Midway through Billy Madison – the first of many, many, many Adam Sandler vehicles to cast the pout-faced schlub as blubbering man-child en route to redemption – Sandler's title moron rolls into a high school parking lot in a vintage Trans Am, decked out in an REO Speedwagon T-shirt and popped-collar denim jacket, blasting Billy Squier's 1981 masturbation anthem The Stroke. He's met with derisive, half-embarrassed reactions by a gaggle of justifiably jaded nineties teenagers, who see straight through his excruciating attempt to pass as cool. Poor Billy.
Imagine the same scene playing out in 2015. Billy rolls up to Knibb High. Same car. Same dorky band shirt. Same crappy song. Except this time the Trans Am is seen as a cherry-condition classic. Billy's peers regard the perfectly faded Speedwagon tee – which would likely fetch in excess of $100 (U.S.) on eBay – as an ironic accoutrement, an attempt to reclaim the music of mom and dad. Everyone would be nodding in approval, singing along as Billy Squier chants, "Stroke! Stroke!" The hopeless class clown would become the prom king – or at least the cool guy in antique aviators hanging out in the smoke pit.
This is, for all intents and purposes, the world of Sandler's latest film, Pixels. It is also, despairingly, our world. It was one in which the garbage of the past that clutters up our minds and memories is bathed in the glimmering, redemptive light of nostalgia. It's a world in which extraterrestrials attack Earth, taking the form of 1980s videogame baddies, and Sandler and a gaggle of other hopeless nerds adept at old arcade titles are called up to save the day, avert the apocalypse, get the girl, etc., etc. etc. "Looks like all the time we wasted as kids playing videogames is finally paying off!" beams Kevin James, a.k.a. Paul Blart: Mall Cop, who plays the President of the United States of America, which in its way says everything about this film, the culture of vaunted boobery it emerges from, and the same culture that it feeds right back into.
In its own awful way, Pixels feels like the culmination of the whole nerds' vengeance narrative in pop culture. In 2007, director Seth Gordon crafted a quietly compelling documentary, The King of Kong, about two men vying for the world championship title in the arcade game Donkey Kong. The year 2011 saw the publication of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, a novel in which characters enter a virtual world and are rewarded for their knowledge of late 20th-century pop culture, while simultaneously patting the reader on the back for possessing that same knowledge. In 2012, the kiddie film Wreck-It Ralph tapped into videogame nostalgia, dressing up a boringly rote "be yourself!" movie with licensed arcade characters.
Pixels repackages this same sycophantic, nostalgia-baiting geekery. It is the ultimate fantasy of "eighties kid" fatuousness. It offers a scenario whereby, one day, all your useless non-skills may somehow avail themselves as not only useful, but Earth-savingly valuable.
Beyond the gamer geek stuff, everything in Pixels is mapped to appeal to people who can valiantly recognize things they may have been familiar with as kids. The soundtrack is loaded with period hits: Queen, Tears for Fears, Surrender by Cheap Trick (a song, which is itself nostalgic for the previous era of radio rock 'n' roll).
At one point Sandler attempts to woo his love interest (Michelle Monaghan, playing a character as far out of Sandler's league as Veronica Vaughn way back in Billy Madison) by promising her that all geeks are good kissers. This, of course, is a line borrowed from 1984's Revenge of the Nerds. Robert Carradine's character says it after he rapes a co-ed in an inflatable bouncy house.
Pixels is a movie without wit, without jokes, with nothing to say but plenty to regurgitate. Anyone who feels sincerely interested in being flattered by Pixels, who takes comfort in the adulation of a mainstream movie telling them they are good and cool and noble for being able to recognize Q*bert and Frogger, would do best to save their $15, stay in, draw the blinds, sink into the self-gratifying strains of Billy Squier, and stroke, stroke.