Before I get going into this review, I need to say one thing about Edgar Wright's body of work. It is uniformly brilliant. I don't feel like I need to say anything other than this. He is a filmmaker that is impossibly good at understanding the genres he works in while simultaneously lampooning and deconstructing them. More important than that, his work shares one constant: the power of love. It comes in the form of friendship (Shaun and Ed in Shaun of the Dead); it comes in the form of true love (Shaun and Liz in Shaun, and arguably Nick Angel and Butterman in Hot Fuzz). The closest thing that Edgar Wright had done to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was probably Spaced. It carries a certain amount of video game logic and is chiefly a look at a “couple” surrounded by a cast of characters. I'm not going to say much more about Spaced because it's something you should be watching. The point I'm making is that, despite whatever wacky circumstances are being tossed up on the screen, there's a heart, a core of real emotion and real feeling that is what keeps us watching in the first place.
Scott Pilgrim, however, is devoid of anything resembling actual human emotion. It's a hollow, if gorgeous, wreck.
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a twenty-three year-old slacker playing bass in a garage band called Sex Bob-omb, along with “the talent” Stephen Stills (Mark Webber), and Kim Pine (Alison Pill), the angry, snarky drummer. Scott is also dating a seventeen year-old Chinese girl named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). It is a little creepy. All that changes when Scott meets the literal girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). It all becomes terribly complicated when Scott, in order to go out with Ramona, is forced to defeat her seven evil exes, who are organized into the League of Evil Exes by chief ex Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman). Fortunately, Scott's the best fighter Toronto, but can he keep up with increasingly more powerful exes and learning more and more about Ramona's checkered past?
Going into this movie, I was worried the most about one thing: Micheal Cera. His inability to play anything other than variations on George Micheal Bluth made me almost write him off entirely when I heard he was cast in this picture. Scott Pilgrim is not a mumbly, soft-spoken hipster. He's a little crazy, a little hyper, and prone to anime-esque outbursts when not performing 64-hit combos. That said, I was really surprised that Micheal Cera eeked out a pretty OK performance. He's still very clearly entrenched in a certain kind of character, but I could see that he was at least trying to stretch himself. He's by no means the standout performance; that trophy goes to Kieran Culkin as Wallace Wells, Scott's gay roommate that's about as too cool for school as one can get. Ramona is made more or less emotionless by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, delivering mostly in a deadpan monotone that could be interpreted as jaded or quietly snarky. She sounded more bored to me. The rest of the supporting cast is pretty entertaining, standouts being evil ex Todd Ingram, played with moronic perfection by Brandon Routh, and Kim as the angry voice in the back of the room constantly (and correctly) reminding Scott what a bastard he is.
I'm dancing around getting into the meat of my opinions on Scott Pilgrim because, for everything I hated, there's some good, entertaining stuff going on. The centerpiece evil ex fights, mainly the first three, offer a lot of very cool action beats, and Edgar Wright brings all of his high energy camera work to bear. There are video game references out the wazoo. If you're they kind of person who will squeal with delight a little when someone plays the bass line from Final Fantasy 2, you'll probably want to see this movie just to watch how all the video game stuff plays out. Scott Pilgrim is, in a sense, a video game movie, despite being an adaptation of a graphic novel. It's a video game movie that actually allows itself to behave like a video game. Fight sequences begin with Street Fighter 2-esque life bars and “Ready? FIGHT!!” It's all very slick, and very cool. We also get a lot of shoutouts to the film's graphic novel origins with your onomatopoeia sound effects popping up on screen. It's silly, but they offer some fun little touches here and there.
As a fan of the comic source, I want to talk for a minute about the differences between the two. It's important to note that the film was originally optioned and written before even the fifth of six volumes had been released, so there are necessarily some major differences, especially in the last third of the movie. Honestly, the cuts and changes made are improvements over the comics. Three of the seven exes manage to get pretty heavily shortchanged, but they also happened to be the three least interesting ones from the comic, so I can't say that movie-going audiences are missing a lot. The ending of the comic, while satisfying, got a bit muddled and overcomplicated, tossing large, nonsensical plot twists at us for the sake of tying up a few loose ends, and it detracted from the overall quality. In the film, however, things manage to tie themselves together in a more satisfying and significantly less convoluted manner. It does try to toss in a last minute (as in, two minutes before the credits roll) twist on us, but it seems to realize that such an asinine twist completely negates all of the action that has come before it and backpedals quickly. Also, in probably my favorite moment from the movie, the deus ex machina that manages to give Scott an edge is 110% video games in the best possible way.
