“For the record, I’m an amazing kisser. All us nerds are, because we appreciate it more.” The commercial clout of geek culture crosses a few new milestones in Pixels, not the least of which is the shameless, humble-braggy self-awareness of this line, spoken by Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) as he flirts with Violet (Michelle Monaghan), a mother and recent divorcée. He’s clad in the hunter-orange shorts-and-polo-shirt uniform of a home-electronics installation company. She’s in sleek business wear, slumped on the floor of a walk-in closet, crying and drinking wine out of a sippy cup. The male nerd of popular culture used to wear his heart and insecurity on his sleeve, but Brenner’s diffidence is weaponized to stoke the ego of Pixels’s target audience. If this means further infantilizing a woman in emotional turmoil, so be it.
Such behavior is a fait accompli in a film whose four heroes have barely grown up from the marathon arcade sessions of their youth. In a prologue set in 1982, young Brenner (Anthony Ippolito) and pal Will Cooper (Jared Riley) steal a jar of quarters from a girl’s lemonade stand and hightail it to the local arcade. A talent on any console, Brennar enters a high-profile competition, facing off against Eddie (Peter Dinklage), an egomaniacal gamer with an entourage of busty cheerleaders. Brenner loses, but footage of the event is captured in a newsreel sent to space in a rocket. In the present day, aliens have taken these transmissions of Galaga as a threat, destroying a military base in Guam in disguise as 8-bit warriors and warning of future attacks. Fortunately for the fate of the world, if not the judgment of its citizens, also-ran gamer Cooper has become the president of the United States (now played by Kevin James). He recruits Brennar, Eddie, and conspiracy-nut/Lady Lisa devotee Ludlow (Josh Gad) to help lead an armed attack against the games they loved as children.
Director Chris Columbus seems content to merely soften this entertainment into a work with a family-friendly sheen and a reasonably fleet foot. In one action sequence, a cheap facsimile of New York City is meant to become a Pac-Man grid. Instead of blurring the real and imaginary worlds, the film turns the game’s colorful ghosts into a fleet of Mini Coopers, and most of the scene is spent explaining the rules of the game to young viewers who’ve never played it. A shred of visual imagination comes in the backdrop of a few throwaway shots during an invasion of Washington, D.C., as a sunny sky becomes a screen grab from Space Invaders in the midst of an orgy of destruction wrought by the likes of Mega Man and the chef from BurgerTime. A work so in thrall to vintage technology could stand to be a lot more interested in recreating it, but most of Pixels levels up its 8-bit images into a fugly (to borrow a word from the film) CGI that needlessly complicates the simple elegance of a Donkey Kong screen, and renders familiar avatars chunky and charmless.
There’s a kernel of a worthwhile idea in Pixels: Past-their-prime gamers destroy their idols and come into their own. But this is a Happy Madison production, and as such it’s exhaustively lazy, outside of its righteous dedication to the valorization of the man-child. Brenner gets to upstage some Navy SEALs and the Pentagon’s Iran hawk (Brian Cox), and then gets his girl after he wins a real-world game of Galaga and she proves herself a championship-level drinker worthy of entry into a boys’ club. Eddie solicits yuks by speaking in a pimp’s patois and fantasizing about a threesome with Martha Stewart and Serena Williams, and Ludlow stage bombs a government soirée with a writhing rendition of Tears for Fears’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Queen’s “We Will Rock You” plays over the soundtrack twice. This parade of misguided pheromones, proudly flaunted, make the bulk of Pixels feel like a victory lap for the elevated frat-nerd, even as he should be busy saving the planet.