Some Questions on the Occasion of the Film Pixels

They’d spoil the movie, except that the movie has already spoiled itself.

Sony Pictures

Here is the plot of Pixels.

As kids in the 1980s, Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler), Will Cooper (Kevin James), Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), and Eddie "The Fire Blaster" Plant (Peter Dinklage) saved the world thousands of times—at 25 cents a game in the video arcades. Now, they're going to have to do it for real. In Pixels, when intergalactic aliens discover video feeds of classic arcade games and misinterpret them as a declaration of war, they attack the Earth, using the video games as the models for their assaults—and now-U.S. President Cooper must call on his old-school arcade friends to save the world from being destroyed by Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Galaga, Centipede, and Space Invaders. Joining them is Lt. Col. Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), a specialist supplying the arcaders with unique weapons to fight the aliens.

If you are thinking that this plot sounds extremely stupid, but that the film that revolves around it might still be good because of Adam Sandler/Kevin James/Tyrion freaking Lannister/Michelle Monaghan/aliens/the fact that those aliens need to be fought with weapons called “light cannons”/a cameo from Serena Williams/robots/the opportunity for clever Independence Day references/the opportunity for clever Super Mario Bros. references/the opportunity for clever Pac-Man references/nostalgia for the bygone days of the 1980s/nostalgia for the bygone days of Michelle Monaghan and Adam Sandler and director Chris Columbus … then you would be, I am sorry to tell you, extremely wrong.

Which wouldn’t be your fault. Everything is wrong here—cinematically, creatively, maybe even morally. Because Pixels is one of those bad movies that isn’t just casually bad, or shoot-the-moon bad, or too-close-to-the-sun bad, or actually kind of delightfully bad. It is tediously bad. It is bafflingly bad. It is, in its $90 million budget and 104-minute run time, wastefully bad. Its badness seems to come not from failure in the classic sense—a goal set, and unachieved—but from something much worse: laziness. Ambivalence. A certain strain of cinematic nihilism. Like one of the kids you might have found at a video arcade in 1982, Pixels is full of potential and promise and privilege, but it is too apathetic to care.

Or, I don’t know, maybe it does care? Maybe it did try? Maybe Pixels is one of those noble failures that deserves our respect instead of our anger?

Or maybe it is actually brilliant, just on a level so deep and so subtle as to be undetectable?

Or maybe it’s just trying to be a stoner comedy—or, even more ambitiously, a cult classic?

Or maybe Pixels is, itself, some kind of alien transmission? Maybe beings from that newly discovered pseudo-Earth realized that we’d found them out and decided to communicate with us via the medium that they figured would best bridge the two civilizations: the gusty guffaw of Adam Sandler?

I have so many questions.

Here are more of them.

(Warning: There are some spoilers ahead. Consider them a sign that you should not go see this film, for it has already spoiled itself.)

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Was there originally a part of the script that explained to audiences exactly how the aliens were able to render two-dimensional picture elements as three-dimensional blocks of light, and was that part maybe accidentally cut in the editing process?

How can those blocks of light crash around and damage things?

Does this movie understand what light is?

Oh, also, was there originally a part explaining how Kevin James became president of the United States? Or was the jarring cut between him as a nerdy, arcade game-obsessed tween and him as the Commander in Chief maybe meant as a canny commentary on the reach of executive power?

When President of the United States Kevin James and his National Security Council decide that the best way to fight the alien attack that threatens to annihilate humanity would be for the president to team up with his childhood arcade buddies, the team gets dressed up in snazzy ARCADER suits, perfectly tailored to each individual. How did they get those suits?

When President of the United States Kevin James and his National Security Council decide that the best way to fight the alien attack that threatens to annihilate humanity would be for the president to team up with his childhood arcade buddies, does the group of leaders ever consider informing leaders from other countries that 1). the world is under an alien attack that threatens to annihilate humanity and 2). this is the plan they have decided on to save the world?

Was that part maybe cut, too?

It just seems like, since the Taj Mahal gets totally destroyed, that might have been a nice courtesy?

How does Adam Sandler sneak into the Situation Room at the beginning of the movie? Doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose of the Situation Room?

