When aliens misinterpret video-feeds of classic arcade games as a declaration of war against them, they attack the Earth using games like PAC-MAN, Donkey Kong, Galaga, Centipede and Space Invaders as models for their various assaults. President Will Cooper (Kevin James) has to call on his childhood best friend, 80s video game champion Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) to lead a team of old-school arcaders (Peter Dinklage and Josh Gad) to defeat the aliens and save the planet.
It only seems fair after sitting through this last summer's record-breaking box-office behemoth that I should also be made to suffer one of the year's biggest bombs in 'Pixels.' Granted, the sci-fi action comedy starring Adam Sandler, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, and Kevin James doesn't quite compare to the embarrassingly massive losses of 'Tomorrowland,' 'Blackhat,' 'Fantastic Four' and 'Aloha.' And the numbers pale in comparison to the humiliating waste that went into last year's debacle 'Blended,' which reunited Sandler with surefire screen-sweetheart Drew Barrymore, but the Chris Columbus-directed family-friendly picture, which Sony was hoping to capitalize into a franchise, nonetheless failed to meet predications and satisfy expectations. Some might see this as evidence of Sandler's diminishing star power, which was capable of turning profits from some of the dumbest, low-grade comedies of the last two decades. And his clout might be all the more awkward lately in light of some recent, rather distressing controversies. However, the former SNL star rebounded from such losses so many times in the past, we might start to speculate the actor is actually a Super Ball with a patch of hair.
As for the movie itself, I'm genuinely shocked it failed to attract moviegoers in droves because it's surprisingly not all that awful — at least not to the extent of Sandler's numerous other bad features. Previews alone make it seem like a textbook blockbuster recipe, with a horde of visual delights and explosive action guaranteed to indulge the senses — the perfect summer thrill ride! For the most part, the production competently satisfies in that regard, especially when our protagonists play live-action versions of Centipede, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. So, big, huge props to the creative digital design team behind the "totally tubular" graphics. The movie deliberately tantalizes and caters to the nostalgia of adult audiences everywhere, those actually old enough to remember playing the classic arcade games prior to home consoles growing into the norm in the mid to late 80s. And again, it's an effective piece of entertainment that made my inner child smile on several occasions and kept me glued to the screen, as if living vicariously through the characters, whisked away by a childhood dream come true. Yes, the CG magic worked on this viewer, but afterwards, I felt dirty and manipulated into enjoying the spectacle.
With the nostalgia aspect in mind, perhaps that is one area we can already see where the filmmakers failed — more likely to attract the parents and retro gamers than the new-generation of home-console enthusiasts. Unless these same parents' kids have been exposed to and even played some of these classic arcade games, I doubt younger viewers cared to purchase tickets in order to watch a bunch of middle-aged men battle an enormous slithering centipede, a gigantic hungry yellow orb or a hulking angry gorilla hurtling barrels down ramps. To their credit, the filmmakers make an attempt to address this potential problem when one of the younger members in the President's (James) cabinet blurts out the games can be purchased for smartphones. But, the quirkily ironic and mildly funny quip is just as quickly dismissed by Sandler's sad sap and former arcade world champion Sam Brenner because that's an updated version, not the original. It's as if backhandedly saying to viewers their new-fangled games don't compare to vintage greats. It's a somewhat undermining sentiment later expressed again when Brenner and Matty (Matt Lintz), the son of Monaghan's Lt Col Violet van Patten, play a violently realistic game, commenting on the lack of pattern recognition while Q*bert watches in horrified disgust.
Of course, I will concede I may be reading a bit too much in these conversations and attempts at silly aside jabs, but as stated earlier, I'm honestly interested in figuring out where the Sandler-Columbus team went wrong when everything else is ripe for success. As with Trevorrow's dino-disaster flick, the plot is as simple and straightforward as an investing studio company could hope for, the "leave your brain at the door" model: a distant alien race misunderstands video footage of classic video games and decides to invade Earth, challenging humans to annihilation using pixelated weapons of mass destruction based on those vintage arcade characters. From a script and story by Tim Herlihy, an SNL alum and frequent Happy Madison collaborator, who was inspired by Patrick Jean's wildly imaginative short film of the same name, the narrative core doesn't alter or revise from the usual formula that made Sandler into a box-office sensation. The actor plays another down-on-the-dumps, inept, middle-aged loser who's thrown into extraordinary circumstances but somehow manages to succeed in the end. In fact, this theme is so familiar and predictable, it's reaching stale, clichéd proportions.
