‘Pixels’ stuck in the past

By Matt Maielli / Staff Writer

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Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James and Michelle Monaghan

 Grade: C

Run for your lives from this mediocre alien invasion flick.

Based on a short film of the same name — and not exactly receiving a glowing recommendation from its creator, French filmmaker Patrick Jean — “Pixels” imagines mankind’s reaction if aliens sent video games to kill us.

In the film, NASA records an arcade tournament and shoots the recording into space in 1982 — not a far cry from the golden phonograph record NASA actually put aboard Voyagers 1 and 2 as a portrait of Earthling culture — for alien life to find.

An unnamed alien race finds the footage 30 years later, but interprets it as a threat from Earth and responds with destructive recreations of the same arcade characters seen in the recording.  President Cooper (Kevin James) employs Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler), a deadbeat electronics technician and second-place gamer in the offending recording, to investigate the attack.

Brenner then rounds up a crew of other arcade champions, calling on Ludlow “The Wonder Kid” Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) and Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant (Peter Dinklage). With the help of President Cooper and Violet (Michelle Monaghan), head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the team dubs themselves The Arcaders and gives the alien video game programs an ‘80s arcade beating.

“Pixels” is exceedingly reminiscent of the 1980s era zeitgeist, employing Cheap Trick and Queen soundbites throughout — including a Josh Gad rendition of “Tears for Fears” — interspersed with alien transmissions sent through old Madonna clips. The film’s campy adventure premise recalls similarly bizarre ‘80s films written by director Chris Columbus that became landmarks of that decade, such as “The Goonies” (1985) and “Gremlins” (1984).

For a film about clunky platform games, though, the CGI is mesmerizing — which is about the only thing this movie has going for it. The fuzzy pixels of a bygone computer era are brought to life with every flickering block. It’s a pleasure to watch the “games” descend from the sky and pixelate downtown D.C., or witness Tetris destroying buildings from top to bottom. It’s as real as pixel-murdering alien programs are going to look on the big screen. Even the end credits feature an abridged version of the movie entirely in classic 8-bit arcade style.

Another upside, the casting is spot-on at times, with Brian Cox (“The Slap,” “After Bannockburn”) as a trigger-happy admiral and Gad (“Frozen,” “The Comedians”) as a man-child conspiracy theorist. Other times the lineup seems wasteful, with cameos from Dan Aykroyd and Jane Krakowski (30 Rock) that feel like missed opportunities. Dan Patrick and Martha Stewart also make downright out-of-place appearances.

Sandler gives the usual lazy performance that we’ve come to expect, with a handful of comebacks, references and a few voices. He even goes so far as to reuse one of his more famous voices, from “Happy Gilmore.” The performance is still a disappointing one, with the actor all but turning to the camera and saying, “Hey, I’ll just phone this one in, if you don’t mind.”

Speaking of lazy, Violet’s exaggerated character arc, going from drinking wine and crying in a closet to a video game expert within the movie’s run time, is an eye-roll-inducing hyperbole that Monaghan can’t save for the film’s writers.

If we can move past these simplistic characters though, there are other problems with “Pixels” that are harder to ignore. One of them is the target audience, especially with such niche one-liners as “JFK shot first.” If the movie’s for teens, why so many adult jokes and dated “Fantasy Island” references? If it’s for adults, what’s with the childish antics and distractingly empty characters? The movie fails to strike a balance between the two.

More importantly, however, is its purpose: the film attempts to say something about fighting our own nostalgia (doesn’t “The Arcaders” sound a lot like “The Avengers?”), but it’s entirely too vague to say what, exactly.

As Sam’s childhood comes to destroy the world, the only way he can hope to defeat it is by growing up and literally fighting back. Perhaps this is a commentary on the current oversaturated climate of Hollywood, obsessed with sequels, reboots, and nostalgia-fests. Or maybe it’s telling movie-goers to let some things die instead of paying for rehashes of movies — or actors — that were once great.

Either way, the message is lost in the pixels. It’s a colossal waste of Patrick Jean’s excellent premise. If you want to enjoy the movie, I suggest not thinking about it too hard. Otherwise, go spend your money at a real arcade.

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