Listen; I didn’t go into this movie thinking it was going to be good. Of course it wasn’t going to be good. There are reviews upon reviews explaining why Pixels is an objectively terrible movie. What I was thinking, however, was that I might get a chuckle or two out of it. Or that I might see some smidgen of fondness for the hobby that the movie attempts to sanctify. But no. Pixels was one of the most unloving, out of touch, unfunny pieces of gaming media of the past decade and I wish I was able to get those minutes (almost two fucking hours!!!!!) of my life back.
So the movie starts out with little Adam Sandler (who I’m going to call the character because there is no way Sandler was acting, or even trying to) and his BFF Kevin James attending the grand opening of a new arcade. Sandler is a savant at all the games, and it’s no time at all before he heads off to attend the “1982 Worldwide Video Arcade Championships”. He makes it to the semi-finals, but is ultimately beaten at Donkey Kong by a young Peter Dinklage, who is a total asshole for a thirteen year old and surrounded by models for no reason what-so-ever. Crushed by this defeat, Sandler fades into the shadows, just like I wish this movie had.
Fast forward to the current era where Sandler is a knock-off Geek Squad technician and James is the fucking president of the United States. (Why is he the president? Who knows, but apparently he sucks at it.) Sandler continues to be told that he’s “made for greater things” before heading off to do his job, which ends up with him ogling and flirting with a too-good-for-this-movie Michelle Monaghan since he discovered she recently divorced her husband. He attempts to kiss her when she’s drunk, she tells him to fuck off, he tries to paint her as the bad guy for that, even going so far as to label her a “stalker” just because she’s heading to work in the same direction he’s driving away. Oh, yeah: he was driving away to the White House and she’s actually a Lieutenant Colonel, and a weapons developer for the army. They bicker like children; none of it is funny.
The true conflict in Pixels shows up when it’s revealed that aliens are attacking the earth. Furthermore, the aliens seem to have taken a recording of the ’82 arcade championships and interpreted that as a declaration of war, thus attacking Earth via retro games, and pixelating people as trophies. Just so Earth has a chance to retaliate, though, the aliens have given them three “lives” or three games to attempt to beat them in (despite having no connection to Earth or knowing that three lives was a “thing” in arcade games). Earth lost the first game, and they also lose the second due to a just apprehension about the nature of the aliens’ attack; they can’t afford to lose a third, so against every good piece of judgment, Sandler and Josh Gad (another arcade friend from their childhood) are recruited for their specialized knowledge in gaming. And apparently they’re amazing at handling high military grade weapons despite no previous training. They also manage to recruit Dinklage after getting him out of jail; the “A-Team” is complete.
The team manages to beat the aliens in Pac-Man, but the victory is soon revoked as its revealed that Dinklage cheated their way to victory. As such, the aliens are done playing nice and start a full assault on Earth. Everything seems lost until for some inexplicable reason the aliens invite Sandler, James, and Monaghan (whose son was taken as a trophy) aboard the mothership for one final showdown. Predictably, this final showdown is in Donkey Kong. As saving a child’s life—and the lives of two other men—is apparently not important enough to motivate Sandler, he only decides he can beat the game when the child reveals that Dinklage only won the championship in ’82 because he cheated there too. His ego satisfied, Sandler saves the day, gets the girl, and everyone who watched this movie received a private island because they felt bad for wasting everyone’s time. (I WISH.)
I want to reassure you right here, right now that everything you heard about Pixels’s treatment of women is true. There is no point to having any women in this movie. In fact, the first girl you see is a young girl running a lemonade stand, from which Sandler and James steal something: that pretty much sets up the tone for their treatment of women. While Monaghan’s character is an interesting concept, she’s not actually a character. She doesn’t have any goals or motivations. She exists to be an antagonist to Sandler’s “nerdy” ways, and to eventually give into his awesomeness and become his girlfriend. She is belittled by him until some other dude belittles her; and even then it comes off as, “hey, no one can say bad things about her except me.” Because he is a nerd, and thus superior. She is also called a snob because Sandler is convinced she didn’t kiss him because he was a technician/not rich, and not because there is nothing likable about him. In addition, Gad’s obsession with his childhood fictional game character crush, Lady Lisa, is literally brought in just so Gad has a forced romance. No, no wait, I don’t think you realize how forced this romance is. Gad is completely obsessed with Lisa—going so far as to write a flip book about their wedding night. During the final alien invasion, she shows up alongside other game characters, and attacks them because that’s what she’s programmed to do. However, she’s stopped as soon as Gad makes the comment that he’s okay dying because he finally found true love. She is a program. She should not give a FUCK about what he says, but she does, falls in love with him, they kiss, and help protect Earth. Her being essentially a computer program with no will of her own brings up a lot of consent issues, as well as numerous issues about how Gad is rewarded for being creepy, but these are all completely okay because reasons. Also this all happens in about three minutes and adds nothing to the movie whatsoever. Mirroring this, both Martha Stewart and Serena Williams (the only woman of color in the entire movie) are used as trophies/rewards for Dinklage after he helps save the day. WHY?
I don’t want to say this next point is more heinous, because it’s not, but given what I think Sandler was setting out to do, it undermines the entire point of his movie. That’s the representation of nerds and gamers. Sandler is so, so unrepentant about creating this divide between retro gamers and more modern gamers. From the beginning, Sandler idolizes this past notion of being able to beat games through analyzing patterns in gameplay. So much so that he talks down on more modern games like Halo that are more random due to advances in technology. In the end, though, he beats Donkey Kong apparently because he embraces this modern age gaming philosophy of “being the guy and not wanting to die”s—essentially, it’s putting yourself into the playable character’s position rather than analyzing things from a third person perspective (which is applicable to retro games too, so…). But there’s no way that anyone could believe that Sandler was able to embrace the new ways of thinking rather than relying on old tricks—what he’s is telling us and what he’s showing us are two different things. He beats Donkey Kong not because he was able to move on from his past archaic defeatist way of thinking, but because his ego and thought processes were reinforced by Dinklage’s cheating and everyone reaffirming that he was, and still is, the best at games.
And far be it from Sandler to miss any opportunity to add more sexism into nerd culture. After berating Monaghan for being a snob, he finishes up the confrontation with “you missed out; all nerds are great kissers because we appreciate it more.” What the actual fuck? Being a nerd does not give you magical romancing skills: you do not get +6 Robes of Seduction or good kisser-y. There is no reason why nerds appreciate these things more than anyone else: in fact, he is both building up that disgusting entitled/oppressed ego lots of nerds have and insulting nerds because, oh, well, obviously they can’t get it because they’re nerds. You can’t have it both ways, Sandler. In fact, I’d rather you have it no ways because your thought processes are disgusting. Especially telling Monaghan’s son that the good thing about arcades was being able to meet girls in them. Please, for the sake of everyone, stop writing movie scripts and never tell young boys what to believe.
Other than this, despite the movie trying to enforce that the alien invasion was a “worldwide” issue, the film was undoubtedly American-centric, relying on unfunny, tired racial stereotypes when dealing with other cultures (I am so sorry that Toru Iwatani—creator of Pac-Man—had to watch himself be portrayed like a Hollywood stereotypical Asian male). All of the game cameos felt unimportant, and had no love behind them. They were gimmicks, not callbacks to an era long past. Pixels was nothing more than Adam Sandler creating a script about patting his own ass over how awesome and not washed-up he is. And while that was the one thing he was able to achieve (in terms of he, himself, making such a thing and putting it out there), the message is loud and clear: no one wants to watch it.