The makers of the “Ghostbusters” movies—including the forthcoming female version—have nothing to fear from this rehash of their formula, which replaces the farcical spirits with super-sized replicas of old video game characters but excises most of the laughs in the process. In fact “Pixels” is less reminiscent of “Ghostbusters” than a special-effects disaster like “R.I.P.D.” It’s yet another misfire from Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions, with snarky Sandler again marking time in a lead role.
A prologue set in 1982 shows Sandler’s character Sam Brenner as a thirteen-year old video arcade wizard (played by Anthony Ippolito) losing a world champion game of Donkey Kong to preening loudmouth Eddie Plant (Anthony Bambridge), who calls himself “The Fire Blaster.” Though consoled by his best buddy Will Cooper (Jared Riley) and even by their strange new friend Ludlow Lamonsoff (Jacob Shinder), Brenner is crushed; the loss drains him of self-confidence. But the contest has a long life, since NASA videotaped it and sent a copy into space as one of those hopeful messages introducing earth’s culture to anyone who might be “out there” to receive them.
It’s no wonder that thirty years later Sam leads a dismal life as part of the Nerd crew—an orange-uniformed installer of techno-gadgets in people’s homes. What is a wonder is that blundering buffoon Cooper (now played by Kevin James) is inexplicably President of the United States and still consorts with his old pal. That friendship is called on when a U.S. base in Guam is attacked by some unknown aerial force and for some reason POTUS thinks that Sam can help identify the attackers. (Logic is not the strong suit in Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling’s script.) The summons to the White House comes just after Sam’s house call to install a home entertainment center, where he’s charmed teen Matty (Matt Lintz) but upset his mom Violet (Michelle Monaghan) by trying clumsily to comfort her over a pending divorce. By a happy coincidence she turns out to be a military advisor to Cooper—and ultimately Sam’s romantic interest. (What are the odds? Herlihy and Dowling strike again!)
In any event, it’s not Sam who deciphers the invaders’ identity—it’s Ludlow (now Josh Gad), a conspiracy nut who just happens to have recorded a message from them on his pre-digital television, delivered—as will be their custom—through doctored images from 1980s TV shows. (What serendipity!) The message reveals that the attack was perpetrated by extraterrestrials who received the NASA message, interpreted it as a declaration of war, and have come to challenge earth to battle in the form of a series of real-life assaults based on the old video games: humans will have to have to win these contests just as they tried to do in the old arcades, or their planet will be annihilated. Of course, only Sam, Ludlow, Cooper and Eddie, who’s sprung from prison to help in such dire circumstances, have the necessary know-how to fight such critters as Centipede, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong—all grown to enormous size—successfully. And in several big battles they do, with some of them ending up on the invaders’ mother ship, where they must save Matty and defeat the aliens once and for all.
“Pixels” was inspired by a French short made by Patrick Jean back in 2010, about old video-game characters attacking New York City and turning the earth into one big cube. That clever two-minute joke suffers badly in this misguided expansion. There are a few amusing bits along the way—one featuring Denis Akiyama as the creator of Pac-Man who tries to reason with his monsterized “son” will appeal to creature-feature fans as a nod to those innumerable scenes in which sensitive scientists attempt to communicate with malevolent being, always with unfortunate result (“The Thing from Another World” provides a perfect example). And a sweet dog-sized version of Q*bert, deposited with the humans as a trophy for one of their victories, becomes a charming comic chum for Matty. Some of us can also appreciate a brief appearance by Max Headroom toward the close, though how many viewers will even recognize him is a matter of conjecture.
Otherwise the pickings are pretty slim. Sandler, as has become his habit, weighs things down with a lazily laid-back performance that suggests he’s bored even though the script gives him most of the supposedly sharp lines. As if to compensate, Gad is encouraged by director Chris Columbus—not exactly a subtle filmmaker—to mug so wildly that one begins to worry at the physical toll it might be taking. Even Dinklage, strutting and snarling gleefully, grows tiresome after awhile, while pretty Monaghan is reduced mostly to pouting until she’s finally given something more to do in the big final confrontation (though even there, she’s basically a mother anxious to save her child before falling into Sam’s arms). As for James, he’s relatively restrained, which is a relief after his Paul Blart movies but doesn’t generate many laughs. On a more gruesome note, it’s sad to see a fine actor like Brian Cox reduced to playing a cliched huffing American general; you might mistake him for Darren McGavin on a bad day. Sean Bean is equally poorly used as a British army man, but in his case it’s not quite so demeaning.
As for the effects—which along with the purported humor are the major selling points here—they’re basically mediocre but will probably provide a nostalgic tickle for forty-somethings who played the old-timey games during their teens. Most youngsters, though barely aware of the games themselves, will find the critters colorful and energetic enough to enjoy (and be pleased by all the action). But “Wreck-It Ralph” proved that stories featuring old arcade characters could be witty and heartwarming; “Pixels” is just juvenile in every conceivable respect, less coarse than Sandler’s recent vehicles but unhappily not much more engaging.