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I Rewatched 'Pixels' to See How a Fun Premise Became an Atrocity

The Adam Sandler vs. Pac-Man comedy is a bizarre mess of misogyny, bad jokes, and pandering nostalgia.

by Grant Pardee
Aug 16 2018, 6:37pm

Image via Sony Pictures Entertainment

Welcome to One More Time, the column where writers revisit and review the movies they walked out of in theaters.

I didn’t go into Pixels thinking I’d hate it when it arrived in the summer of 2015. I went in thinking that it was very hot outside and movie theaters are cool inside, but Pixels ended up being so bad it wasn’t even worth the air conditioning it was shown in. It is the only movie I’ve walked out of mid-screening.

Three years earlier, Wreck-It Ralph had provided a template for the summer action-comedy co-starring famous pixelated characters. This, along with Peter Dinklage in a mullet playing a version of the cocky professional gamer Billy Mitchell, led to misplaced optimism that Pixels would be Sandler’s “best movie in years.”

Maybe Pixels was better than Jack and Jill or Grown Ups 2, though such a determination feels like choosing between vomit and diarrhea. Regardless, it wasn’t good by any measure. Pixels was a dud commercially (overshadowed by Minions and Ant-Man), and while it wasn’t surprising that old-school critics would dislike the new Adam Sandler comedy, the most savage reviews came from online voices like YouTube critic MovieBob who expressed it well: “Pixels in an unmitigated piece of godawful dog shit. It’s existence feels ultimately like poison or a general infection... Pixels is bad enough to make you hate the things you love, and watching it made me want to take a blowtorch to every scrap of video game memorabilia in my home.”

I realize it feels like very low-hanging fruit to slam Adam Sandler for a bad movie. So let me go out of my way to say that, while the vast majority of his work ranges from “not good” to “extremely bad,” I still have a soft spot for the small handful of comedies he’s made that would qualify as “pretty funny,” like Billy Madison.

In a way, Pixels, which I rewatched earlier this week, reminds me most of Sandler’s first movie, the ultra low budget Going Overboard from 1989, where Sandler plays a stand-up comic on a cruise ship looking for his break. It is truly one of the worst things on the planet. In college, my friends and I used to show it to people as a drinking game: you took a shot any time the movie made you cringe. Nobody ever made it past 20 minutes, which is fortunate, because finishing the movie would likely result in alcohol poisoning. Pixels may be vastly more expensive than Going Overboard, but it is equally insufferable. For example, here is a clip entitled “ Pixels Funny Moments.” It’s five minutes. Can you watch all of it without thinking of anything better to do with your limited time on this planet?

The film begins in 1982. We’re introduced to the child versions of Sandler, Dinklage, Josh Gad, and Kevin James, who use some stolen quarters to win a tournament at a local arcade. Video of their victory is shot into space as a time capsule, which aliens discover and misinterpret as a declaration of war. They arrive on Earth 30 years later to destroy the planet in the guises of Pac-Man, Galaga, Centipede, Q*Bert and Donkey Kong, allowing the schlubby protagonists to save the day by flexing their loser hobby skills.

That premise should be straight-forward enough to lead to enjoyable if formulaic shenanigans, and yet, every single creative choice for each character is shockingly off-putting or bizarre.

Our first scene with Sandler shows him as a Geek Squad employee installing a new video game system for the son of Michelle Monaghan, who is going through a divorce. When he’s done, Sandler finds her drinking in the closet and sits down to join her. A moment later, he tries to kiss her and gets rejected. This entire sequence is incredibly awkward and uncomfortable, made worse by the fact that the movie seems to think we should be viewing this as a kind of “meet cute.” It gets worse in the next scene, as Sandler seems to be following her in his van, pulling up next to her at red lights to verbally harass her; again, the movie seems to think this is him being funny and charming?


Turns out Sandler and Monaghan are both headed to the White House, where she is apparently a high-ranking military official, and Sandler is buddies with Kevin James, the president of the United States. Even in our present reality with President Trump, there is no timeline in which this scenario is believable. The exposition of a video game alien invasion is somehow more credible than the character delivering it. Before long, Sandler is getting the old gang back together to fight the aliens, with the aid of Monaghan and the military. Her role in the film is to stand aside while Sandler shows her how it’s done, and then to fall in love with him for it.

Sandler’s movies seem to always insist on a romantic storyline where a beautiful woman falls for his antics, but Pixels goes several steps beyond just being an annoying cliche, delivering one of the most misogynistic movies of the last 10 years. Every single woman who appears on screen is humiliated or fetishized, including Serena Williams, whose appearance is itself a joke—the punchline being that she and Martha Stewart will have a three-way with Dinklage for his part in helping Sandler save the world.

The CG scenes are fine enough on their own—it’s kinda neat to see Pac-Man played out on city streets with cars functioning as the ghosts—but literally all of the good bits are in the trailer, and even so, there simply aren’t enough of these mildly imaginative scenes to counterbalance the non-CG scenes.

It’s frustrating because I feel like I’m meeting the movie more than halfway here. I set the bar pretty low the first time I saw this , and lowered it even further with this revisit, yet Pixels still manages to go out of its way to fail when all it had to do was simply not be revolting.

The pandering nostalgia, mixed with its depiction of female characters, makes Pixels feel like a movie that is aimed squarely at the kind of angry men who ranted online about the cast of the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot. I wonder how different their reactions might have been if Pixels and Ghostbusters swapped names and monsters, with all else being the same. Make no mistake: however you felt about Ghostbusters, it is a gazillion times better than Pixels, yet I suspect Josh Gad wouldn’t have been harassed for months like Leslie Jones was, even if his performance remained as cringey as it does here.

Probably the most interesting thing about Pixels is what it shows us about how studios have found ways to leverage video game cameos to sell summer movies. This year’s Ready Player One is the far more competent example, but in both cases, a major reason I bought a ticket in the first place was for the simple pleasure of seeing Donkey Kong or Sonic pop up on the big screen. Of course, referential cameos aren’t enough to sustain an entire picture; there still needs to be something else underneath, and whereas Ready Player One had Steven Spielberg and Wreck-It Ralph had Disney, Pixels was burdened by Sandler’s loathsome mediocrity as the driving creative force.

So, my opinion of Pixels did in fact change with the rewatch. The movie is far worse now in 2018 than I thought it was when I walked out of the theater in 2015. Whatever you do, do not watch it.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.