Combine “Independence Day” with “Ghostbusters” and then insert Adam Sandler in another of his immature man-child roles as the hero, and you’ve got the premise of “Mrs. Doubtfire” director Chris Columbus’ predictable, but palatable “Pixels” (** of ****), a nostalgic sci-fi fantasy about the bygone video game arcade era. Initially, you might think Columbus and “Mr. Deeds” writer Tim Herlihy and “Just Go with It” scribe Timothy Dowling have done little more than synthesize elements of “Independence Day” and “Ghostbusters” for the “Saturday Night Live” alumnus. Actually, the filmmakers have adapted French director Patrick Jean’s ephemeral, two-minute short “Pixels” (2010) about space invaders masquerading as vintage video game characters. Sadly, everything about Columbus’ “Pixels” adaptation is wholesome and lukewarm rather than imaginative and mischievous. Since he slipped into middle-age, the 48-year old Sandler hasn’t made anything as audacious as his early, lowest-common-denominator farces: “Billy Madison” (1995), “Happy Gilmore” (1996), “The Waterboy” (1998), “Big Daddy” (1999), and “Little Nicky” (2000). Later, Sandler appeared in comedies with a slightly higher IQ such as his critically acclaimed “Punch Drunk Love” (2002), “Anger Management” (2003) with Jack Nicholson, “50 First Dates” (2004) with Drew Barrymore, “Click” (2006) with Christopher Walken, and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry” (2007) with Kevin James. Just as he explored new facets with his image in “Punch Drunk Love,” Sandler ventured even further afield with Judd Apatow’s heavyweight “Funny People” (2009) as a comedian stricken with cancer.
Sandler’s recent big screen efforts have overshadowed neither “Punch Drunk Love” nor “Funny Business.” Indeed, “Pixels” is just as routine as “Just Go for It” (2011), “Grown-Ups” (2010), its sequel “Grown-Ups 2” as well as “Jack and Jill” (2011) and “That’s My Boy” (2012). Although nothing about “Pixels” is likely to affront or alienate anybody like “Jack and Jill” or “That’s My Boy,” Sandler’s shenanigans as a video gamer wronged in his youth comes off as severely superficial. Nevertheless, Columbus has fashioned a coherent but humorless escapade with some amusing characters that are eclipsed by impressive CGI renderings of several 8-bit video characters, including “PAC-MAN,” “Donkey Kong,” “Galaga,” “Centipede,” and “Space Invaders.” Children of the 1980s who grew up in places around the Friendly City, like Two-Bits behind the old McDonalds on Highway 45 North, The Back Porch in the old McRae’s Mall, and Diamond Jim’s in the Leigh Mall may cherish fond memories of those days.
“Pixels” unfolds in 1982 as 13-year old Sam Brenner (Anthony Ippolito) and his best friend Will Cooper (Jared Riley) leap astride their banana-seat bikes and ride off to the first video game arcade to open in their town. Not only does Sam discover he possesses a knack for defeating Pac-Man and Centipede, but Cooper and he make friends with forlorn 8-year-old Ludlow Lamonsoff (Jacob Shinder) whose only friend is his grandmother. Eventually, Sam takes his gift for winning video games to a Donkey Kong Championship. Unfortunately, he lands in second place behind his chief adversary, snotty, self-centered, 13-year-old Eddie (Andrew Bambridge), who christens himself ‘The Fire Blaster.’ Interestingly enough, NASA loads up footage of their video game competition in a time capsule and launches it into deep space. Optimistically, NASA hopes to establish peaceful contact with an alien civilization. Meantime, after Eddie trounced him, Sam has turned into a perennial slacker. Basically, Sam lives a low-profile life. Although he got married, his wife cheated on him with their pediatrician. Now, he installs home entertainment systems for a living. Actually, Sandler looks pretty goofy in his bright orange Nerds company outfit that resembles a UPS drivers’ uniform. Meantime, Sam’s obese buddy Will has plunged into politics and now serves as President. Nevertheless, Will has an appalling habit of putting his foot in his mouth whenever he ventures out into the public eye. More recently, during a reading initiative at a kindergarten, Cooper reprimanded a little girl for correcting his pronunciation. Their friend Ludlow (Josh Gad of “The Wedding Ringer”) has turned into a classic conspiracy theorist.
Without warning, a mysterious interplanetary force destroys a U.S. military base in Guam. Not only does it reduce the base to millions of cubes, but it also abducts a security guard. President Cooper assembles his advisors and summons Sam. One of the President’s advisors is Lieutenant Colonel Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan of “Source Code”) who has just separated from her philandering husband. Violet’s hubby cheated on her with his 19-year old Pilates instructor. Before they race each other to the White House, Sam and Violet meet at her house after he arrived to install a home entertainment system. Violet and Sam sit in her closet and swap sentimental stories so Violet’s teenage son Matty (Matt Lintz of “The Crazies”) won’t see her grieve. Anyway, an enigmatic alien race has acquired the NASA footage, but they have misconstrued it as a challenge to fight to the death. Miraculously, Sam’s superb video skills make him a highly sought-after individual, and President Cooper assigns Sam and Ludlow to teach Navy SEALS how to wage war against video game characters, specifically, Centipede. Lieutenant Colonel Van Patten has analyzed the cube debris from Guam, and she has invented light-blasting ray guns that can smash the aliens to smithereens. President Cooper neglects to act quickly enough to prevent another attack, and the aliens destroy the Taj Mahal. Eventually, the aliens set their sights on New York City, and a huge spaceship hovers over the city like “Independence Day,” and the evil aliens abduct Matty.
Naturally, our oddball bunch of nerdy heroes whip the aliens with relative nonchalance in one confrontation after another in this PG-13 rated hokum. The showdowns with Pac-Man and Donkey Kong yield the most excitement, and the special effects look fabulous. The funniest scene occurs when the fictional father of Pac-Man, Professor Iwatani (Denis Akiyama of “Johnny Mnemonic”), tries to reason with a gargantuan replica of his computer-generated son and it munches his forearm. Columbus appropriated this scene from Howard Hawks’ 1951 chiller “The Thing from Another World.” Not even villainous Peter Dinklage as the diminutive adult version of Eddie can generate any spontaneity in this attractive but anemic laffer. Altogether, “Pixels” qualifies as one of Sandler’s least memorable movies.