Is this all a sly tribute to Sam Coleridge?

Why was 1982 chosen as the date of the games that were sent into space? Wouldn’t it have been pretty great to have The Legend of Zelda or Mario Kart or something as part of this? Was it a licensing thing?

Who was the target audience for this film? On the one hand, you’d assume it’s adults, principally males, in their 30s and 40s, given how reliant Pixels is on pieces of nostalgia from the 1980s (there’s a cameo from the “Where’s the Beef?” lady, which is pretty deep as cuts go). But, as executed, the movie seems targeted more at 10-year-olds, principally boys. Were the producers perhaps going for both? Or for the small but significant segment of moviegoers who are 40-year-old men who act like 10-year-old boys?

Chris Columbus wrote The Goonies and directed Mrs. Doubtfire and Home Alone and two of the Harry Potter movies.

Sorry, that’s not really a question. I guess my actual question is: What happened? Why is he doing this?

Is it maybe a 3D-bias thing? Like, everyone just figured the visuals would be so spectacular that no one would care that the plot makes no sense and the dialogue is terrible?

Speaking of dialogue, what was the point of including racially charged lines like “I’m trying to save the world from annihilation, you cracker”? Was the hope to make people angry, and thus to gin up a little free publicity for the movie that, clearly, would need it?

Along the same lines, who thought it’d be a good idea to have Josh Gad call a black soldier “you beautiful Nubian man?”

Who decided to bring Toru Iwatani, the inventor of Pac-Man, in for a cameo, only to make him utter—to alien-Pac-Man—vapid lines like, “I know you’re a good boy” and “hello my sweet little boy, look how big you’ve grown”?

Why did Peter Dinklage decide that his character in Pixels should sound like a super-cut character from a blaxploitation film?

Is he a method actor?

I hope he's not a method actor. That probably would have been really awkward.

Also, why did he do this after Game of Thrones?

But, seriously, why? He’s so much better than this.

Same with Michelle Monaghan.

Same with Chris Columbus.

Same with Adam Sandl—actually, never mind. We know what he’s about at this point.

But, seriously, could Pixels really mean “game over” for his career?

Adam, I just … why? Why do you keep doing this? You’ve made some missteps, definitely, but you’re such a good actor. You were great in Men, Women, and Children. You don’t get enough credit for that. You even have a few good moments in Pixels! Which is saying something! So why do you keep making such terrible movies? Is it a money thing? Have you just stopped caring? Or is it deeper than that?

In Funny People, you play a comedian who is full of self-hatred. Is that … the real you? I guess what I’m asking is, did you sign on for Pixels because you don’t think you deserve to be in anything better?

Don’t you see how great you could be, if you just tried? Just a little?

Also, I just keep thinking about the aliens. Why would any living and presumably intelligent beings put themselves into mortal danger simply to play a game against humanity? What do the aliens get out of it? Was there originally a part of the script that explained the aliens’ motivations? One that, along with all the others, just got cut?

Are the aliens looking for a planet to colonize? Are they simply warlike? Are they so far removed from human modes of being that questions about motivation are irrelevant?

Unless we’re assuming that aliens’ capacities for self-preservation are just fundamentally different from ours, isn’t this whole thing not only extra-nonsensical, but also pretty insulting to aliens?

Right after the world is saved for the first time, everyone in the movie gets together and has a ball—an actual, fancy-pants ball—at the White House. No one seems troubled or upset or anything other than blasé about the incredible (by which I definitely do mean “not credible”) experience they have just endured together: Aliens just attacked the planet via classic arcade games, and humanity just emerged victorious, and everyone’s just standing around drinking champagne and dancing to jazz standards and acting like nothing happened. So I guess my question is, again: Why? Why, why, why? Was this all to have an excuse to put Michelle Monaghan in a ball gown? Or, by the time that scene was filmed, had everyone realized what kind of movie they were making together? Was there a moment where they just looked at each other, ashamed but not ashamed enough, as the light enormity of what they had done sunk in, after which they decided that they should at least get some free champagne out of it all?

I guess my main questions are: Patrick Jean, are you horrified? Jen, are you relieved?