REVIEW / SCI-FI COMEDY
106 minutes/Now showing/ 1/5 stars
THE STORY: As kids, Sam Brenner and Will Cooper are arcade game experts who go on to the world championships. Cooper (Kevin James) becomes President of the United States, while Brenner (Adam Sandler) installs television sets. Earth comes under attack from aliens whose methods of invasion look like video games from the 1980s. Cooper recruits Brenner and former champions Ludlow (Josh Gad) and Eddie (Peter Dinklage) to fight the aliens in city-wide games of Pac-Man, Centipede and Donkey Kong.
This movie relies on a single visual gimmick - 1980s video games coming to life to attack cities - and packages an F-grade Adam Sandler comedy around it.
As visual hooks go, vintage arcade games are not a bad idea. The young-adult comedy Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (2010), for example, had the right idea: Light bombs and oversized glowing weapons are weird and funny, and should be treated as such.
But Pixels tries to dial up the drama. The alien invasion is real and so are the weapons. So are we supposed to be worried when things blow up into glowing cubes? Or horrified when people are churned into glitter?
If there is meant to be a joke in there, it is impossible to see. Much of the rest of the movie is the same confused mix - it never takes things seriously enough to make it matter, nor does it make it disposable enough to make it funny.
The movie defines "safe", covering all the family-friendly bases with the sincerity of a Las Vegas casino lounge act.
There is threat without harm; Sandler's smirky, know-it-all humour tempered with altruistic heroism; nerds winning the hot girls.
The plot churns through one thing after another, one fake threat followed up by another just as lazy and contrived as the last.
Outcasts are heroes, shout-outs are given to classic games such as Galaga and Arkanoids, a snobby lieutenant-colonel (Michelle Monaghan) is won over by the irresistible schlubby charm of Sandler's character.
On that last sexual point, this is when things get distinctly creepy. In trying to pander to fans of video games, the nerds in the movie "win" women, both real and virtual, as trophies.
On this point about women in the film, director Chris Columbus (Harry Potter And The Sorceror's Stone, 2001) and writer Tim Herlihy (who wrote the 2010 short film on which this movie was based) seem blind to the film's shrill, Sandler-ish tone oozing in around the edges of this supposedly family-oriented work.
Maybe it is just Sony and its producer covering all the demographics.
But perhaps it is appropriate. In a movie celebrating 1980s video games, why not 1980s sex comedy values too?