Maybe, that's ultimately the heart of the problem in 'Pixels' and the reason behind its box-office failure. Is it possible moviegoers have finally grown wise to the artificiality of Sandler's productions? Or have they simply become fatigued of seeing the same basic concept played out in different but more exaggerated scenarios than the preceding reiteration. While watching the movie, one of Amy Schumer's hilarious monologues from her recent HBO special kept popping into my mind. Although the Emmy-winning TV personality and shock comedian was referring to one of Kevin James's headlining roles, her cleverly telling joke applies equally to Sandler. Both actors continually play the same unattractive underdog who doesn't have any future prospects yet always triumph in the end while also winning the heart of a gorgeously stunning woman, pointing out the underlying sexism of this concept because an average size, mildly attractive woman is never seen doing the same in big budget productions. Ignoring the head-scratching success of 'Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2' for a moment, perhaps the illusion and fantasy created by Sandler and friends is finally starting to wear thin and the joke is not funny anymore.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment brings 'Pixels' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD50 disc and housed inside a blue, eco-elite case with a flyer, a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy and shiny slipcover with a glittery design in the arcade characters. After several skippable trailers at startup, viewers are taken to a static menu screen with the standard set of options along the bottom and music in the background.
The pixelated annihilation of Earth is anything but on Blu-ray thanks to a near flawless AVC-encoded transfer that has the epic videogame battles dazzle and hypnotize viewers, distracting them forget how terrible the movie actual is.
The 2.40:1 image bombards and astounds with a sumptuous array of vividly bright colors, which admittedly complement the comedic, animated spirit of the film very well. Opulent primaries lavish the screen with intense energy, giving the arcade invaders an ironic zest in their menacing approach and a glittering twinkle in their evil, murderous eyes, while secondary pastel hues provide a great deal of warmth and realism in the flesh tone of the characters. Speaking of which, facial complexions are often revealing, exposing every pore, wrinkle and blemish in the faces of Adam Sandler and Peter Dinklage. Individual hairs are distinct, the threading and stitching of the Arcaders' uniform is unmistakable, and the fine lines around and inside each block making up the real-life digital images are razor-sharp. Contrast and brightness are very well-balanced and stable with daylight exterior sequences taking top honors, showing extraordinary visibility of the tiniest detail and object in the distance.
However, a couple relatively minor moments are not quite as well-defined as others, looking noticeably softer than the video's very best scenes. Interestingly, this only appears restricted to nighttime sequences where the darkest portions of the frame come off a tad too strong, obscuring the finer details and lessening resolution a smidge. Thankfully, black levels are accurate and spot-on for a majority of the runtime, making this a highly pleasing and satisfying high-def transfer for one of the year's bombs.
Over the hill arcade gamers save the human race from extinction with a wildly entertaining Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack but a very good Dolby Atmos option that doesn't really compare to some of the best actioners currently available on Blu-ray. 'Mad Max: Fury Road' and 'San Andreas' are two recent titles which immediately come to mind, and heck, even 'Jurassic World' offers a better aural experience.
Nevertheless, the lossless mix makes quite the ruckus and nicely immerses the viewer in other totally tubular ways. For the most part, the comedy is a front-heavy design, which is both surprising and a tad disappointing given the amount of sci-fi action and visual eye candy throughout. However, the rears are employed on various occasions, primarily and most notably during live-action battles against the vintage arcade characters where effects enjoy discrete directionality and excellent panning. Interestingly, much of the excitement is maintained in the side and back speakers with very little to almost nothing at all heard in the rear left and right in-ceilings. On the other hand, the two front height speakers are put to work for a good chunk of the runtime, creating a half-dome wall effect that's generally pleasing and engaging, though not sadly not very consistent and noticeably reserved for action sequences. But again, the rest of the system is given a healthy workout, putting the listener right in the middle of arcade mayhem.
Dynamic range is distinct with clean definition of the retro digitized alien objects clanging, bleeping, ringing, blooping, boinging and bopping across a very well-balanced and expansive soundstage. The real showstopper of the track for a few audio enthusiasts out there is the shockingly powerful bass. The low-end is not only ample and robust, providing adequate weight and rumble to certain scenes, but it hits with such great magnitude and intensity, digging into the ultra-low teens and occasionally even deeper in a few spots, during the action and explosions that it shakes the foundation of the house (bass chart). Every time an arcade character stomps the ground with force, we feel the rumble wave through the room and into the back, and the last half hour battling against Donkey Kong is an awesome highlight. With excellent, intelligible dialogue delivering clean intonation and clarity in the conversations, 'Pixels,' in the end, crash lands to home theaters with a satisfying high-rez soundfield.
As a side note, the subtitles are not CIH friendly.
Dolby Atmos: 4/5
Dolby TrueHD: 4.5/5
Despite starring Adam Sandler, featuring the right ingredients for a guaranteed summer blockbuster, and surprisingly not as awful as initially expected, 'Pixels' became of the year's biggest box-office flops. The simple premise, which plays on the nostalgia of classic arcade game playing adults, is still made according to the usual Happy Madison formula, but it's the amazingly well-done visuals and action which make this sci-fi action comedy bearable for at least curiosity's sake. That decision is made easier thanks to an excellent audio and video presentation with a thunderously impactful low-end that makes many arcade favorites come alive. A very small assortment of supplements will have a few second guess purchasing a copy, but in the end, those curious to give it a spin can definitely play safe with a rental.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.