“Pixels” is the cinematic equivalent of a Buzzfeed listicle entitled “50 Things Only ’80s Kids Can Understand.” “Remember Pac-Man?” the movie asks us. “Wasn’t it awesome?”
But a movie has to be something more than a parade of nostalgia-inducing images. There has to be some excuse for clips of first-generation Madonna and Max Headroom, all slicked-back hair and stuttering syllables. In “Pixels,” that something more turns out to be an Adam Sandler movie. It’s one we’ve seen before: An immature deadbeat woos a lovely, otherwise intelligent lady.
Few things strike greater fear in the heart of a moviegoer than the logo of Happy Madison, Sandler’s production company that unleashed such dogs as “Blended,” “Here Comes the Boom” and “Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser.” The action comedy “Pixels” fares slightly better, thanks to the clever premise of a 2010 short by Patrick Jean, which inspired this film.
In that short, New York is attacked by characters from classic video games. Frogger takes out taxis; Tetris pieces destroy buildings, one floor at a time. Set in the near future, Sandler’s feature-length version adds a bit of back story: In the 1980s, the United States tries to make contact with alien civilizations by launching a time capsule into space, including the era’s most popular arcade games. But when those extraterrestrials intercept the message, they mistake the playful payload for a declaration of war, responding with their own hostile version of Donkey Kong and Lady Lisa. The only way to beat them is to win a large-scale version of Centipede, Galaga or any of the other retro games that the enemy wants to play.
Don’t bother thinking too deeply about this.
Sandler plays Sam Brenner, the 1982 Pac-Man world champion, who hasn’t amounted to much since then, spending his days installing electronics. His best friend from childhood, Will Cooper (frequent Sandler collaborator Kevin James), is the borderline illiterate president of the United States, making Sam well-positioned for heroism once the alien invasion begins. No one knows 1980s video games like Sam and his other longtime friend Ludlow, a creepy conspiracy theorist played by Josh Gad. Navy SEALs are powerless, so nerds have to save the day.
The world may be at stake, but the movie is more concerned with whether Sam will get the girl, an army colonel played by Michelle Monaghan. Having been recently ditched by her husband (for a 19-year-old named Sinnamon), she’s unreasonably susceptible to Sam’s “charms,” even though she’s his better in every way: looks, smarts, maturity, fight moves.
The action sequences are the most enjoyable part of the movie. Director Chris Columbus is no slouch when it comes to big-screen adventure, having directed “Home Alone” and the first two “Harry Potter” installments (not to mention having written both “The Goonies” and “Young Sherlock Holmes”). In one standout scene, Pac-Man attacks New York while four ghosts — in this case four Mini Coopers — chase him up and down city streets. Product placement has rarely been so much fun.
The comedy is less effective. Sandler doesn’t appear to be trying terribly hard, and Gad gets sucked into that humor vacuum, going after laughs with a palpable desperation and adopting Sandler’s signature move of yelling for no apparent reason. Meanwhile, the normally funny Jane Krakowski is utterly wasted as an irrationally jealous first lady, relegated to a scene in which her husband is afraid to admit that another woman is pretty. The women-are-bonkers bit is as fresh as a Borsht Belt joke, circa 1960.
Golden Globe winner Peter Dinklage, sporting a mullet, fares no better, with the humor of his one-dimensional character relying on his egotism and attempts to have a threesome with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart.
Lazy humor and familiar plotting aside, “Pixels” at least gets a little mileage out of its affection for the 1980s. But why bother spending time or money on a movie when you can indulge that nostalgia on your Facebook news feed?
PG-13. At area theaters.
Contains some strong language and suggestive comments.