The most believable element in “Pixels” is that alien video-game creatures could attack our planet.
The core concept is clever — space aliens misunderstand a recording of old video-games as a declaration of war, and send digital monsters based on those games to Earth as their army. But its execution in the hands of director-producer Chris Columbus and star-producer Adam Sandler is a mess.
This disappointing comedy falls apart before it begins because no one would behave the way its characters do, and their ridiculous choices drive the action.
Part of the problem is that it’s unclear who the filmmakers think their audience is. This is a big-budget spectacle about 1980s nostalgia aimed at kids who have no emotional connection to the decade. “Pixels” is also insanely sexist, culminating with the winning male characters each rewarded with a woman. Seriously, they get human women as prizes. They literally call one a trophy.
Only the film’s opening moments ring true. It’s 1982, and Sam Brenner and Will Cooper are a couple of pre-teen boys excited about the new arcade in their neighborhood. They’re so good at video games that they compete in the world championships, and Brenner almost wins. A cocky, mullet-wearing kid who nicknamed himself “The Fire Blaster” takes first.
Flash forward to present day, and Sam and Will are still best friends. Only now, Sam (Sandler) installs home-theater systems, and Will (Kevin James) is president of the United States. He launches a kids’ reading program to boost his sagging approval ratings, but he can’t pronounce the multi-syllabic words in a children’s book.
The first introduction to these guys as grown-ups is the two of them discussing which Hollywood actresses are hottest.
Will snaps into action when a U.S. territory is mysteriously attacked from the sky. Forget the elite military and special services — Will calls up Sam, the one-time video game championship runner up, hoping he might spot some arcade-inspired pattern in the airborne attack. Whaddaya know; it looks just like Galaga!
Sam is a loser who feels his best days are 30 years behind him, at the arcade. He’s the kind of guy who shows up to the White House wearing shorts and hits on the pretty homeowner whose theater system he’s installing. When she rejects him but ends up driving behind him on the street, he declares to no one: “She went from zero to psycho in 3.4 seconds.” Because women are crazy, get it?!
That homeowner turns out to be Lt. Colonel Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), a defense leader forced to work with Sam and his team of childhood friends against the alien threat.
Sam’s friends are the only source of levity, even if they’re as unbelievable as Paul Blart as president. Josh Gad plays Ludlow Lamonsoff, a former video-game prodigy turned reclusive conspiracy theorist. He stows away in Sam’s van for some unexplained reason and ends up part of the military operation. Peter Dinklage is “The Fire Blaster.” He’s still wearing a mullet, but now he’s in jail for criminal hacking. The president frees him, because as the 1982 video-game world champ, the Fire Blaster needs to help protect the world from the alien invasion.
Dinklage is a bit uneven — he goes in and out of his tough-guy accent — but he gets the most laughs. Gad is always endearing, and his performance of a Tears for Fears song saves this film from a dismal half-star rating. Jane Krakowski is terribly underused as the First Lady. An Emmy-nominated comedy actress, she’s given few lines here — none funny — and is left with nothing to do but gaze adoringly at the goofy president.
The few bright spots in “Pixels” come from the music, celebrity cameos and special effects. The soundtrack of Cheap Trick, Queen and Spandau Ballet match well with the ’80s game imagery. Viewers who were alive during the ’80s will also appreciate cameos by the likes of Tammy Faye Baker and Max Headroom. And the special effects dazzle. The alien video-game creatures pixelate everything they touch. Too bad they couldn’t get their digital hands on this script.
“Pixels,” a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some language and suggestive comments.” Running time: 106 minutes. One star out of four.