Friday, September 3, 2010

In Theaters: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Directed by Edgar Wright

The Grade: B+

The last decade or so has given us a handful of movies based on videogames (Max Payne, Resident Evil, etc), and a sizable number of movies that quite unintentionally looked like video games (300 and the “new” Star Wars trilogy immediately come to mind). But Scott Pilgrim vs. the World might be the first movie to look like a videogame on purpose, as well as use videogame logic to tell its story. The result feels quite refreshing, and like so many great ideas, it makes one wonder why no one had thought of it before.

Michael Cera, who has evolved into the nerd equivalent of America’s sweetheart (Superbad, Juno, cult-classic TV series Arrested Development), plays the title character: a 22-year old bassist in the yet-to-make-it garage rock trio Sex Bob-Omb. Sharing a squalid Toronto apartment (and bed) with his gay roommate Wallace and Wallace’s unending parade of unlikely male conquests, Scott has started dating a painfully na├»ve high-schooler named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), who his band mates worry will “geek out” on them. But Scott’s world changes forever when he sees Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), first in his dreams, and then at a party, where he tries to pique her interest with obscure Pac-Man trivia. With her neon-dyed hair and New York bred personality, Scott hopelessly falls for her before finding out the catch: to win Ramona as his girlfriend, he must first defeat, in battle, her seven evil ex-boyfriends.

Adapted from the popular series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim was directed and co-written by Edgar Wright, who previously made the enjoyable genre homages Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Like those first two films, Wright uses Scott Pilgrim to write a love-letter to an art form that is generally perceived as lowbrow. Even before the movie begins, cinema reality is distorted as the Universal Studios logo is pixilated into 16-bit and the iconic score is adapted to sound like it came from the Nintendo classic Metroid.

The key element in Scott Pilgrim’s visual identity is not to craft entire scenes out of CGI, but rather to layer graphics over the frame that evoke recognizable gaming conventions. For example, each time Scott Pilgrim faces off against a new nemesis, a giant “vs.” appears between the combatants and they receive life bars, just as they would in, say, Street Fighter II. Scott receives things like a “1-up,” and his vanquished enemies explode into coins. Various fight scenes pay tribute to classic games like Super Smash Brothers, Guitar Hero, and Tony Hawk.

But the most interesting thing about Pilgrim isn’t its visual ingenuity, but rather how it uses the inane logic of classic scrolling action games to tell its story and segue between scenes. Just as Super Mario could descend through a pipe and be in an entirely different location, Scott Pilgrim can walk through a door and end up further away than the next room. Each stage of the game that is his life comes packaged with it’s own “boss”—one of Ramona’s evil exes—that must be defeated before he can move on to the next level. In the best scene, Scott even harnesses an extra life to restart a level when he doesn’t like how things were progressing on the first go around.

This may all sound ridiculous, and it is. There’s a very good possibility that anyone raised before Nintendo became an inescapable part of childhood will think this is a laughably bad movie. But with original songs by Beck, and a great supporting cast that includes Jason Schwartzman and Chris Evans as villains unreluctant to ham it up, Anna Kendrick as Scott’s gossipy sister, and Hung star Thomas Jane in a cameo as a member of the Vegan police, Pilgrim definitely has a lot going for it. The deciding factor might be this: if you can still name some of the characters from Mortal Kombat, then chances are decent you’ll love this movie. But if you read the previous sentence and thought “kombat” is spelled wrong, Scott Pilgrim might not be for you.


  1. although I knew Kombat was spelled correctly, and have even glanced through the book I am not sure this movie is for me. Thank you for supporting my theory, but I did enjoy reading your analysis.
    Keep up the good work. Mrs C

  2. Surprised in the StatesSeptember 9, 2010 at 10:48 AM

    Dear Natalie Portman:

    I can't believe you're looking at Dan's blog. I had such a high opinion of you for your work in those Star Wars movies. But now....


    Surprised in the States

  3. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is terrible. I can’t recommend it, even to the small niche genre it’s catered to because as I just pointed out, it’s terrible.