106 min., rated PG-13.
If any movie this summer were bound to receive an advance critical drubbing, even sight unseen, it would be "Pixels." A patently silly, affectionately conceived concoction, the film banks on adults' nostalgia for arcade video games, as if 2012's inventive animated gem "Wreck-It Ralph" didn't already exist, and uses it as a springboard for an extraterrestrial-invasion disaster pic smashed together with a blue-humored, family-friendlier Happy Madison Productions comedy. Based on a two-odd-minute short film by Patrick Jean and expanded to feature form by screenwriters Tim Herlihy ("Grown Ups 2") and Timothy Dowling ("This Means War"), "Pixels" is impossible not to enjoy in clumps as one of those sci-fi/comedy hybrids from the 1980s and '90s. It's indefensible and never as special as a "Ghostbusters" or even as entertaining as an "Independence Day," but neither is it a complete write-off. In the final assessment, it's just impossible to come down too hard on it.
Back in 1982, arcader Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) competed in the Worldwide Video Arcade Championships but finally lost to cocky wunderkind Eddie "The Fireblaster" Plant (Peter Dinklage), when it came to a game of Donkey Kong. He is now an electronics installer for a "Geek Squad"-like company, while his best pal, Will Cooper (Kevin James), is now the publicly mocked President of the United States. At the same time Sam meets a soon-to-be-divorced mother named Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan)—who also happens to be a Lieutenant Colonel—an Air Force station in Guam is bombed by aliens from the video game "Galaga." In order to take out the 8-bit video game characters who are bent on dominating the world, Sam, President Cooper, and Lt. Col. Van Patten assemble a team: conspiracy-obsessed childhood gamer Ludlow Lamonsoff (Jod Gad) and mulleted old nemesis Eddie, whom they must get out of prison. Of course, Sam was always meant for something more, like to save the planet from Centipede, Frogger and Pac-Man.
Directed with a retro-'80s enthusiasm by Chris Columbus (who deserves to remain on the map for timeless hits like 1987's "Adventures in Babysitting," 1990's "Home Alone" and 1993's "Mrs. Doubtfire"), "Pixels" can't help but have nostalgia on its side. For one, the soundtrack is a listenable throwback of '80s pop-rock hits that will bounce around in your head, including the likes of Cheap Trick's "Surrender," Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend," and Tears For Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" (which Broadway baby Josh Gad actually performs). The threatening messages the extraterrestrials send to Earth via dubbed-over vintage videos of Madonna and Hall & Oates base their humor more on recognition but still add an off-center creepiness to the thoroughly goofy conflict. Nintendo's "Duck Hunt" dog character pops up for a giggle, and Q*bert also figures into the proceedings as the human characters' sole video-game ally and becomes a cute scene-stealer. Set in a world where Kevin James is actually the President—no, not the President of the Video Gamer Club, but POTUS—and aliens in the form of 8-bit video game characters turn the planet into a war zone, "Pixels" must certainly be viewed with the right expectations, and you will have to fall into the right audience demographic. Sporadically fun, the film doesn't aspire to much, nor do the video-game baddies bring much threat, but offers more than enough bursts of pleasure and inspiration within such an amusingly nerdy high-concept premise.
In playing our unlikely world-saving heroes, Adam Sandler and Kevin James are more affable and restrained for a change as the straight men, and that's mainly a good thing. As if it's been her job in every mediocre movie, Michelle Monaghan is almost without fail a pleasant bright spot as military officer Violet who helps carry flirtatious barbs with Sandler and, to make her even more of a badass, gets to kill a Smurf. The sometimes snuggable Josh Gad is gratingly antsy and unamusing as Ludlow, whom we first meet as a paranoid adult in the back of Sam's work van, ready to chloroform him. He barely gets a laugh, whereas the consistently annoying Nick Swardson is blessedly demoted to a cameo with one line; exacerbating Gad's cause is the creepy idea of him ending up with video game warrior Lady Lisa (a mute Ashley Benson) as a trophy. Similarly, the inestimably funny Jane Krakowski is grievously wasted in her "role" of the First Lady, meaning she gets to cling to Kevin James' arm and smear cake on his face in one scene. The MVP of the film, though, has to be Peter Dinklage. He gets to turn it way up, running with the sheer silliness of the premise, in what might be the most infectiously strangest performance of his career as the trash-talking Eddie who's been sitting on a secret since 1982. His running joke involving a Martha Stewart-Serena Williams sandwich in the White House, one of his many demands to order to help Sam and President Cooper, is a total hoot.
For the most part, "Pixels" goes down easily, especially when it gives new and old gamers the opportunity to see all of their favorite video game characters in a live-action film. Though the love and affection for these games is clearly there, the film still never seems to fully tap the premise for all of its potential imagination. A NYC car chase between Sam, Ludlow, Eddie, and Professor Toru Iwatani—the actual designer and creator of "Pac-Man" cameoing as himself—in "ghost" cars (MINI Coopers) and Pac-Man, gobbling everything up in sight, is entertaining to watch and the climax in Donkey Kong's lair is excitingly staged, but the rest of the action set-pieces are less memorable. "Centipede" emulating a jig behind an old woman jazzercising in her living room hits the spot for cheap, dumb amusement, but the laughs could be funnier. There is at least something more enjoyable about Adam Sandler playing an adult nerd who memorizes video-game patterns to beat a real-life Donkey Kong level than a shrill twin or a complete dope. Instead of comparing "Pixels" to any of Sandler's previous vehicles with a backhanded compliment, like "that was more of a kick in the shin than a ball in the groin," it's actually pretty painless.