Scott Pilgrim is an epic for the Nintendo generation
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a fast, funny, and successful adaptation of the original comics. But more than that, it’s a starkly original film that plays on its audience’s immersion in the culture of sitcoms, video games, and comics.
It’s worth saying upfront that Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic series, is not a film for everyone. Some folks are bound to be put off by the film’s relentless pacing, its comic book framing, its hyperactive magical realism. In fact, at least one early reviewer of the film seems utterly mystified by the film’s internal logic, which is dictated by not only by comic books but also by the sidescroller and player-vs.-player video games of O’Malley’s youth.
But for anyone who spent hours of their youth playing Sonic the Hedgehog or pumping quarters into a Mortal Kombat machine, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World will feel like something that’s been a long time coming: a major motion picture steeped in the “literature” of their youth, a movie that pulls affectionately from popular culture without seeming hipper-than-thou. Even beyond that, it’s an exciting moviegoing experience, filled with images and ideas never before seen on the silver screen.
Michael Cera is the titular Scott Pilgrim, a 22-year-old Toronto slacker without any particular career, creative, or romantic ambitions. He’s grown so thoroughly comfortable sharing a one-room apartment (and its single bed) with his roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin, who now famously steals the show — not an easy feat here) that it doesn’t occur to him to move out or get a job. He is aware that his band Sex Bob-omb (named for the explosive enemies from Mario 2) kind of sucks, but seems to use that awareness as an excuse not to get better. And he has been so thoroughly crushed by his last relationship with now-famous rock star Envy Adams (Brie Larson) that he’s eager to settle for a chaste relationship with high schooler Knives Chau (Ellen Wong).
That changes one night when Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) literally skates through one of Scott’s existentially distressing dreams. Ramona is a mystical, mysterious American delivery girl who uses a subspace highway that happens to run through Scott’s brain. Soon enough, Scott begins to see Ramona in real life and makes it his mission to date her — despite his reluctance to break things off with the smitten Knives.
But just as Scott begins making progress with Ramona, he discovers a hitch. Make that seven hitches, in the form of seven evil exes, whom Scott must fight and defeat before he can date Ramona.
One of the key elements that made O’Malley’s books so popular is how thoroughly they are steeped in the language of video games and geek culture. Scott Pilgrim is a character for whom the video game world is more familiar than the real world. In the books, when Scott finally gets a job, he likens his tasks to a “job system” video game. His dreams come with cheat codes. So it comes as little surprise when Scott defeats Ramona’s first evil ex-boyfriend only to see him evaporate into a handful of pocket change.
If the Scott Pilgrim books are tinged with video game logic, then the movie is ruled by it. Edgar Wright has wisely teased out and exaggerated the idea of Scott Pilgrim’s life as a video game. Each encounter with each evil ex plays as a progressively more difficult level of a video game, with Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman) as the film’s Bowser. Scott must display increasingly levels of ingenuity — or in some cases, unlock a cheat code or go into co-op mode — to advance to the next level. This means that the events in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World unfold in a somewhat different — and often more straightforward — manner than they do in the books. As I mentioned in the first impressions post, they’re changes that work. Wright is content to let the Scott Pilgrim books remain books, and make the changes necessary to make his movie work on the screen. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World isn’t a direct translation (although at times it feels that way), but a reinterpretation of O’Malley’s imagery and ideas as live-action, and Wright has a keen sense of the types of new material that will fit well in the pre-established Scott Pilgrim world.
To that end, where O’Malley is at times inclined to use actual literary allusions in his books (as when Scott acquires a Mithril skateboard after defeating Lucas Lee), Wright plays more with audiovisual references to other media. In one scene, Wright pulls musical cues and canned laughter from Seinfeld to highlight a scene between Scott and Wallace. It’s not a moment that will play with everyone, but it’s great fun to watch Wright experiment and play with the material he’s been given.
And it’s that sense of play that makes Scott Pilgrim such an enjoyable moviegoing experience. Wright is up to the challenge of bringing many of O’Malley’s pages to direct life, right down to the frames, rapid transitions, and hovering text. At the same time, he weaves in strands of Bollywood, illustrated flashbacks, sounds from actual video games, and, of course, those comic book onomatopoeias. There’s hardly a moment in the movie that doesn’t feel fresh or surprising.
And what about fans of the book? Certainly they will find the experience richer — if at times more frustrating — than folks coming into the movie cold. Much of the humor derives from seeing just how Wright pulls off certain scenes — and the cast’s pitch-perfect delivery — in addition to the new surprises Wright and the screenwriters have added. But fans will inevitably leave wishing they’d seen a particular favorite scene (no madness-inducing thrift store or Julie Powers theme parties) or more of a favorite character (Kim Pine and Envy Adams’ plotlines are truncated in favor of Knives Chau’s). In my first impressions, I found caught up in the absence of Ramona’s character development when I later realized Wright wants us to focus on exclusively Scott’s (although Knives gets an emotional level up as well). And there’s no way the ending — already the film’s weakest point — could live up to the book’s.
Still, for these small flaws, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World maintains a lot of the message of O’Malley’s books: that, at some point, Mario has to fight for something more than just the Princess. It’s doubtful that the comparably weak ending will stop anyone from reaching for a second helping of demonic hipster chicks, flaming swords, quick wit, and Sex Bob-omb. In fact, I would be mightily surprised if I don’t see Scott Pilgrim playing at house parties and in dorm rooms for years to come.