At the end of the day though, it becomes very difficult to enjoy all the cool special effects, because as the movie progresses, it begins to dawn on you that all of the film's events are hollow. Meaningless, even. As I've stated before, the film lacks any kind of emotional core. We're told of Scott's struggle with himself, trying to become a better person for the sake of Ramona, but we don't see it. Ramona informs Scott, and the audience, that she's, “dabbled in being a bitch,” but other than a string of dumped boyfriends, what evidence do we have that she's undergoing any kind of emotional trauma or feeling at all? It plays out like a Micheal Bay movie: a lot of very cool shit is happening on screen, and it's enjoyable, but the moment you step back and ask, “Ok, but why?,” the magic disappears. All we're left with are some truly cool action sequences, but without the emotion to back them up, they're just as hollow as everything else.
So, is Scott Pilgrim vs. The World really a game-changer? Visually, perhaps. If nothing else, it will give a precedence that lets video game movies really embrace their roots, rather than try to fit an interactive experience into a non-interactive media. There is some fun to be had here, that much is certain, but it all comes at the expense of the film's larger goal. A movie about relationships where you just can't wind up caring about the two people you're supposed to care about has failed completely.
KINDA SPOILER WARNING. ALSO, THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH VIDEO GAMES WARNING.
Since its July 16th release, I have seen Inception twice. I will likely see it at least once more. As a mostly unemployed Southern Californian, this equates to I'd rather see this movie again than eating something other than ramen. But this isn't a review, though my thoughts on the film are probably pretty obvious (I fucking loved it). I'd like to write for a little while about an aspect of the film that I've noticed has been fairly ignored in the larger critical community. But first, endure a little bit more autobiographical waxing.
I chose, after the first or second trailer, to ignore every story, every interview, every little bit of news dealing with Inception. I wanted to go into it as cleanly as possible, knowing only the basics of plot and characters. Then, after the first viewing, I went back and read pages and pages of reviews, interviews, and all that good jazz. One thing stuck with me more than anything. Sure, it was fascinating reading about how they did the rotating hallway scene (they straight built a rotating hallway, how cool is that?), but the most important thing to me was a quote from Blastr's red carpet interview with Leonardo DiCaprio. In it, he states that Inception is much like Frederico Fellini's 8 ½. This absolutely blew my mind. 8 ½ is, in essence, an autobiographical film about a filmmaker, making a science-fiction movie, no less, struggling to overcome his creative block. In a nutshell, it's about film-making itself.
With this in mind, I saw Inception a second time. What I saw was almost a different movie. The brooding, action-packed thinkpiece on the nature of dreams, ideas, and reality itself became Christopher Nolan's own autobiographical love letter to the creative process of film-making. As someone who's worked on several film sets, both in college and the rare occasion when I was allowed somewhere cool when interning in Los Angeles, I can say without a doubt that the entire process shown for preparing to launch the “heist” into Robert Fischer's mind was only a few steps removed from the pre-production process. Cobb, obviously, is the director. He hands down edicts about the way everything should be from on high. Ariadne is a mish-mash of art director, set designer, and screenwriter, creating the world for the “audience” and working closest to the “director.” Yusef brings to mind a mad visual effects team or a cinematographer, essentially working magic to make the whole thing work. Saito's a sort of studio head, someone throwing buckets of money at the project and wants to come along for the ride. Arthur, within my thesis, is slightly harder to place, but I should think he falls into the category of producer. He's the guy in the back questioning almost everything the director says, sometimes nearly coming to blows over it, but in the end, he's the official “get shit done guy.” Eames, who proves along with his performance in Bronson that Tom Hardy is going places, is the actor, one of the immediate conduits between the audience and the crew. He even assumes the identity of Fischer's godfather/father's right hand man, right down to his appearance. The ultimate piece of acting indeed. It all leads to the second half of the film, the dream itself. The dream, that crazy, reality-defying spectacle, is the finished product. The film itself.
With this in mind, it's fairly obvious where Fischer lies in the whole film-making metaphor. Fischer is us, the audience. Through the machinations of the crew, Fischer is lead on a thrilling chase, all culminating on an amazing truth revealed to him at the end of the journey, a truth that changes his life forever. One might argue that the truth Fischer discovers is a falsehood, the idea the team has been hired to place within his mind, but is that really very different from the way film-makers work? A well-made movie can elicit all kinds of emotions in a person, maybe even completely change their minds about truths they thought were absolute.
In essence, this means that Inception, with its grand scope, intense action, and mind-bending themes, is Christopher Nolan's most personal movie to date, at least until Batman: Rise of the Film Freak, starring Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan.