A version of this review was published at the Film Experience

There's a good movie to be made out of Pixels, and it would be the easiest thing in the world to get there. First, keep all of the visual effects setpieces from the movie as it exists, for they are surprisingly beautiful and convincing considering how much lower the film's budget than the usual summer tentpole. Second, make exactly the opposite choices that the filmmakers actually did, because there's literally not one thing about the plot, characters, tone, morality, or basic comprehensibility about Pixels in this form that works.

The film began life in 2010 as a lovely little conceptual short by French filmmaker Patrick Jean (which you can watch here, and have a far more enjoyable 2.5 minutes than anything in the lugubrious 105 minutes of the feature), whence it was almost immediately nabbed by Adam Sandler, who wanted to transform it into a feature. And that's really sad, because of all the changes that would have clearly benefit Pixels at some stage in its development "don't make it an Adam Sandler vehicle" is unquestionably at the top of the list. Sandler tapped Tim Herlihy to write the first draft, which was supplanted by a rewrite by Timothy Dowling, making this the most Timmed-up Hollywood movie in recent memories, and makes me gravely unhappy at my name.

All those Tims whipped up a rather peculiar monstrosity, in which Sam Brenner (Sandler), a video game champion during his teen years in the early '80s, is called upon by his dumpy buddy Will Cooper (Kevin James), now President of the United States, to help save the world. It is first among the film's gaping flaws - not worst, not most inexplicable, just first - that the film makes the stock Kevin James character, the schlubby loser best friend, into the President without having any slight idea of how to make that funny. Or believable. I know that expecting rigorous realism from a Happy Madison joint is my problem, not the film's, but like anything else, comedy needs a baseline of logic to develop from. Given his background as a suburban nerd, given how viscerally everybody in the country hates him, and given that he clearly has no friends besides a sad sack tech nerd working at a Best Buy knockoff, it's impossible to imagine how Cooper got elected in the first place, and if we can't make that leap, there are huge swaths of the movie that never feel like anything other than the standard Happy Madison formula forcibly lacquered onto a framework that doesn't fit them. It's like a comedy sketch that everybody realises is going wrong, but has committed to in front of a live audience and can't back out of.

Earth's existential crisis, anyway, is an alien race that received our transmissions of video game footage in the early '80s and took it as a challenge to attack. So they use their highly advanced ability to form energy into cubes - voxels, technically, not pixels - and they form those cubes into three-dimensional versions of '80s arcade figures, who come to do battle with the ill-prepared human military. Lt. Col. Violet van Patten (Michelle Monaghan) quickly leads an R&D team to build an energy gun - a blaster, basically - that can disrupt the alien cubes, but it will take a genius arcade gamer to know how to use that technology to beat the aliens. And luckily, the president's buddy is just that genius. How this will work in tandem with the antagonistic sexual tension between Cooper and van Patten is anybody's guess, by which I mean that the second Monaghan appears onscreen and Sandler makes all sorts of leering, drooling faces at her, you're able to guess.

Now, that's one of the worst flaws: the insistence on welding the helpless Monaghan into the unenviable position of playing the woman who just can't help herself from being attracted to the life force that is Sandler at his most disengaged and inarticulate (you would never know he originated the project, based on how mopey he is onscreen). It is astonishing to me that in the year that the infamous The Cobbler was released, there'd be an even more off-putting, shambling Sandler performance than that film gave unto the world, but it's really not even all that close. The nominally comic actor pushes through the role with a single, unyielding sense of bitterness, as though trying to make any of the scripts theoretical jokes play as funny was a disgusting idea to him. But there he is, anyway, as Our Guy battling for the girl. It is all very dismal, at a level that goes beyond the usual "women in movies are objects to be won by vaguely unpleasant men" boilerplate. Brenner is viscerally repellent, both in his physical carriage and his defeated personality; trying to sell him as a romantic lead - even just the star of an enjoyable summer action-comedy, for that matter! - is a crime against decency.

Meanwhile, Brenner revives his 33-year-old rivalry against the loathsome video game superstar, Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage, correctly concluding that he could only make the role interesting by playing it as a Lynchian satire and giving the film's sole effective performance as a result), an arrogant weirdo who dresses and acts like time stopped during the first term of Reagan's presidency. This is slapped onto the film crudely, but Dinklage is a life raft while you're watching the film, and I wanted to praise his name.

It's next to impossible to tell who is supposed to find any of this interesting. Chris Columbus directs with all the slam-bang gee-whiz gusto that a filmmaker of his punishingly anonymous style can muster, and in concert with the film's broad-as-a-barn dialogue, this makes it impossible to assume that this is meant for anybody but kids. At the same time, the film is anchored to Brenner's perspective, and so indulgent towards the video game culture of the early '80s (you are expected to know such games as Frogger and Galaga by sight and without explanation) that it seems unlike that the filmmakers genuinely cared about bringing in any audience member under the age of 35. And anybody who cares enough about the mere fact of watching '80s video games rendered as live action giants for nostalgia alone to carry them through the galling screenwriting and insipid directing is unlikely to make it past the film's misunderstanding of what playing those games consists of (a cheat code to make the ghosts warp around in Pac-Man? What the fuck does that even mean?).

But against all of that, I present the film's visual effects: loving and creative renderings of iconic characters who glow with diffuse internal light before collapsing into piles of shiny cubes. Not even during the asinine finale, a battle against Donkey Kong, had I grown so immune to the texture and color that made up the video game characters, that I ceased to enjoy staring at them as they danced across the screen. That's not a whole lot, but- no, I don't have a "but". It's not a whole lot, and you can see enough of it in the film's trailer to get the best of the experience. Fuck Pixels.