An adorable life-sized version of Q*bert is easily the most engaging character in “Pixels,” a dimwitted ’80s nostalgia trip best appreciated by those who have waited years for Adam Sandler’s fine-grained intelligence and Chris Columbus’ filmmaking mastery to finally converge. For the remaining 99% of the moviegoing population, this slapdash, casually sexist revenge-of-the-nerds fantasy offers some mild visual distraction with its massive CGI renderings of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and other old-school videogame characters that have been co-opted here by malevolent space invaders, challenging Earth to the mother of all intergalactic arcade battles. Commercially, the somewhat novel combination of Sandler’s bro-comedy antics and an unexpected dose of geek appeal should help Sony’s July 24 Stateside release enjoy a few late-summer bonus rounds at the box office, aided by strong awareness and 3D ticket premiums.
Commercial returns should remain steady even if word-of-mouth reactions fail to rise much above the level of “Well, at least that was better than ‘Grown Ups 2.’” Which “Pixels” probably is, insofar as its highly marketable gaming elements and ostensibly kid-friendly appeal have diluted some of the more offensive aspects of Sandler’s comic signature. There is, alas, more than a little residual misogyny in the insulting development of the movie’s female characters (if that’s the word), and in this case the sexism feels not just reflexive but almost obligatory, given the male-dominated videogame culture being celebrated in the high-concept, low-ambition screenplay by Tim Herlihy (“Grown Ups 2,” “Big Daddy”) and Timothy Dowling (“Just Go With It”).
It begins with a formative moment at the 1982 arcade-game world championships, where 13-year-old gaming enthusiast Sam Brenner (Anthony Ippolito) narrowly loses first place to a mullet-wearing smartass named Eddie “the Fire Blaster” Plant (Andrew Bambridge) after an ill-fated game of “Donkey Kong.” Some 30 years later, Sam (now played by Sandler) works a dead-end job installing home-entertainment systems in Washington, D.C. Faring somewhat better is his childhood best friend, Will Cooper (Kevin James), who is now president of the United States — a development that is wisely left unexplained. Conveniently, POTUS winds up turning to Sam and their other pal, Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), after a series of mysterious attacks by what appear to be characters from ancient videogame templates.
The explanation is clear — dumb, but clear. Evil extraterrestrials intercepted an ’80s-era NASA time capsule containing footage of those old single-player classics, and mistook them for a declaration of war. Now they’ve returned the challenge by scheduling a series of skirmishes with Earth, each one taking on the interface of a different videogame; if we lose, it’s game over for the whole planet. Happily, Sam and Ludlow wind up proving themselves early on (and shaming the overgrown military jocks played by Brian Cox and Sean Bean) by clobbering the aliens in a few rounds of “Centipede.” Next, they manage to track down their old nemesis Eddie (now Peter Dinklage) for a rowdy game of “Pac-Man,” a car-chase sequence in which the beloved yellow dot-gobbler has been reborn as a villainous giant sphere munching his way through the streets of New York. (Denis Akiyama turns up as original “Pac-Man” creator Toru Iwatani, while the real-life Iwatani makes a brief appearance elsewhere.)
It’s here that Columbus’ past experience with f/x-heavy fantasy (on the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson franchises) comes into play. In bringing these outmoded videogame creations to mammoth, destructive life, the director and his visual-effects team have at once updated their crude, low-resolution look and skillfully integrated them into live-action, the effect amplified somewhat by the film’s 3D conversion (as stated in the press notes, a more accurate title would have been “Voxels”). If the edges look a bit rougher than usual, that’s wholly in keeping with the games’ relatively primitive aesthetic.
As for the movie’s apocalyptic stakes, they’re treated with no more consequence than an air-hockey match, a few smashed-up historic landmarks notwithstanding. At its silliest and most endurable, “Pixels” plays like an extended ode to not just Nintendo culture, but also ’80s culture in general; that much is clear from the soundtrack, with its generous sampling of Zapp, Tears for Fears and Loverboy, plus two different flare-ups of “We Will Rock You VonLichten.” And then there’s the aliens’ amusing habit of communicating with Earth by way of old Madonna clips, Hall & Oates musicvideos, and (at one point) a giant talking replica of Max Headroom. Pop-cultural nostalgia, of course, practically constitutes its own genre by this point, and “Pixels” is hardly the first feature-length valentine to our fondly remembered mass-entertainment touchstones.
If only the movie in front of us actually fit that description, or truly conveyed the addictive pleasures of gaming, rather than serving up another barrage of witless one-liners, strained reaction shots and aggressively inane celebrity cameos. (Serena Williams, turning up randomly at a soiree: “They promised me an island if I did this.”) Really, the viewer would be better off spending 98 minutes browsing old “Bomberman” walk-throughs on YouTube than trying to care what happens to Lt. Col. Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), a tough-talking weapons expert who supplies our heroes with pixel-blasting light cannons. Her real purpose, alas, is to carry on a cringe-inducing, chemistry-free flirtation with Sam when she’s not watching him fight from the sidelines.
Violet also has an earnest young moppet (Matt Lintz) and an ex-husband whose infidelity sends her weeping into her bedroom closet with a bottle of hooch — all told, the sort of “character development” that makes you wish the writers had made her a brainless bimbo and been done with it. Still, Monaghan might as well be playing Medea next to Ashley Benson, who gives a wordless eye-candy performance as Lady Lisa, the scantily clad, sword-wielding fantasy heroine of Ludlow’s dreams. Even more grievously wasted is Jane Krakowski as the First Lady, whose most important scene requires her to laugh and decorate a cake. This isn’t exactly “Gamergate: The Movie,” but intentionally or not, it captures the movement’s boorish ethos with dispiriting accuracy.
James’ beer-guzzling POTUS is, at the very least, a welcome alternative to Paul Blart, and Dinklage has his usual fun playing a small chap with a big attitude. Gad, who scored a mid-sized hit earlier this year with “The Wedding Ringer,” goes crazily over-the-top as the eccentric nerd-crackpot of the group, standing in sharp contrast to Sandler, who has rarely seemed like such a nonentity onscreen. Over the years, the actor’s delight in playing the egregiously stupid man-child has slowly calcified into laziness bordering on fatigue; where Sandler once exulted in our outrage (and frequently, our laughter), he now seems barely capable of mustering enough effort to carry a scene, let alone advance to level 255 of “Galaga.” There’s no joy left in his shtick.