Sometimes films adapt to visual conventions and viewer expectations to rise above the rabble. Directors and production teams at the top of their craft realize their vision and we get something new and noteworthy. Recent examples include Inception and Avatar. Rarely, very rarely, do we get a movie that is also able to combine these visual fireworks with appealing characters and storytelling. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is such a movie.
SPvtW is based on the series of comic books by Bryan Lee O’Malley. They feature a young dude making his way in Toronto. He plays bass in a local band and has a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. He likes video games. He’s creative but not overly ambitious. He’s not all that smooth with the girls. So Scott Pilgrim is pretty familiar.
O’Malley has won acclaim and a decent following with this indie title by blending familiarity with a keen sense of comic book and video game-style fantasy. With the movie version, which reportedly included ongoing collaboration between O’Malley and Director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) throughout the production, we once again see the value of staying true to the source material. We’ve harped on this before: if you trust the source material, Hollywood, you can get somewhere.
The movie starts out with Scott (Michael Cera) dating a high schooler, Knives Chau. It’s pretty obvious he’s still hurting from his previous break-up, wanting some companionship and someone to hang out with. It doesn’t hurt that Knives thinks he’s incredibly cool (and what high schooler doesn’t think this of a 22 year old in a band…) and she’s decent at video games. We meet the ensemble of Scott’s world, including his band, his sister, and his roommate (witty gay guy). And presently, he discovers the new girl in town, Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Scott is smitten. He stalks/woos her in familiar Michael Cera fashion, only to learn that if he really wants to date her, he must defeat the League of Seven Evil Exes (as in ex-boyfriends).
This synopsis gives you the gist of the plot, as well as some sense of the visual style. But only a sense. If we’re going to discuss this style, we should probably use pretentious semi-intellectual terminology of the sort favored by film students and reviewers. How about the meta-cross-platform-media-narrative… Wherein the movie effectively drops visual and audio references to 30 years of video game history, alt rock riffs, sitcoms, anime, sci-fi movies, comic books, and most likely Canadian stuff I didn’t pick up on. The meta-cross-platform-media-narrative is apparent from the opening credits (a 16-bit rendering of the Paramount logo complete with Super Nintendo-style music), but really kicks in when the first Evil Ex shows up and Scott Pilgrim goes into Mortal Kombat mode.
Many reviewers seem to be both fascinated and consternated by the stylings of the meta-cross-platform-media-narrative. They’re trying to figure it out, dissect what it all means, hold it up as more evidence that we’re a generation of attention-deficit disorder pop culture junkies. That whirring you hear is the distant sound of a thousand graduate theses moving into production…
And that’s cool. But as far as we’re concerned, the strength of the m-c-p-m-n is how wonderfully Edgar Wright and his team weave these elements into the film, creating this hyper-imaginative world and playing expertly for laughs. Was that a few bars from Zelda? The voiceover guy from Street Fighter 2? A key sound effect from Flash Gordon? That punk-style baseline from Scott’s band sure sounds familiar… And it’s not that these references are randomly dropped in – they’re part of the world, part of the story, inherent to the characters. The wife and I found ourselves laughing and smiling throughout.
The other criticism I’ve read is a dismissive ‘OK, it’s visually groundbreaking but there’s no depth to the story’ (usually, it’s worth noting, by reviewers of a certain age who don’t know much about Mario, garage bands, or Akira). I couldn’t disagree more. SPvtW reminded me of some of the better John Hughes movies in this way: it is about the problems of relationships of people in the last throes of youth. For people in the early 20s, hanging out but not quite fully in the professional world of adults, this comes down to issues of trust and sense of identity. Most guys and gals at this stage in their lives have been through one or two serious relationships and have a hard time dealing with their own accumulated baggage as well as feeling insecure about the new boyfriend/girlfriend’s previous history.
Scott Pilgrim deals with this overtly with the obvious battles against Seven Evil Exes. He also has to deal with the situation with Knives as well as his own ex coming back to town. No one does insecure and awkward quite like Michael Cera. And Ramona as portrayed by Winstead has obvious trust problems and isn’t proud of her past. She quickly becomes defensive about it – a situation 90 percent of guys can relate to. These quiet scenes between Cera and Winstead are heartfelt and real – much more poignant than the majority of their analogues from the typical Hollywood romantic comedy. I found myself sitting there thinking, yeah, I can remember that conversation. I can remember that frustrating sense of doubt and hope. Most of us can relate to those moments in relationships when lines from the Radiohead song ‘Creep’ come into your head, and that’s where you are.