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Movie review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

6:00 PM on 08.02.2010 // Jonathan Holmes

Scott Pilgrim is a thing that most people haven't heard of, but the people who have heard of it are usually madly in love with it. It's a cult classic that's on the verge of becoming a big deal.

Personally, I've been wary of the property since I first saw the comic about three years ago. It seemed gimmicky -- rife with trendy jeans, borrowed visual styles, snark, and forced cultural references. Fan testimonials didn't do much to change my opinion, either. I'd hear things like "Scott Pilgrim is so awesome because there is this one part that's just like River City Ransom for two panels!" or "It's my favorite comic book ever because the guy who made it likes all the same stuff that I do!" That's great and all, but shouldn't it take more than a narcissistic identification with a book's author to enjoy his/her work?

Then I heard about the movie, and how Edgar Wright (its director) wanted to infuse the film with as much "videogame logic" as possible, while staying true to the comic. That caught my interest. Game-to-movie adaptations almost always make a point to scrub the "videogame-ness" out of their movies. The Street Fighter movie has no life meters or Hadokens (no, a random flash of light doesn't count). The Super Mario Bros. movie has no levitating brick walls or clouds with smiley faces, and those are just two examples. When movie people get hold of a videogame, the surrealism is usually the first thing that gets lost in the translation, and whatever game-weirdness is left alive usually gets over-explained to the point of joylessness.

The Scott Pilgrim movie pledged to do better than that. It swore that it would embrace the things that make videogames great. It also pledged to retain the snarky humor and abundant cultural references that we got from the comics. Yikes! What a combination!

Could such a movie be good to watch for a snark-loathing, videogame logic-loving man like myself? Hit the jump to find out.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the story of Scott Pilgrim and his friends talking to each other, beating up people, and figuring things out. This group has achieved something that as a teenager, I thought I'd never see: they are cool and nerdy at the same time. Amazing.

They're all at least moderately good-looking, most of them are in bands, and some of them have magic powers, but they're all poor, videogame-loving slackers. When I say "poor," I mean it in the "cute starving artist" way, not in the "I'm so hungry and I've got rickets and no health insurance" way. Maybe that's because the movie takes place in Canada, where health care is free and fun for everyone. More likely it's because in the world of Scott Pilgrim, serious problems aren't ever that serious. Having no fear of death, poverty, and other life-threatening problems is all part of the Scott Pilgrim fantasy formula.

Make no mistake about it, there is definitely a formula at work here. I've heard it said that Scott Pilgrim is Twilight for teenage guys, with a few appropriate swaps put in place. Where the Twilight formula calls for a whiny teenage girl, two hot guys to swoon over her, a modified Gothic fantasy/horror mythology, and a constant barrage of teen angst and sexual repression, Scott Pilgrim plugs in a clueless guy, three (or more) cute girls who have feelings for him, videogame/anime/manga/Adult Swim happenings, and identity/adulthood/dating confusion.

Good news, ladies! Compared to Twilight, there's tons of room for both genders to get into Scott Pilgrim. Where most guys have a hard time identifying with either of Twilight's male leads, as their entire lives revolve around the blind adoration of an extremely boring person, Scott Pilgrim's female cast members have personalities of their own. Though much of the story focuses on Scott and his battles against his girlfriend's evil exes, Ramona's and Scott's exes get their fair share of focus as well. The issues that these characters are dealing with are pretty much gender-universal, and their respective levels of screen time reflects that.

I think you'll be hard-pressed to find someone under 25 who doesn't relate with at least one of these characters, and that really makes it stand out. I'm not sure if I've ever seen a movie for people born after 1985 that's about people born after 1985 doing what people in that age group do -- questioning their own worth, proving their worth by trying to one-up their peers and/or date them, and eventually establishing themselves as adults -- while infusing it all with the stuff that a lot of today's teens and young adults love: the previously mentioned videogames, anime, and Adult Swim. What 16-to-25-year-old can't relate with that? It's bound to be a hit, at least with a certain demographic.

Unfortunately, I'm not a teen or a young adult. I'm 33 years old -- emphasis on old. I don't really like Harry Potter or Serenity or non-Miyazaki modern anime. I don't like most of the work of J.J. Abrams or Joss Whedon. If you do like any of the above-mentioned creators or creations, you may very well love Scott Pilgrim, maybe even with all of your love. I think fans of the comic will be mostly pleased as well. I picked up all six volumes of the series after seeing the movie, and although there is a lot more story, subtlety, and detail in the comics, the movie still captures the essence of the source material. Much of the script comprises line-by-line transcriptions of the comic. The casting is also spot-on, especially Chris Evans and Brandon Routh as brutally intimidating, superstar, alpha-male exes.

But yeah, I'm old, and as such, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World didn't always click with me. Most of the movie's (and as I'm finding out now, the comic's) problems stem from its tendency to try too hard. The movie has a habit of occasionally covering up its soul with meaningless surface-level details, like a beautiful girl with too much makeup on. It doesn't accentuate her natural beauty; it just distracts from it.

If you're an interesting storyteller, then your characters will be easy to care about, and if they grow and change in an emotionally believable way throughout your story, then you're all set. You don't need to try to win me over by constantly sampling other shows, games, and movies that I already love. You don't have to shove loads of impossibly quick-witted banter down my throat. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is sometimes so thick with style, so quick to transform itself into something else to try to get me to relate with it, that at times I actually wanted to yell at the screen, "Just be yourself, God damn it!" Then, of course, I realized that the movie was being itself -- a brilliant-but-insecure nerd who's prone to overcompensation.

Like most people I know who fit that description, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World becomes more fun to be with as it becomes more comfortable with itself. I think it was around halfway through the movie that the videogame references stopped being calculatedly "random" jokes, and started having metaphorical significance. That's when I really started to fall in love with Scott Pilgrim.

I don't want to give it away because it's a major spoiler, but I will tell you that in the third act, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World utilizes multiple trappings of '80s/'90s videogame logic in a way that feels wholly necessary, and wholly amazing. The style and the substance of the film finally become one, and the language of videogames is used to evocatively expose the film's deepest concepts. Through life, death, and a third option, we see the characters we've grown to love finally reach their potential. It's visually and emotionally beautiful. All of the main characters' stories wrap up together at the same time, under an umbrella of events that can only be described as a "videogame come to life." I've never seen a movie utilize videogames as source material as honestly, intelligently, and effectively as Scott Pilgrim does.

The weird thing is, Scott Pilgrim isn't even based on a videogame (yet). I'm thinking that only someone who doesn't actively work in videogames could make a love letter to videogames (and videogamers) that's this sincere. The grass is greener on the other side? I'm not sure, but I am sure that I'd love to see Edgar Wright and/or Bryan Lee O'Malley take on game development someday.

To sum up, if you love pretty people bantering and videogame logic, then you will love Scott Pilgrim. If you like just one or the other, you will definitely enjoy it, but not all the way. If you don't like either (or if you fear the idea of seeing Michael Cera engaging in intentional self-parody for close to two hours), you might want to stay away from this one. As for me, I'm definitely buying it when it comes out on DVD, but mostly just so I can watch the ending over and over again, while dreaming that the potential success of this movie will lead to faithful film adaptations of No More Heroes, FLCL, and Ranma 1/2.

It may be snarky, but this is still the first true videogame movie. I certainly hope it's not the last.

Score: 8.0 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)

Jonathan Holmes, Bad Joke Uncle
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