Video arcades were treated with such disdain — havens for aimless 1980s youth squandering their time and money.
In retrospect, compared with the loner iPhone culture of today, arcades seem like nurturing social clubs.
Maybe decades from now the film “Pixels” will enjoy a similar reassessment. Until then, it must be considered just another escapist time-waster from this summer’s spate of effects-heavy blockbusters.
At least those effects are impressive. And hey, it’s not a sequel.
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It is a remake of sorts. The comedy draws inspiration from a two-minute short of the same name by filmmaker Patrick Jean (who earns a writing credit). This clever piece about 8-bit arcade icons destroying New York City enjoys a $110 million upgrade — a big chunk of which goes to star Adam Sandler, whose listless, disconnected demeanor for once fits the character he’s playing.
Sandler stars as Sam, who, we learn in an opening flashback to 1982, was a prodigy at arcade video games. Accompanied by dumpy childhood friend Will and conspiracy theorist dweeb Ludlow, Sam gets to show off his joystick-juggling, button-pressing, ball-rolling talents at the Worldwide Video Arcade Championship. But he also acquires his first nemesis, the mulleted showoff Eddie “Fireblaster” Plant, who bests Sam in “Donkey Kong” to take the crown.
“The local yokel looked destiny in the eye and blinked,” Eddie taunts.
Worse, this defeat gets forever immortalized in a video package launched in a NASA probe to showcase American culture to potential alien civilizations.
Flash forward to now, when Sam is a divorced guy who sets up other people’s home electronics for a living. But he is still best friends with Will (Kevin James) — who now happens to be the president of the United States. (Note: This might be the laziest plot point of Sandler’s entire cinematic career — and that includes playing twins of the opposite sex in “Jack and Jill.”)
When a U.S. base is attacked by insectoid creatures that bear an uncanny resemblance to the game “Galaga,” President Will recruits Sam, Ludlow (Josh Gad) and incarcerated troublemaker Eddie (Peter Dinklage) to help battle the space invaders. The aliens have misinterpreted the 1980s video game footage as a declaration of war, and soon Earth is engaged by enemies found in “Donkey Kong,” “Pac-Man,” “Robotron,” “Frogger” and dozens more.
With his military useless, the president decrees, “Let the nerds take over!”
That phrase pretty much sums up Sandler’s career. More and more, he’s adapting his goofball persona to match his late-40s age, portraying once-promising teens who become adult losers hoping to recapture some of their youthful glory. It’s certainly easier to buy him as a slouching, zinger-dispensing burnout than as a ladies man (“That’s My Boy”) or devoted father figure (“Blended”).
But “Pixels” is less Sandler’s film than it is director Chris Columbus’ (of the first “Harry Potter” and “Percy Jackson” flicks), who relies on his strength wrangling inventive visuals. These aliens can harness light into solid mass, becoming combatants constructed from blocky, glowing cubes that mimic screen pixels. At times these appear cute (Q*bert, for instance), but more often they are quite threatening, as when an enormous Centipede gobbles up soldiers.
The heroes use light-emitting weapons to take on an armada of video game characters, scenes that work better than they should, mainly because the energetic Dinklage and Gad earn as much screen time as Sandler. The always welcome Michelle Monaghan also enters the mix as a single mom and military officer who shares a love/hate relationship with Sam.
Columbus (and frequent Sandler scribes Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling) can’t quite unite the visuals with the overall concept. And the disjointed timeline grows annoying: 1970s rock songs are used to imply 1982 new wave, and the 1982 space probe includes Max Headroom and Madonna, who didn’t arrive until a few years later.
A sharper movie would have nailed these peripheral details, but they’re handled with lazy, “Sandlerian” indifference. That’s the real glitch in “Pixels.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated PG-13 Time: 1:45
3-D OR NOT 3-D?
Best to skip the 3-D version. It’s only an excuse to hurl pixel cubes at the screen whenever an alien attacker shatters. The process also darkens the colorful palette.
GAMES COME TO LIFE
Director Chris Columbus talked about marauding video games with The Associated Press:
▪ “Pac-Man”: In the movie, a giant yellow ball goes on a chomping spree through the streets of New York as the heroes do battle in Mini Coopers. Columbus filmed the chase sequence over 31/2 weeks by having the actors followed by a yellow golf cart, which was later replaced with a computer-generated Pac-Man.
▪ “Centipede”: “I wanted ‘Centipede’ to be a surrealistic three-dimensional moment,” said Columbus. “For me, I pushed it into ‘Yellow Submarine’ territory where, in the middle of that scene, it just totally turns psychedelic. You shouldn’t do any mind-altering drugs before you watch that particular sequence of the film.”
▪ “Donkey Kong”: “The ‘Donkey Kong’ sequence is one that we could have done 90 percent CGI, but we literally built the game from scratch,” said Columbus. “We built the platforms. When you walked into that soundstage, it was mind blowing to see actors 100 feet in the air on harnesses running around from barrels that we later added. It was an amazing experience.”