With a novel idea at its center and some good jokes scattered throughout, Pixels is a relief from the self-serious action films that invade movie theaters at this time of year. For most of the way, it's good enough to enjoy, and for the rest of the way, it's good enough to root for.
It's at its best and most original in the first half, when establishing its premise and setting its tone. The movie is about a war to save the planet, only this time the war is based on a misunderstanding. Back in 1982, a time capsule was sent from Earth into outer space, and among the cultural markers contained was footage of people playing the popular video games of the era. Apparently, the aliens misinterpreted the video game footage as a threat and developed their own versions of Pac-Man, etc. Now in our era, they're staging a preemptive attack.
The movie's combination of inventiveness and sloppiness is evident in its handling of the '80s era. It's very funny, for example, that the aliens choose to talk to earthlings using images we'd understand — and so we get computer-altered images of 1980s personalities issuing the aliens' threats. But if these images were derived from a time capsule sent in 1982, why would they send back a video of Madonna talking in either 1984 or 1985? For that matter, why would the aliens reference the "Where's the Beef?" commercial for Wendy's, which didn't run until 1984? And why would American boys, in 1982, be expressing their lust for Samantha Fox, when she was completely unknown until 1983, and then only in Britain? These are small matters, but they indicate a larger casualness, which becomes a problem midway, when the story runs out of gas. Instead of finding new ways to be inventive, the screenwriters rely on action-movie tropes, and director Chris Columbus and the actors are left to try to make these scenes interesting.
They almost do. Adam Sandler is appealing in a straight-man role, in which he must react to the absurdity of others. A former champion video-game player, he is now installing home entertainment systems, but his seemingly useless gaming skills become crucial when the aliens attack, and it just so happens that he is the childhood friend of the president.
Traditionally, movies have the president resemble the sitting president, but Pixels takes place in a post-Obama near future, with Kevin James as an overweight president from the Northeast, of a similar look and vintage as Chris Christie, but without the latter's bluster. All the scenes involving the president and the White House are comic and effective. The president here is a beaten man, cowed by his own national security team and hemmed in by low approval ratings. When he steps out in public, he waves and utters pleasantries, while angry crowds yell at him.
But once Pixels becomes a series of alien attack scenes, it loses its spark. The sight of Pac-Man gliding through the city street, gobbling up everything in its path, is amusing in the moment, but without any real sense of threat, the action can't really hold interest for an entire long sequence. Still, though Pixels may be hard to respect or fully endorse, it's also impossible to dislike. And that's not a small thing.