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Review: ‘Pixels’ never comes into focus as a real picture

A Pac-Man chomping its way through New York is among the outer-space video-game invaders in “Pixels.”
A Pac-Man chomping its way through New York is among the outer-space video-game invaders in “Pixels.”
(Sony Pictures)

Some movies are so interminable that it seems they might never end, while others are assembled with such indifference that you are essentially left waiting for them to start. “Pixels” somehow manages both.

Ostensibly a hybrid of an Adam Sandler lovable schlub vehicle with a kids’ picture nostalgia piece, “Pixels” imagines that an alien invasion takes place in the form of vintage video game characters attacking major metropolises around the world. The movie tries to explain this in a semi-plausible way via recordings of 1980s video-game competitions sent into space in NASA time capsules — just play along — yet the most suspension-of-disbelief straining idea in the movie actually is Kevin James portraying a sitting U.S. president.

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The film plays something like a knock-off “The Goonies” for the arrested-development set. Sandler plays a competitive teenage arcade gamer in the ‘80s turned present-day grown-up tech installer. His childhood best friend (James) is now the president, and when the alien invasion breaks out, the two realize that it will be vintage gamers who can save the day. So they draft two former fellow competitors (Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad) to join a team overseen by Lt. Col. Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan) to face off against their enemy in a series of challenges.

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Directed by Chris Columbus — writer of “The Goonies” and “Gremlins” and director of “Home Alone” and the first two “Harry Potter” pictures — the film takes its spectacular premise and then treats it flatly, with no sense of wonder.

Who knows what Hollywood foul Columbus committed to be tasked with overseeing junk like this? This is not the sort of thing that lands a filmmaker in the mythical purgatory of “director jail” — this is director jail.

Written by Timothy Dowling and Sandler regular Tim Herlihy, the film is based on a 2010 short by French filmmaker Patrick Jean. Unofficially the film also borrows some of its character dynamics from Seth Gordon’s 2007 documentary “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” about what became of arcade game champions later in life.

“Pixels” is all the more frustrating for the few stray interesting ideas that are left hanging because they would require thinking and work to draw them out. Exactly how a stock Kevin James character became president isn’t really explained, and the movie does amusingly treat it kind of just like any other job.

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The film’s best sequence is one in which the video game “Centipede” plays out across the sky over London’s Hyde Park, a psychedelic-tinged bit of weirdness that has an energy totally lacking elsewhere. (Maybe it’s the game’s mushrooms.) The “Pac-Man” sequence that follows shortly afterward, in which small cars race through New York City streets, feels like a low point, shoehorning in a chase and overlong.

It is rarely a good idea to think too closely on the logistics of something like “Pixels,” but how is it that the team of nerdy middle-aged video game players are also all expert drivers of real cars in real life? Or after the required jokes that Sandler is out-of-shape, how does he have the physical strength and endurance to climb up the steel girder structure that makes for the “Donkey Kong” finale?

No one working on “Pixels” seems particularly interested in the movie. Near the end of the story, there is mention of a treaty negotiation with the invading aliens that might have made for, you know, a good scene. Two female characters — the mother of Josh Gad’s character and the wife of Brian Cox’s warmonger admiral — are just disembodied voices nagging from somewhere offscreen. Serena Williams and Martha Stewart make brief cameos as themselves, looking awkward and vaguely embarrassed.

The film stood to be some kind of summation of the long-standing ‘80s fixation in Sandler movies, from “The Wedding Singer” to “That’s My Boy,” but no one involved was engaged enough to make that so. Rather, it takes a solid idea with built-in charm and squanders it. These “Pixels” never snap into focus, remaining blurry and diffuse, scattered parts that never come together in a coherent whole.

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mark.olsen@latimes.com

Twitter: @IndieFocus

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