Lightly improving upon Adam Sandler’s recent lazy, slapdash comedies “Jack & Jill,” “Blended,” and “Grown-Ups” 1 and 2, Chris Columbus’ new “Pixels” is a good-looking, polished summer popcorn movie.
It even has a few laughs and a few nostalgic riffs. But eventually, like an old arcade game, the whole thing feels two-dimensional, and all surface.
Sandler — somehow the least funny person in the movie — plays Sam Brenner, a sad-sack nerd who installs electronic equipment for a living.
As a kid in 1982, Sam nearly won a video game championship — playing games starring Pac-Man, Centipede, Galaga and Donkey Kong — but lost to the cocky Eddie Plant.
The results of that contest were bundled up in a time capsule with other examples of Earth culture and shot into space for extraterrestrial life to discover. Decades later, the aliens attack, using the giant-sized video game characters as weapons.
Sam’s childhood pal, Will Cooper (Kevin James), now the president of the United States, assembles a team consisting of Sam, Eddie (Peter Dinklage) and conspiracy buff Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) to fight back.
Sam also has a meet-cute with Lt. Col. Violet van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), essentially so that they can bicker and banter throughout.
Gad’s surprisingly versatile voice (he brought Olaf to life in Disney’s “Frozen”) and Dinklage’s unapologetic “Game of Thrones” swagger provide about a half-dozen giggles, but Sandler is stuck in a doe-eyed, earnest mode.
All of the characters are given a single personality trait, planted that day in 1982, that rules their lives. Sam, for example, has always been “second place,” while Eddie still wears the same mullet haircut and “bitchin’” glasses.
“Pixels” references many 1980s icons, but doesn’t subvert them and doesn’t have any opinion other than their actual existence. It merely indicates them. (“Look! It’s Mario!” “It’s Madonna!” “Um … wow!”)
One 1980s pop culture item it might have referenced is “The Last Starfighter” (1984), which has a very similar plot. (Kid beats video game, has actually trained for real-life battle against aliens.)
It also recalls the much cleverer “Galaxy Quest,” as well as “Wreck-It Ralph,” which impressively invented an original game with a retro 1980s feel.
Still, San Francisco director Columbus brings the same color and dazzle to “Pixels” that he brought to his “Harry Potter” films.
Everything sparkles and shines, and the giant digital monsters are worth a few “oohs” and “ahs,” but the movie also goes through the motions as if stuck in a maze.
“Pixels” is passable, but it’s probably better to save your fistful of quarters for something more challenging.