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'Pixels' review: Adam Sandler, stuck in the '80s

From left, Michelle Monaghan, Adam Sandler and Josh

From left, Michelle Monaghan, Adam Sandler and Josh Gad in Columbia Pictures' "Pixels." Credit: AP / Sony Pictures

How old are Adam Sandler's fans? A safe bet would be roughly his age, which at the moment is 48. The biggest clue came with the success of "The Wedding Singer," a 1998 rom-com set during Sandler's formative years in the 1980s. Driven by British synth-pop nuggets and jokes about Michael Jackson jackets, "The Wedding Singer" became a $123 million hit, and Sandler has since made a habit of inserting nostalgic references into many of his movies, from "Grown Ups" to "That's My Boy."

Sandler's latest vehicle, "Pixels," is yet another ginormous '80s joke. It's about aliens who discover a time capsule from 1982 and get the idea to attack Earth in the form of massive arcade-game icons -- notably Pac-Man, Centipede and Donkey Kong. Humanity's best hope is Sam Brenner (Sandler), a one-time video game champ who peaked as a teenager. Along with some fellow nerds from his past, Brenner must use his hand-eye coordination skills to save the world.

Sandler excels at playing underappreciated guys like Brenner, but the other characters are a mixed bag. Josh Gad, as conspiracy nut Ludlow Lamonsoff, tends to grate, while Peter Dinklage, as Donkey Kong champ Eddie "The Fire Blaster" Plant, speaks in a slightly unsettling African-American dialect. Michelle Monaghan, playing Lt. Col. Violet Van Patten, does what she can as Sandler's love interest. Wearing tailor-made jumpsuits, these four arcaders only vaguely resemble the "Ghostbusters." Kevin James is likable as their bumbling sidekick, Will Cooper, who also happens to be the president.

"Pixels," directed by Chris Columbus, is based on a 2010 French short film that lasts just more than two minutes, which may explain why this 105-minute version feels both overstretched and underdeveloped. The effects are delightful -- it's fun to see Washington, D.C., transformed into a giant Pac-Man grid -- but the script, by Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, feels thin. The aliens are poorly explained: All we know of them is that they send threatening messages disguised as Hall and Oates.

Those are two of many figures in "Pixels" that won't mean much to anyone outside of Sandler's target demographic. Speaking of which: Arcaders of a certain age may object to seeing giant Tetris blocks attack a skyscraper. It's a cool idea, but that game wasn't created until 1984.



It's game on for "Pixels," which hits theaters Friday. The arcade vs. aliens saga is the latest player among movies, including these four, with a video game theme.


TRON (1982) -- A software engineer-turned-hacker (Jeff Bridges) gets thrust into the inner workings of a video game and joins forces with a computer security program called TRON to escape. A box-office disappointment upon its release, the movie has become a cult classic and inspired a 2010 sequel, "TRON: Legacy."

THE LAST STARFIGHTER (1984) -- It may be game over for an arcade-

addicted teen when he is recruited to play his favorite game as part of an alien defense team. Notable as the screen swan song for "The Music Man's" Robert Preston.

THE WIZARD (1989) -- "Rain Man" meets Pac-Man in this tale of a mentally challenged video game prodigy (Luke Edwards) who runs away from home with his brother (Fred Savage) and heads to the West Coast to compete in a video game tournament.

WRECK-IT RALPH (2012) -- In this animated Disney flick, an unloved video game villain tries to go from zero to hero and in the process nearly pulls the plug on the entire arcade where he lives.


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