Adam Sandler may be the movie star who least cares what people think of him. While he has some stiff competition with Harrison Ford’s late period grumpiness and Samuel L. Jackson’s complete and total willingness to do any project put in front of him, Sandler has spent his career demonstrating that he will make whatever film he feels like, regardless of critical opinion, good taste, or really, anything but its potential for an all-expense paid family vacation and product placement. Sometimes that means he will make unexpected choices like the 9/11 survivor drama Reign Over Me or a magical realist film about Jewish immigrant identity with Method Man. But more often, Adam Sandler’s own weird muse will bring him to movies like Pixels. The 2015 alien invasion/video game comedy is streaming for free on IMDB’s Freevee platform and is currently in its top ten most-watched movies.
Pixels stars Adam Sandler as Sam Brenner, a former child arcade game champion who has grown into being a somewhat sad sack home theater installer who is also best friends with the President of the United States of America. As you might expect, Pixels is not a movie that takes itself very seriously; the President is played by Sandler buddy Kevin James, who is introduced in a riff on George W. Bush’s famous decision to continue reading to a classroom of children when informed of 9/11. While the pairing of Adam Sandler and Kevin James has frequently resulted in movies like the queasy gay panic comedy I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry and the various Grown Ups, they actually play well here as childhood friends whose life paths have wildly diverged but still remain bizarrely close.
The plot of Pixels begins with the young version of Adam Sandler discovering his video game talents in a 1980s arcade, only to be defeated by a flashy, arrogant challenger named Eddie “The Fireblaster” Plant clearly modeled after real-life video game champion Billy Mitchell. For some reason, their championship match is recorded and shot into space, whereupon aliens apparently find the recording, view it as a challenge, and invade Earth. The aliens communicate via CGI recordings of 1980s-era celebrities like Madonna, Hall & Oates, and Ricardo Montalbán and use the patterns of games like Pac-Man and Centipede to attack. Adam Sandler rounds up a team including conspiracy theorist Josh Gad and the grown Firerblaster (played by a very committed, very mulleted Peter Dinklage) and the literal games are afoot.
While the elevator pitch for Pixels could have been as simple as “Adam Sandler defends the Earth from arcade game aliens,” it was actually based on an award-winning 2010 French short film of the same name by Patrick Jean. Unsurprisingly, Adam Sandler and his longtime collaborator Tim Herlihy added in a lot of exceedingly broad jokes and Michelle Monaghan as a military weapons developer and single mom for a love interest. That said, Pixels is a surprisingly weird movie for all of its constant pop culture references and Josh Gad mugging. Far too often, the movie grinds to a halt so Gad can perform interminable schtick, but it also has admirably bizarre moments like Dinklage longingly asking if he can murder the adorable 3D Q*Bert; Adam Sandler immediately tells him no and that they need to learn to understand the alien being. Then they can kill him.
It is that kind of weird darkness that runs as an undercurrent in even the most family-friendly of Adam Sandler movies. So is a scene in which an enraged general played by Brian Cox screams “You heard Hall & Oates! You blew it!” upon learning of the imminent destruction of Earth. And perhaps weirdest and funniest of all is a scene in which a giant pixellated, hostile Pac-Man is confronted by his Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani (played Denis Akiyama as a mysterious genius, while the real Toru Iwatani actually cameos early in the film), who expresses his belief that Pac-Man is good of heart and the true son of his heart, only to have his hand bitten off and run screaming is another good example of the kind of subversiveness that manages to sneak in even a movie like Pixels.
Pixels was yet another box office victory for Adam Sandler, grossing nearly $250 million. As one might expect, it was not critically well-received and currently holds a grim 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. But despite all the Josh Gad and product placement for 2015 Mini Cooper S three-door models, Pixels is a surprisingly weird and dark movie. Fortunately, you can decide that for yourself for free.