Pixels is a film that tries to do only one thing and does it about as well as might be expected. If you're interested in seeing some of the most popular video games of the 1980s (Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Galaga) blown up to an enormous scale and moving about in 3-D (and don't feel that Wreck-It Ralph has already exhausted the appeal of such things), I can assure you that Pixels hits the spot. Everything else about the film — a barely articulated science-fiction plot, a forced romantic interest, a few minutes of '80s nostalgia and the kind of derisive name-calling dialogue that passes for wit in an Adam Sandler film — is secondary. As I said, there is a plot, barely, but most of the film is simply a matter of watching Sandler and his pals blow up gigantic video arcade characters just in time to get ready for a battle with the next batch.
Oh, all right, if you insist: The film begins in 1982 in Washington, D.C., as Sam Brenner (Sandler) takes second place in a video-game competition. Thirty years later, Brenner and his misfit friends haven't changed much, even though one of them is now President of the United States (Kevin James). When Earth is suddenly under attack — or more specifically, being challenged to a contest — by deadly, large-scale versions of the games he mastered three decades earlier, Brenner convinces the White House that only he and his misfit friends (Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage, a conspiracy theorist and self-absorbed hacker, respectively) have the necessary skills to defeat the alien invasion.
This is not, however, a film that wastes time on exposition. Things happen solely to set up the next big game/battle, and neither the characters nor the filmmakers give much thought to anything in between. A video broadcast from outer space that no one except Gad saw? The White House decides to throw a party right at the peak of the invasion? The rules and terms of the battle changing arbitrarily at the climax? Why not?
Though it has many of the attributes of a typical Sandler vehicle, Pixels is, overwhelmingly, a gigantic CGI cartoon. Everything else — Sandler's usual blend of arrogance and sentimentality — comes second to the lengthy and somewhat repetitive scenes of the heroes firing away at the oversize space invaders. If the film frequently runs the risk of being about as exciting as watching four grown men playing old arcade games for an hour, so be it. Director Chris Columbus appears to have raised a white flag on the first day of shooting and let the visual-effects team take over, so meager are his contributions to the film.
But although this is mostly just a big display of animated effects, you can't entirely ignore the way the film fits in comfortably with Sandler's usual persona of a slightly antisocial slob. Twenty years ago Sandler hit it big by playing overgrown children, twentysomethings with a ten-year-old's lack of discipline. Having milked the man-child act for years, he's settled into middle age without really having to change in any significant way. The difference is that what was once seen as regressive adolescence has now, for many, become the masculine norm and the antisocial slob has become a science-fiction war hero.
That's the message of Pixels. Sandler and his friends may describe themselves as nerds and feel marginalized by paper-tiger authority figures (the film is loaded with old-fogey military types and bureaucrats, all of whom appear solely to give Sandler a chance to deliver an insult), but they always get the last word. Victory, at least briefly, belongs to those who never grew up.