This execrable video-gaming comedy marks a new career low for the beleaguered comedian

Pixels are infinitesimally small points of light – and there are, astonishingly, a scattering of them to be found in this otherwise typically abominable project from Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions. 

For a start, there’s Peter Dinklage, enunciating every terrible line like a professional wrestler making a victory speech, as if he’s daring you to imagine he actually got paid for this. Then there’s Brian Cox as a bloodthirsty US military buffoon, who just wants to bomb someone, anyone, in order to give his life meaning. 

Perhaps best of all are the pixels themselves: multi-coloured cubes from outer space that glow like paper lanterns, and can configure themselves at the flick of some invisible switch into beautiful, instantly recognisable hieroglyphs from video-gaming’s past. Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and Galaga’s insectoid fleet all put in an appearance. Even the angry arthropods from Centipede show up, snaking through the night sky with a kind of frantic elegance, jaws snapping like Chinese dragons.

But that’s it for the positives. Bee-ee-ee-oop. Game over. Pixels is effectively Ghostbusters with the ghosts replaced by Eighties arcade characters, and the longer you chew over the premise, the more scope it seems to offer for a film that says something fresh and bright about video games and the reasons we play them.

Adam Sandler and Josh Gad take on Centipede in 'Pixels' Credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment

But Christopher Columbus’s film never shows a discernible interest in its own greatest asset: the iconic sprites could just as easily be any other monetisable nostalgia object, and it’s easy to imagine an otherwise identical version of Pixels based around Pez dispensers or the board game Mouse Trap. (Incidentally, a film about Pez dispensers is currently in development.)

The premise – spun off from an award-winning animated short which mystifyingly manages to cover more ground in two and a half minutes than this film does in one and three quarter hours – has alien invaders challenging humanity to a live-action video-gaming tournament for the fate of the Earth. Sandler’s character, a TV installer and former arcade shark called Sam Brenner, is civilisation’s last hope.

American idiots: Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Adam Sandler, Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage in 'Pixels' Credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment/George Kraychyk

Sam is drafted onto the front line, incidentally, because his dopey best friend Will, played by Kevin James, happens to be the president of the United States: one of a few casually ludicrous twists Pixels lobs into the ether with no apparent notion of how best to mine them for humour. (Another: Pac-Man comes face to face with his creator, stares blankly at him for a while, then bites his hand off.) 

Sandler barely seems to have mustered the energy to read his lines aloud, though perhaps it’s no wonder: a typical joke sees Dinklage’s character – a rival arcade ace who calls himself Fire Blaster – referred to by Sam as “Bifocal Blaster” when he unexpectedly puts on a pair of reading glasses. Or take the scene in which Sam moonwalks across President Will’s office: the camera cuts away from Sandler to an anonymous pair of feet, which dutifully perform the manoeuvre, before cutting back to the actor on the other side of the room. If Sandler can’t find it in himself to be verbally or physically entertaining on set, you start to wonder why he’s there in the first place, although his hollow stare in a number of scenes suggests he may be pondering the same thing.

Peter Dinklage, Ashley Benson and Josh Gad in Adam Sandler's 'Pixels' Credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment/George Kraychyk

The supporting cast try harder, but without noticeably better results. Michelle Monaghan has the thankless “hot single mom” role for Sandler to ooze around, while Josh Gad, best known for providing the voice of Olaf in Disney’s Frozen, is mainly called on to run around and shriek. Dan Aykroyd has a conspicuous cameo, as does Dan Aykroyd’s brand of novelty vodka.

Then there’s Ashley Benson, who plays a literal trophy wife: after obsessing over the (fictional) Lady Lisa arcade character since childhood, Gad “wins” her as a partner after besting the aliens in a shoot ‘em up. Lady Lisa seems happy enough with the arrangement, although there’s no way to know for sure, because her character doesn’t speak.

Columbus, who directed the first and second Harry Potter films, is a long way from Hogwarts here. If Pixels had a Patronus, it would probably be a sloth in a beer helmet.