utters the best line of the film – it's borderline poetry – when watching Monaghan play The Last of Us with Sandler in a cross-generational critique of nostalgia and graphical advances: "So… much… blood."
Enough about the cast – you're here for the games, the action. Well, luckily the aliens are sporting types. They kick off what's presumably a best-of-five contest (if Earth loses, it's annihilation time) with Galaga, at a US Air Force base in Guam, but someone wasn't checking the party chat and the base gets rekt. Arkanoid is next – demolishing the Taj Mahal because the US can't be fucked with India (in a chillingly accurate portrayal of US foreign policy).
Three strikes and you're out, so "humanity" jumps into action in London, whose Prime Minster speaks in a brilliantly observed kind of archaic-Cockney, saying things like "jiggery-pokery" and "from Land's End to John O'Groats", and is also female so the US president can crack a joke about her looks, in case being English wasn't enough of a crime. Centipede is the game, and taking over from trained Navy Seals (who obviously, predictably, and historically are too stupid to understand basic instructions on how to aim) the nerds save the day.
Article continues after the video below
A race through the streets of New York in four Minis representing the ghosts to the alien's menacing Pac-Man is a particular highlight of auto-choreography and moral relativism, all building up to the surprise gut-punch revelation of the film and what it will really go down in geek history as a classic for.
The aliens claim the humans have cheated, and so full-scale invasion will begin anyway – it turns out Fire Blaster used a Pac-Man cheat code to triumph (in real life, somehow), just like all those years ago against Adam Sandler, in the moment that ruined his shot at the big leagues. After fighting their way past scores of pointlessly inept aliens, the geeks are beamed up to the invaders' mother ship to challenge The Boss, aka Donkey Kong.
This climactic scene is clearly a veiled reference to the uninspiring boss encounters of modern triple-A games and, maybe, something about defeating your inner demons before you can accomplish greatness. IDK, but it's cool when Sandler collects the power-up to save Violet and says, "Grab my mighty hammer." Someone behind me clapped, and a little boy started crying. Stirring stuff.
The best joke in the whole film, of course, is that for all the games, it's the audience members who are really getting played.
Pixels is out now in the US, and opens in the UK in August (exact dates seem to vary, with reports ranging from the 8th to the 14th, so check your local listings). More information at the film's official website.
More from VICE Gaming: