Posted by Joel Copling on July 23, 2015

The rule of three is prevalent throughout comedy, and the reason why is right there in the name: Never repeat a joke more than three times, because it gets old by the third time you say it. This, though, can really apply to anything that threatens repetition, and "Pixels" tests that in its second of four action set pieces. It involves Pac-Man, that glowing, yellow ball that stars in the video game of the same name, here is used by some sort of alien force to attack Earth. Three of our sorta-kinda heroes and the creator of the character all converge to battle the being. COnceptually, it unearths a problem with the idea of a big-screen iteration of the central objective of the game, which is that it's basically just a car chase, but there's a another problem: There are absolutely no stakes here, and it's because of the broken rule of three.

To set the stage for where I'm getting at with this (which is, really, just one problem among too many to truly list in a review this size), let me also set the stage of the characters, each of them either an insulting caricature or deeply unsympathetic. There's Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler), who revealed himself to be a child prodigy at playing arcade games like the aforementioned "Pac-Man" or "Space Invaders" or what-have-you before becoming an installation expert with a company called NERD; he flirts with our next character only after a joke that insists he thinks divorces due to infidelity can only be the first woman's fault because she's obviously ugly. She's Violet (Michelle Monaghan), who has just gone through such a divorce and works as a lieutenant colonel in the armed forces.

Sam's best friend is none other the president himself, Will Cooper (Kevin James, who is the last person on Earth one expects to play the President, and it's the movie's only joke to that effect), who calls upon Sam to assist him in identifying the force that has attacked and destroyed a military base in Guam. The culprit turns out to look exactly like one's usual match in Galaga, which leads to the realization that an alien force is posing as the video game characters of yesteryear. This happened when a capsule was sent into space that included footage of an old "Donkey Kong" match between Sam and Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage), a petty criminal whom President Cooper must pardon in order to save the world. A team (which also includes an old friend of theirs named Ludlow and played by Josh Gad) is formed to battle the aliens.

Which brings us back around to that showdown with Pac-Man, which sees Sam, Eddie, Ludlow, and Pac-Man's creator chasing it all around New York City for the requisite three tries (complete with power pellets and Ghosts of a sort). The first two tries generally go so well that there's no question that the third and final one will be a success, which confirms that the stakes in this movie are all but entirely nonexistent. This translates to the other set pieces, including a fight with Centipede that establishes none of the visual effects feel like they exist in the same space as the actors interacting with them, a showdown with Donkey Kong that reduces the game to which the character belongs to something that would never be remotely fun if played the way this movie frames it, and an "enormous" showdown with all the video-game characters that vainly becomes another kind of game (Let's call it Spot the Video-Game Character and never play it again). These sequences are directed by Chris Columbus with no grace or style or even any attempt at mounting excitement or tension.

Then there are these characters, who are written by Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling (adapting Patrick Jean's short film from 2010), with even less seemly modesty. Sam is an unlikable type who deserve the likes of Violet, whose potential as a strong female character in a market that only recently has given us very many of them is wasted upon a character given next to nothing to do until the finale. Ludlow is a creepy, paranoid weirdo who hides in the back of Sam's work van in order to douse him with chloroform if necessary to bring him back to his apartment (The character is also straddled with a quasi-romance at the end that is quite honestly the most terrifying thing to consider in a long, long time), while Eddie's wish is to enter a threesome with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart in exchange for saving the world (which really says everything we need to know about him) and President Cooper isn't remotely presidential, unless one's idea of the term is a parody of it.

This all comes together to form something that is completely, mind-bogglingly worthless. The plot is just a gimmick for us to see giant, garishly animated versions of a certain generation's favorite childhood icons. The tone of the gimmick through execution is one of bored cynicism with even the idea of product placement while existing as an excuse for nothing but product placement (This attribute carries over to the viewer in a major way). The visual effects are ruined by a 3-D presentation of what will likely just look rudimentary and bland in 2-D anyway. The most creative thing in the entire movie is the credits that bookend it, detailed like the pixelated credits of old video games. "Pixels" is the first time in a long time that this viewer has seen something fail so spectacularly at everything it attempts to achieve, and the resulting mood is one of mounting depression.

Film Information

Adam Sandler (Sam Brenner), Michelle Monaghan (Violet), Kevin James (President Cooper), Josh Gad (Ludlow), Peter Dinklage (Eddie), Matt Lintz (Matty), Brian Cox (Admiral Porter), Sean Bean (Corporal Hill), Jane Krakowski (First Lady).

Directed by Chris Columbus and written by Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, based on the short film by Patrick Jean.

Rated PG-13 (language, suggestive comments).

105 minutes.

Released on July 24, 2015.