2015, PG-13, 105 min. Directed by Chris Columbus. Starring Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Matt Lintz, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Jane Krakowski, Ashley Benson, Denis Akiyama.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 24, 2015
Eighties nostalgia has a field day in this new Adam Sandler movie, and if this summer’s roster of movies (which includes new iterations of Mad Max, The Terminator, and Poltergeist, among others) is any indication, that decade is experiencing a renaissance. And even though it’s fair to say that Pixels is on steadier ground than most of Sandler’s recent comedies, the film is nevertheless flat-footed and grows tedious after the first hour. The screenplay by Sandler regulars, Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, is based on a 2010 short film by Patrick Jean, suggesting that Pixels’ contrivances indulge in a few green screens too many.
The premise of alien invaders that adopt the shapes of characters from Eighties arcade games is too ridiculous to unpack here. Suffice it to say that the film’s action occurs in a world in which Kevin James is the president of the United States, a job the actor carries off with all the aplomb and dignity of a zookeeper or mall cop. And who’s POTUS gonna call (to borrow a phrase from another Eighties treasure that’s also in the remake pipeline) when the aliens invade? His best friend from childhood Sam Brenner (Sandler), of course, an arcade-game champion who’s lived down to his potential and grown up to be a home-video installer. These two can see what all the Joint Chiefs can’t: that the aliens are exploiting the shapes and patterns the boys memorized from their old Atari and Nintendo games. With the help of a couple of other childhood champs, conspiracy theorist Ludlow Lamonsoff (Gad) and egotist Eddie “the Fire Blaster” Plant (Dinklage), as well as weak love interest Col. Violet Van Patten (Monaghan), Earth avoids annihilation. Curiously, no one seems too freaked out by that possibility. Ideally, comic mayhem ensues.
In his first film since Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief five years ago, director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire and screenwriter of The Goonies and Gremlins) returns with all his fondness for villainous cuties intact. The filmmaking is occasionally sloppy (mismatched cuts, etc.), but the sight of giant Pac-Mans, Centipedes, Galagas, Froggers, and more filling the screen is fun to a certain extent, although the friendly Q*bert is, by far, the film’s most endearing character. Gently sexist attitudes pervade here, as they do in all of Sandler’s movies – hell, there’s not even a Ms. Pac-Man invader. A ton of cameos by the likes of Serena Williams, Martha Stewart, and many others pop up with the regularity of thrown Donkey Kong barrels. Sandler underplays, which is an improvement on his usual mugging, and the 3-D, for a change, enhances the action. A genuine PG-13 ethos marks the action, which could make Pixels a real family outing for first-generation gamers and their next-generation replicants.