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 loss 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 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 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 3D Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack. The first is a BD50 disc that commences with several skippable 3D previews, and the second is another BD50 containing only the 2D version of the movie and all the supplements. Both Region Free discs are housed on opposing panels inside a clear, eco-elite case with a flyer, a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy and a lenticular slipcover. At startup, viewers are taken to a static 3D menu screen with the standard set of options along the bottom and music in the background.
The pixelated space invaders crash land on Earth with a spectacular and surprisingly spotless 1080p/MVC MPEG-4 encode that will awe and mesmerize viewers, distracting from how terrible the movie actual is.
Despite not being filmed natively in 3D, the elements nonetheless lend themselves terrifically to the format, reliably leaving a lasting impression right from the start as animated credits seem detached from the rest of the picture. It's easy to see that director Chris Columbus and cinematographer Amir Mokri shot each scene, especially the video game battles, with 3D in mind, as a majority of the movie is focused on creating a realistic three-dimensional world. With background information consistently penetrating deep into the screen, the video comes with an appreciable layered appearance with excellent separation in foreground objects and lifelike roundness in the faces and shoulders of the cast. Wide shots of streets and hallways create an elongated feel while even the simplest characters conversations appear as though there is real distance between. Without a doubt, the 3D presentation is at its finest when many game encounters end with pixelated cubes exploding everywhere, tempting viewers to swat at them. An awesome highlight is when classic arcade characters leap from the screen, making for a few unexpectedly shocking moments, such as when the Arkanoid paddles jump out at the audience, a hungry Pac-Man really does seem to barreling down New York City streets and the mushrooms of Centipede appears to hover in the middle of the living room. The 3D presentation, honestly, ranks high alongside 'Mad Max: Fury Road' as one of the best conversions of the year.
In its original 2D incarnation, 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.
Interestingly, Sony has opted to debut the sci-fi action comedy on 3D Blu-ray with a DTS-HD Master Audio, making the 2D version the only way for fans to enjoy the movie in Dolby Atmos. The reason for the decision is unclear, but the choice allows for audiophile the unique opportunity to compare difference between the two formats. Of course, this 5.1 track isn't all that much different from the core Dolby TrueHD 7.1 option, except in one significant area where the two are shockingly dissimilar.
To start with, as already mentioned in the previous review, 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. Atmospherics occasionally employ the side and back speakers with the subtle sounds of local wildlife and the busy, commotion-filled streets of the city. Henry Jackman's score also fills the room with emotional excitement, creating a very pleasing and engaging soundscape. The arcade battles, of course, are the real highlight as debris flawlessly pans behind the listener and the pixelated creatures seem to soar all around the room before taking a solid shape. It may not always be consistent, but the design makes for a satisfying soundfield that envelopes viewers and keeps them in invested.
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; however, to my surprise, the lower frequencies are all the more impressive in DTS-HD, sending roaring shocking that guarantee to disturb neighbors. The low-end offers one of the most authoritative and aggressive basslines I've experienced since Spielberg's 'War of the Worlds' though that behemoth still remains the champion of BASS. Nevertheless, if one's subwoofer can handle it, this track delivers precise, responsive oomph that reverberates all through the house, intensely hitting the ultra-low teens and occasionally below 10Hz with enough decibels behind them that certain scenes could potentially damage a few subs out there. (For the sake of comparing the bass between the two: Dolby Atmos vs. DTS-HD MA) 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, debuts to home theaters with a satisfying high-rez soundfield.
As a side note, the subtitles are CIH friendly on the 3D Blu-ray.
Despite starring Adam Sandler, featuring the right ingredients for a guaranteed summer blockbuster and surprisingly not as awful as initially expected, 'Pixels' become of the year's biggest box-office flops. The simple premise, which plays on the nostalgia of classic arcade gaming adults, is still made of the usual Happy Madison formula, but it's the amazingly well-done visual and action which makes this sci-fi action comedy bearable for at least curiosity's sake. That decision is made easier thanks to an excellent lossless audio and a reference quality 3D 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.