If I told you ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ was a romantic action-comedy based on a comic book with a lot of references to indie rock and video games, you probably wouldn’t go see it. But you should. It’s right up there with ‘Inception’ and ‘Toy Story 3’ as one of the best films of the summer.
Directed by Edgar Wright (‘Shaun of the Dead,’ ‘Hot Fuzz’) and based on the graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, the film follows Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) in his quest to win the heart of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) by defeating each of her Seven Evil Exes. The film blends tried-and-true teen comedy staples like battle of the bands and geek meets girl with a bit of ‘Kill Bill’, garnishing with a healthy sprinkling of ‘Street Fighter II’ and ‘Guitar Hero’.
The film’s quirkiness won’t appeal to all tastes, but it’s easy to find yourself sucked into its offbeat universe. Wright’s kaliedoscoping visuals draw inspiration from anime, comics and games meaning that ‘Scott Pilgrim’ feels much more like actually watching a comic book than say, ‘The Dark Knight’. Visually, it’s an incredibly rich film. Clever details like the moment when streetlights seen through a bus window blur into hearts as Scoot looks adoringly at Ramona give the film an endearingly handmade quality.
As with Wright’s other films, the pop culture references vary from mainstream (‘Seinfeld’) to unabashedly geeky (Scott’s dream sequence features goofy tunes from the old-school ‘Legend of Zelda’). The film has a cool, eclectic soundtrack – Fun Fact: Beck composed the music played by Scott’s band, Sex Bob-omb – and gets some good laughs out of playing with some of the stereotypes of the indie crowd.
The cast and dialogue are also strong, with secondary characters really stealing the show. Chris Evans oozes smugness as action hero Lucas Lee (Evil Ex #2), and Kieran Culkin is a loveable prick as Scott’s roommate. There are loads of clever girls in the cast, particularly Anna Kendrick as Scott’s gossipy sister, Stacey, and Mae Whitman (Cera’s girlfriend on ‘Arrested Development’) in a brief turn as Roxy Richter, Ramona’s “bi-furious” former girlfriend. However, Jason Schwartzman is underutilized as Scott’s ultimate nemesis, Gideon Graves. Gideon, who looks creepily like a more indie ‘MI:2’ Tom Cruise, gets some laughs, but any fan of ‘Rushmore’ can attest to Schwartzman’s far greater capacity for odiousness.
It’s a testament to Wright’s abilities that he can make legendary geeks like Cera and Schwartzman convincing as ’64-hit combo’-executing badasses. Even so, the film’s fight sequences are simultaneously its greatest strength and weakness; granted, they’re undeniably awesome but many are simply too long. Also, the story starts to feels rushed somewhere around Ex #3, as if Wright suddenly realizes he’s only got half an hour left to tell most of his story. This leaves some poorly developed loose ends, like the Katayanagi twins (Evil Exes #5 and #6), and Scott’s own Evil Ex, Envy Adams. One suspects these characters were a lot more interesting in the comic.
It’s a shame that ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ has already pretty much ‘bob-ombed’ in the States, recouping only $11 million of its reported $60 million budget on opening weekend. You don’t need to own a PS3 or even know how to pronounce ‘anime’ to enjoy the things which make this movie such silly fun; it’s visual style is truly unlike anything else, and its deadpan one-liners will easily stick in your brain.
Films based on video games have always been notoriously noxious in quality. From ‘Super Mario Bros.’ to ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’, ‘Hitman’ to ‘Max Payne’, the interactivity that works so well on an Xbox has never translated onto the silver screen with any degree of success. With ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’, director Edgar Wright seems to have come up with a solution: dispense with the video game altogether. Never has there been a more energetic, hyperactive and Nintendo-influenced film, and while its roots ostensibly lie with a cult comic book series of the same name, its biggest influences, for better and for worse, are video games.
The film follows Pilgrim (Michael Cera), the bass player for an inadequate band, Sex Bob-Omb, as he attempts to win the heart of the mysterious Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). There’s just one obstacle in his way. Well, seven, to be precise. He must defeat her past lovers, all seven of whom assemble against him as the League of Evil Exes, lead by Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman). As a set-up, it’s a fairly ingenious spin on the standard romantic vehicles that have begun to bog down Cera’s career, while the multiple turns that the plot takes aren’t exactly predictable.
In many ways, this film is the logical progression for Edgar Wright. He made his name back in 1999 by directing Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes’ ‘Spaced’, where his direction ensured that the TV show’s multiple pop-culture references and rip-offs were made in a reverential and skilful style on a deceptively small budget. Then came the perfectly executed ‘Shaun of the Dead’ – still the high point of his short career – followed by the slightly overindulgent ‘Hot Fuzz’, which together allowed Wright to ascend to the A-List of Hollywood directors, rubbing shoulders with Tarantino and Spielberg.
Having proved his mettle with his first two features, Wright was given a larger budget to accommodate his growing ambitions, and the result is ‘Scott Pilgrim’. However, to the surprise and disappointment of this reviewer, it’s not a film that’s easy to embrace. From the first pixellated frame to the last, the experience of viewing the film is an utterly bewildering assault on at least two of your senses, and it never allows its audience time to adjust. Although the running time stretches to almost two hours, the film could not be more enthusiastically hyperactive as it jumps from one scene to the next with smooth, rapid cuts. The camera is continually restless, as if Wright is desperate to show us something new and terrified of boring his audience. This leads to words, usually onomatopoeic, filling the screen whenever possible – if a doorbell rings, it is unfailingly accompanied by a floating ‘ding-dong’ written in the font of a comic book.
Strangely, the cumulative effect of the film’s continual efforts to entertain and surprise render the movie, as a whole, rather sterile. Music plays at all times, as if the makers were afraid of silence; never mind if a pause is meaningful, for Wright it’s not entertaining enough. One longs for just a single scene containing a comprehensible and normally paced conversation, and for the camera to remain still for more than five seconds. It’s as if a perpetually teenage Wright is dashing around his cinematic bedroom, grabbing out his favourite records, comics, films and video games, desperate to show you excerpts from every single one, with the effect being one of bewilderment or even disaffection for the viewer. It’s a film composed of bits, and seems to have been edited in chunks, with little attention being paid to the overall picture. It lacks coherence, and as the film leaps from one cartoonish fight to another, one begins to feel the urge to shake Wright violently by the shoulders and plead with him to calm down. His enthusiasm isn’t infectious, it’s just tiresome.
If the kinetic and undeniably impressive visuals of ‘Scott Pilgrim’ concealed something more substantial, the film’s hyperactivity wouldn’t create such a problem. Yet underneath all the whip-pans, floating words and vanquished foes exploding into coins Mario-style, the film is curiously hollow. This imbalance comes as somewhat of a surprise, particularly considering Wright’s previous successes: beneath the flippant comedy of ‘Shaun of the Dead’ lay a genuine and moving romance, while even ‘Hot Fuzz’ was grounded in the believable bromance between Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Here, there is none of that substance. As the film never pauses to breathe, it fails utterly to develop its characters – they remain ciphers, always playing second fiddle (or controller) to the flashily stylish visuals and pop-culture savvy dialogue. ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ is certainly a unique experience, and aims itself fairly effectively at those who grew up with a Nintendo 64 or Sega Megadrive, yet its overall effect is a fairly numbing one. Much like the culture of video games with which it is clearly enamoured, this is a technically stunning film, but one which is impossible to love.