The fact that Pixels is terrible is not that surprising: it is an Adam Sandler movie from 2015 so of course it is terrible. What is surprising, however, is the way that it is terrible. Sandler's early movies weren't particularly clever or well constructed but they were at least smartly targeted - they did a good job of delivering juvenile laughs to the army of angry teenage boys that composed his fanbase. But Pixels doesn't feel like it's really aimed at teenage boys. Nor is it aimed at their parents. It's kind of aimed at no one, actually.
Pixels' has a solid enough premise: Sam Brenner is an aging arcade wunderkind who never got the respect he deserved... but when hostile aliens send an army of old school video game characters like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong to attack the Earth his heretofore "useless" talents as a gamer are the only thing that can save the day. That's a good set up for a PG-13 fantasy because it stacks several YA lit tropes on top of each other - there's sticking it to the man, there's proving yourself, and of course there's the basic wish fulfillment idea of "in the right circumstance a zero can became a hero overnight!"
Unfortunately, Pixels bungles its YA potential by having Sandler play Brenner because he's clearly a man in his mid-forties and as such he's far too old to play the lead in a coming of age story. The dynamic is just wrong: the authority figures in this type of story should be condescending pricks - jerks who graded the hero before they had a chance to shine. But if Sam Brenner hasn't managed to impress his peers in his first four or five decades on this planet then it's probably because he actually isn't a very impressive person; it's all well and good to be helpful in the event of an alien invasion, but the rest of us are trying to be respectable in more practical ways.
Alternatively, Pixels could easily have been pitched at an older audience - with a few tweaks it could have been a mid-life crisis movie. In fact, Pixels even has a few feints in this direction: it makes it clear that Sam is bummed that at his general lack of life accomplishments and his love interest is an age appropriate woman who just started the process of getting a divorce from her first husband. However, the movie does nothing to develop those mature threads - once Sam gets a light canon and begins to shoot at the candy colored space invaders he forgets all about his previous ennui. So why bother to include those adult elements at all? A subplot about a heartbroken single mom's flirtations with a mostly unsuccessful sad-sack isn't going to appeal to younger audiences and older audiences are going to instantly recognize the movie's facile take on adult heartbreak for being the empty Hollywood bullshit that it is.
Honestly, Pixel's utter inability to understand its own premise is astounding. The idea that aliens would attack Earth using video game characters is incredibly juvenile - which is not to say that it is bad; I could easily see that premise working if it was handled with the right amount of goofy charm. (In fact, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World used a similar life-as-a-game gimmick to great effect a few years ago - but that movie was extremely self-aware, far more stylized and its meta-jokes were actually clever. Oh, and it also had the good sense to be about teenagers, not adult has-beens.)
Unfortunately, Pixels isn't smart enough to know that it needs to be juvenile - all of its references are almost old enough to be President. I mean, seriously: Pac-Man? Donkey Kong? In 2015? I can't imagine that kids today care about those characters and I can't imagine that the adults that do care about them would want to see them in an Adam Sandler movie. (I'm pretty sure most of us grown ups soured on his arrested development shtick years ago.) Kids that grew up playing Playstations are unlikely to recognize bygone games like Paperboy or Tetris... And the people who do recognize them will be all too aware that they came out after 1982, which is supposed to be the only year that the aliens are aware of. Pixels doesn't know if it wants to pander to today's gamers or if it wants to be a nostalgia-fest for geezers - and as a result it feels like a film that was meant for no one.
Still, while those mistakes are regrettable they are at least understandable - even though I think it was the wrong call I get why director Chris Columbus would try to pitch this flick to the broadest possible audience. However, there is at least one plot point in Pixels that is so off putting that its inclusion is utterly inexplicable: why does Sam's sidekick Ludlow Lamonsoff have (offscreen) sex with Q*bert?
Well, sort of. Saying that this film culminates in nerd-on-nostril-monster coitus is slightly misleading. First of all I'm not sure if Q*bert is technically a nostril monster - although how else do you describe a character that is basically just an orange schnoz with feet? A snout beast? A nose goblin?
But more importantly, saying that Ludlow has sex with Q*bert is slightly misleading because at the end of the movie Q*bert morphs into Lady Lisa, a fictitious video game mascot from a sword and sorcery game, so Ludlow is actually having sex with something that looks humanoid. Regardless, he knows full well that "Lady Lisa" was born looking like a deformed tangerine; that he is sticking his dick inside of an animated alien; and a scene that plays during the end credits implies that he's fathered a litter full of baby Q*berts, so no matter how you cut it the whole thing is incredibly creepy.
Now, I don't want to belabor Ludlow's love affair with Q*bert because it doesn't get a lot of screen time in the movie, but it is worth talking about in passing because it is the best example of why Pixels is such a mess of a movie. That "joke" might work in a raunchy comedy - I'm sure that sexually immature boys would find the idea of humping a walking nerfball to be hilarious. But Pixels is not a bawdy romp, its a clean-cut comedy about some screw-ups who save the world by shooting light canons at (mostly genderless) aliens, so every scene that address Ludlow's strange desires sticks out like a sore thumb. And even if the rest of the film was filthy, that joke would still be better off as an abstract one-liner; an on-screen depiction of man-on-mascot romance would be gratuitous in any context.
Pixels is proof that Adam Sandler is stuck at a career crossroads. He has clearly aged out of the obnoxious manchild role that was the bread and butter of his early career but he hasn't been able to segue into more mature roles, and so he's stuck making movies like this which try to split the difference. Unfortunately, that approach just doesn't make sense. If he wants to continue to make juvenile movies that's fine - but in that case he needs to give the starring parts to people who are still young while he takes on the supporting dad-type role. Or if he wants to make movies that acknowledge his age, then he needs to be earnest about it - he can't make movies where he's dating a divorcee while his sidekick is porking a Q*bert because that mixture just doesn't make sense. Sooner or later Adam Sandler is going to have to admit that acting like a lost boy doesn't actually make you as ageless as Peter Pan.
Winner: The Cat