by Glenn Lovell
If there’s somethin’ strange in your neighborhood / Who ya gonna call?
If it’s somethin’ weird an’ it don’t look good / Who ya gonna call?
After sitting through “Pixels,” it’s a safe bet it won’t be the Arcaders, a quartet of once fanatical video-gamers who reunite to foil an alien invasion by pixilated arcade characters such as Pac-Man, Centipede and Donkey Kong.
Developed by Adam Sandler from the clever 2010 short of the same title, this soulless high-concept comedy wants to be the new “Ghostbusters.” Unfortunately, lacking a scintilla of the imagination and charm of that supernatural spoof, it feels more like a sci-fi spin on “Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo.” All that’s missing is Rob Schneider on the sidelines, urging in bad Hispanic accent, “You can do it!”
“Grown Up” costars Sandler and Kevin James are joined by Peter Dinklage and Josh Gad as the 1980s gamers who, 23 years later, are called upon to use their superior hand-eye coordination to thwart UFOs modeled on a bunch of old Atari characters. James plays the least presidential president since Rip Torn in “Air Plane 2”; Sandler, his usual diffident self, is a home-entertainment installer.
Why have space invaders taken on the form of flashing arcade avatars? Way back when, NASA launched a capsule carrying mankind’s stellar achievements, which included the Rubik’s Cube and early video games like Tetris and Galaga. The big joke: extraterrestrials misread the peace offerings as an act of aggression.
Think of the resultant midtown Manhattan clash as “Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind.” Where’s the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man when you need him? The ominous shadows over D.C.? An arcade version of the saucer in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
For the record, “Pixels” was directed by Chris Columbus, known for “Home Alone,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and the first two Harry Potter movies. This time adrift without a real script or anything remotely resembling an inspired sight gag, Columbus pretty much steps aside and gives his improv comics and digital effects team free rein. This may explain why the “interaction” between actors and flashing video-game figures is negligible to nonexistent.
Many of the jokes, cultural references and wordplays (“slut-seeking-missile,” “Barnes & Unstable”) will sail over, or under, the heads of the grade-school target audience. Ditto the time-capsule inserts (from Reagan’s White House, “Fantasy Island”) and trick cameos by Madonna, Hall & Oates, and Max Headroom. They can consider themselves lucky.
Michelle Monaghan appears as a White House military adviser-potential love interest, and Brian Cox bellows in the background as an ineffectual war room officer. Dinklage, sporting full mullet wig, plays a Donkey Kong ace who’s sprung from prison with the promise of a Serena Williams-Martha Stewart sandwich in the Lincoln bedroom. (Sadly, both women appear as themselves.) Unlike Sandler, who pretty much sleepwalks through this adventure, Dinklage throws himself into his role and earns, by default, an E for Energy.
Original Ghostbuster Dan Aykroyd has an uncredited bit as a game convention MC, and Denis Akiyama plays the Japanese father of Pac-Man. The latter, in reaching out to “my sweet little boy,” suffers the fate of all scientists attempting to communicate with nasty aliens. It’s the funniest moment in this film — and you can see it free in the trailer.
How bad is “Pixels”? Bad enough to almost conjure fond memories of “Super Mario Bros” with Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo.
PIXELS ✮ With Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Michelle Monaghan, Brian Cox. Directed by Chris Columbus; scripted by Tim Herlihy, Timothy Dowling from Patrick Jean short. 105 min. PG-13 (slight profanity, some smutty jokes that will go over the heads of children)