Lawrence Toppman

‘Pixels’ pops out, bright and shiny as the ’80s it teases

Josh Gad stars as Ludlow Lamonsoff in Columbia Pictures' “Pixels.”
Josh Gad stars as Ludlow Lamonsoff in Columbia Pictures' “Pixels.” Columbia Pictures

Denizens of outer space attack us with video game characters? Sure.

Earth’s future rests in the hands of misfits played by Adam Sandler, Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage? Well, why not?

Kevin James plays the president of the United States? Wait, now they’ve gone too far! Or have they? He has the girth of Chris Christie, the outspokenness of Donald Trump, the reading skills of George H.W. Bush....Maybe he’s meant to be a composite Republican nominee for 2020?

Anyhow, that’s “Pixels,” a top contender for this year’s title of Silly Satisfying Summer Cinema. It mostly hangs together, it has plenty of throwaway laughs, the action sequences (presented needlessly in 3-D) pass the time pleasantly. You get amusing cameos by Martha Stewart, Serena Williams, Hall and Oates, Dan Aykroyd and Pac-Man inventor Toru Iwatami (not to be confused with actor Dennis Akiyama, who plays Toru Iwatami).

Director Chris Columbus, whose resumé has slumped after the first two Harry Potter movies, knows his way around a lighthearted story with mild scares. The script by Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling gets relaxed, throwaway laughs, even if it doesn’t always hold together: They build up to an act of villainy by a weapons-mad general (Brian Cox), and then he vanishes from the story.

The characters played by Sandler, James, Gad and Dinklage all knew each other as teenagers 33 years ago, when they were masters of arcade machinery. They competed at the first world video game championships in 1982, which NASA blasted into space as part of its attempt to communicate with alien life forms. (Why? You ask why?)

Somebody up there decided these tapes were declarations of war and now challenges our planet to compete; if we lose, we lose Earth. Naturally, geeks who have never known financial success, sexy women or self-esteem – including, apparently, the president – have to save the day.

The film serves as a revenge fantasy for nerds of all ages; Sandler’s character is acclaimed a hero, attracts a hot Air Force colonel (Michelle Monaghan) with a gaming son and has the prospect of a great job at the end.

But the filmmakers want the rest of us to enjoy the good-natured mayhem and, in one case, a genuine oddity: Gad plays a conspiracy theorist who blurts inappropriate things, thinks JFK shot first at Lee Harvey Oswald and takes Sandler to the basement of grandma’s house, where he mumbles, “You’re the first person I’ve ever brought here ... voluntarily.” This weirdo ends up having sex with Q-bert – offscreen, thankfully.

The most remarkable technological achievement comes when the aliens use TV footage of 1980s icons to address our planet. The lips of Ronald Reagan, Herve Villechaize and Tammy Faye Bakker really do seem to be delivering messages about interstellar warfare. Or did that actually happen? I don’t remember, but I might have been playing Frogger at the time.

Toppman: 704-358-5232


STARS: Adam Sandler, Josh Gad, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage.

DIRECTOR: Chris Columbus.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes.

RATING: PG-13 (some language and suggestive comments).