'Pixels': Film Review

Fun for a bit but overstays its welcome.

The ghosts of video games past arise in Chris Columbus' slice of '80s nostalgia, starring Adam Sandler, Kevin James and Michelle Monaghan.

Within the rarefied realm of 1980s video game nostalgia, Pixels is no Wreck-It Ralph. At isolated moments a tolerably amusing send-up of alien-invasion disaster movies in which the attackers are video arcade–era renegades arrived to gobble up as many famous landmarks as possible, this one-note comedy runs out of gas within an hour (it is based on a short film) and should have been trimmed to a neat 90 minutes. Although ostensibly aimed at 40-somethings who grew up on Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and all the other games revered by first-generation players, this mildly suggestive PG-13-rated romp may well play best with the veterans' little kids, who will find Frogger and Q*bert oh so cute.

For those adults without any deep emotional investment in the early totems of modern geekdom, the most intriguing aspect of Chris Columbus' first directorial outing since Percy Jackson & the Olympians five years ago is the opportunity to sample a potential Chris Christie presidency via Kevin James. Even if the comparison stems from nothing more than their both being plus-sized gents, the fact of the matter is that we haven't had a roly-poly president since William Howard Taft more than a century ago, so the mere sight of a a chief executive with button-busting girth is sufficiently novel to provoke an ongoing double-take. That this fictional leader of the free world is a clueless buffoon in an Adam Sandler movie is another matter.

As a kid, James' Will Cooper was the best friend of Sandler's Sam Brenner, which explains why the latter, a sad sack, life's-passed-him-by home video system installer, gets called to the White House in an emergency. The president remembers Sam's one brush with greatness back in 1982, when the kid's brilliance at recognizing patterns in video games made him legendary in Pac-Man circles and earned him second place (behind Eddie "The Fire Blaster" Plant) in the Donkey Kong championships.

Read more 'Pixels': 1980s Arcade Nostalgia Permeates Premiere of Adam Sandler's New Movie

While the military is clueless as to the source of the pulsating, glowing cubes raining down on Guam and eating away at soldiers, Sam knows the perfect Sherlock for this case: fellow childhood nerd and full-time conspiracy theorist Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), who recognizes the source at once: Galaga, the beloved '80s intergalactic shooting game. Ludlow further deduces that aliens have intercepted a capsule that was sent into deep space bearing copies of video games and have interpreted them as a declaration of war by the planet Earth.

As have modern monsters from Godzilla to Transformers to Team America, these space invaders harbor a particular attraction to architectural landmarks, so the Taj Mahal gets chomped on before their attention turns to London, where the Allies resolve to take a stand. When conventional methods prove ineffective, the portly president commands, "Let the nerds take over!" (apparently unaware that they already have), to the dismay of a macho British commando leader (Sean Bean) and a trigger-happy U.S. admiral (Brian Cox), who don't understand that pixels will withstand a nuke much better than will people.

Next on the invaders' list is New York City, where bad-boy long-ago champ Fire Blaster (Peter Dinklage) is released from prison to help the cause. But the predictable city grid provides an ideal playing field for jumbo Pac-Men to move block by city block, chomping obstructions like so many pac-dots.

Chances are that, by this point, most grown-ups will feel they've indulged in enough nostalgia for youthful hours frittered away in arcades, at least for one evening. But since 60 minutes doesn't quite qualify as a feature-length running time, screenwriters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling needed to pad things out with a lengthy state dinner that serves two purposes: to allow Sam and lovely army officer/White House insider Violet (Michelle Monaghan) some non-stressed time together after a marathon of sparring, and to provide big-talking little guy Fire Blaster with his dream: a date with Serena Williams.

Gamers finally grasp their moment of glory at the climactic Washington, D.C., showdown, during which agitators currently arguing for the defacement or destruction of certain honorific monuments will no doubt feel a charge of excitement. For everyone else, including President Christ— … er, Cooper, their misspent youths are suddenly vindicated and rewarded, while the nation can rest easy until the next wave of aliens, monsters and/or giant creatures arises like another ghost from a machine.

With the exception of Monaghan, who seems like a beautiful member of some other species amid this ragtag bunch of comics and slumming character actors, everyone here is doing shtick they've long since mastered, underplaying in Sandler's case, to sometimes mildly amusing effect, and charging ahead like bulls where James and Gad are concerned. 

The 3D proves undeniably effective in some of the gaming and attack interludes.

Production: Columbia Pictures, Happy Madison, 1492 Pictures
Cast: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Jane Krakowski, Affion Crockett, Ashley Benson, Matt Lintz, Lainie Kazan, Denis Akiyama, Thomas McCarthy, Serena Williams, Martha Stewart
Director: Chris Columbus
Screenwriters: Tim Herlihy, Timothy Dowling, screen story by Tim Herlihy, based on a short film by Patrick Jean
Producers: Adam Sandler, Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe, Allen Covert
Executive producers: Patrick Jean, Benjamin Darras, Johnny Alves, Matias Boucard, Seth Gordon, Ben Waisbren, La Peikang, Jack Giarraputo, Steve Koren, Heather Parry, Barry Bernardi, Michael Barnathan
Director of photography: Amir Mokri
Production designer: Peter Wenham
Costume designer: Christine Wada
Editor: Hughes Winborne
Music: Henry Jackman
Visual effects supervisor: Matthew Butler
Casting: Angela Demo, Barbara J. McCarthy

Rated PG-13, 105 minutes