“Let the nerds take over.” This is an official order handed down by President Cooper (Kevin James) during an alien invasion in which Earth is being attacked by extraterrestrial life in the form of 1980s arcade games. In “Pixels,” directed by Chris Columbus, the 40-something self-described losers who spent too much time at the arcade are the ones who will inherit the earth — led by their benevolent leader, Adam Sandler, of course.
Sandler plays Sam Brennan, a video game whiz kid we meet in a 1982 prologue with his best friend Chewy, the one who inexplicably grows up to lead the free world — somehow the giant Pac-Man chomping through New York City requires less suspension of disbelief. Sam, his confidence destroyed after losing to Eddie “Fireblaster” in the “Donkey Kong” world championships, hasn’t gone as far as his pal. He’s ended up as a self-deprecating, aw-shucks, defensive employee of the Nerd Brigade, installing PlayStations.
When a mysterious alien invasion that looks eerily similar to “Galaga” hits a military base, President Cooper has no choice but to call in his big guns: Sam, and their conspiracy theorist wing nut childhood pal Ludlow (Josh Gad). The two are to use their finely honed expertise to train the Navy SEALs, but it turns out you can’t send special ops to do a nerd’s job. The only ones who can combat this invasion are the Arcaders — Sam, Ludlow and former nemesis Fireblaster (Peter Dinklage), sprung from the clink for the occasion.
“Pixels” is a blast of energetic fun, though it doesn’t attempt to stray outside the lines or reflect on its “Godzilla”-style formula; the novelty of nostalgic video game characters as space invaders sustains the film, thanks to the spectacularly executed and original effects. While Dinklage shows his comic side with a wild mullet and bizarre accent, Gad is the real standout, giving an effervescently full-bodied performance as the paranoid, passionate Ludlow. Sandler is barely putting in effort, and Sam could have been played by anyone. At this point, Sandler seems to put in appearances only to get movies financed.
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One has to wonder whom this movie is truly for. With a broadly humorous, PG-13 tone, it feels like a kids’ film, but niche references to 1980s ephemera such as “Fantasy Island” and Max Headroom will hit only with the Gen-Xers in the audience. There’s quite a bit of “back in my day” grumbling, arguing that arcade games are inherently better than today’s video games, a message that feels stuffy and backward.
It also must be mentioned that the female characters truly get short shrift. There’s only one named female character who actually gets to speak (unless you count “First Lady” as a name, or “Serena Williams” as a character). Poor Ashley Benson plays a literal “trophy” who doesn’t have a single line, while Michelle Monaghan is forced into a sexy scientist stereotype far below her talents. However, expecting more than that from an Adam Sandler joint is futile. Despite these unfortunate shortcomings, “Pixels” has its funny and fresh moments, thanks in large part to the supporting comic actors and inventive special effects.