After a less-than-stellar debut in America (where it entered the box-office chart behind Ant-Man and was mauled by almost every reviewer), the prevailing narrative around Pixels has turned into a referendum on the future of its star, Adam Sandler. This is a pity, for two reasons. Firstly, Sandler is a particularly polarising figure, whose production-line output tends to consist of films that are popular with fans yet rarely find favour with critics. And secondly, Pixels is a cleverer film than those with a reflexive disdain for the Happy Gilmore star’s broad comedy seem willing to see it as.
The premise is enticing and, with the New Horizons probe recently speeding past Pluto, very timely. A 1980s NASA probe, loaded with images from Earth including then state-of-the-art video games such as Galaga, Centipede and Pac-Man, is intercepted by aliens who interpret it as a declaration of war. They arrive here in the present day, and launch attacks against humans by sending giant 1980s video-game baddies to turn our world into piles of cubic rubble, ’80s pop icons (Madonna, Hall & Oates, Mr Roarke and Tattoo from Fantasy Island) acting as their video-altered emissaries.
By fortuitous coincidence, the American president, Will Cooper (Kevin James, Paul Blart: Mall Cop), is a former video-game nerd and his best friend, Sam Brenner (Sandler), made it to the final of a 1982 arcade-game world championship. Together with fellow veteran gamers Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad, The Wedding Ringer) and Eddie Plant (Game Of Thrones‘ Peter Dinklage), these geeks must save the Earth.
The concept and many of the effects come from a 2010 short film by Patrick Jean but director Chris Columbus (Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone) resists the temptation to overplay the visual jokes. A brilliant evocation of real-life Tetris flashes by in a few frames rather than getting stretched out to the point where it becomes boring. Those old enough to remember video-game arcades will enjoy the reverence and the detail, which rises to suitably nerdy levels of accuracy.
Better still, Pixels keeps the laughs coming, the effects matched for sparkle by decent gags that pepper the script. Lamonsoff’s briefing-cum-rant to a squad of Navy SEALs parodies the latent homoeroticism of war movies when he compares the musclebound warriors to the cast of Magic Mike, while a scene in which President Cooper stumbles over reading to a group of schoolchildren before the first attack is surely a dig at George W Bush, who was in a Florida primary school when the hijacked airliners hit the World Trade Centre in 2001.
Brian Cox (The Bourne Supremacy) and Sean Bean (The Lord Of The Rings), in cameos as military commanders, have almost as much of a hoot as Dinklage, hamming things up while the Taj Mahal, New York and London experience vintage video-game invasion. Mission: Impossible III star Michelle Monaghan’s role is underwritten but her appearance as a weapons scientist and Brenner’s unlikely love interest feels more like satire than exploitation, while a jokey cameo from Serena Williams is at the man-children’s expense rather than hers.
Sandler, even more laconic than usual, may be the weakest link here, but that’s no reason to hate the end results. Pixels is a likeable and unpretentious piece of summertime fun, if you can let yourself enjoy it for what it is.