If it weren’t for Inception, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World would be the most visually impressive film of year. Maybe it still is. This tale of adolescent irrelevence might have a bit of difficulty finding an audience, but it certainly deserves one – it’s a pure kaleidoscopic sugar rush of youthful exuberence and energy, all focused through a simple but effective emotional narrative. Indeed, perhaps its closest companion is (500) Days of Summer, the breakout romantic comedy of last year – except this time the emotional complexity is dialed down and the visual flair way up. And neither of those are bad things. In fact, as part of Edgar Wright’s latest film, they are actually quite genius.
We’ll talk about the movie’s plot in a minute, but let’s focus on the style for a moment. From the moment that the Universal Pictures logo appears, heavily pixelated and with the familiar overture playing in what can only be described as 8-bit sound, the viewer knows they’re in for a treat. I’ve long been an admirer of director Edgar Wright, but even I never anticipated that he would be capable of composing a visual fantasy on this scale – and make no mistake, a fantasy this is.
Of course, it’s not populated by elves or hobbits, but that doesn’t diminish the accomplishment. There is never a dull moment in this two-hour presentation, which is something of an accomplishment in itself. The more cynical viewers out there might decry this sort of frentic hyper-stylised presentation a symptom of an ADHD culture, but I really don’t care. There’s a world of difference between the use of flash editing to disguise an insecurity or lack of talent and what director Wright does here – borrowing from sources as diverse as Batman! (with sound effects presented as text on screen) and Star Trek (at one point his female lead brandishes a wine chiller like Spock’s infamous Vulcan weapon from Amok Time), there’s no denying the level skill involved. This isn’t empty hackery or an attempt to piggy-back by reference to the beloved original material. This is a chef brewing a pop culture stew to be savoured like fine cuisine – or, y’know just for you to stare at with your mouth open as Wright finds a way to make even the most mundane events seem amazing and fantastical.
The plot is remarkably straightforward. Scott Pilgrim, still recovering from a breakup that hurt him deeply, falls in love with the new girl to the neighbourhood – Ramona Flowers. Of course, that means breaking up with his current girlfriend – a high school student with the unlikely name of Knives Chau. However, as the couple are drawn together, they realise that they each come with quite a serious amount of baggage – although it’s the attempts of Ramona’s “seven evil exe’s” upon Scott’s life that form the basis of the plot, he’s got his own share of hang-ups himself. The pair of them must learn to deal with the past that comes with the other, so that they may have a future together. And, of course, that any true love (the other “other l-word”) is worth fighting for.
If this sounds simplistic, it is. That’s the entire point. The movie is structured from the perspective of the young person, for whom the discovery that their romantic partner has a history can oftentimes seem like the end of the world (and I’m not even being really melodramatic). It’s a world populated with “battle of the band” competitions, and where every confrontation – no matter how small or insignificant – seems almost epic. The movie’s impact will depend on your sympathy to such a point of view – though I dare to say it’s a fairly universal experience.
I’m going to be entirely honest (and this is a point I will return to later on) and point out that maybe Scott is a bit old for all this when we meet him in the movie – this sort of difficulty with identity more becomes a teenager than a twenty-something adult. Still, Wright perfectly pitches his movie from this angle – indeed, anyone who remembers the difficulties of early relationships and the insecurities that accompanied any exploration of a lover’s past will appreciate the story as a coming-of-age saga wrapped inside the most wonderful technicolour dreamcoat you could dare imagine.
Those looking for a keen insight into romance or a moral more sophisticated than the trailers would have you expect will be disappointed, but that’s not the point – the film works precisely because of its simplicity and straightforwardness. Indeed, the plot’s one-dimensional-ness seems to complement the more outrageous style and staging elements that Wright uses – in a way, the only way a film like this can get away with being so surreal is by being so simplistic. There is some haziness at the end (what exactly does the chip do, and why does the badguy have one?), but these are small potatoes.
I loved the film. I really did. I can understand how it may have failed to grab American cultural consciousness, but it’s exactly the kind of film that appeals to me. I dig the fact that they used The Legend of Zelda themesong, or the triforce design as branding for a particularly important character. I even quite enjoyed the very brief Seinfeld bit. But here’s the thing: I’m this movie’s target audience and I’m not old enough to know what Seinfeld is. Indeed, I’m a good five years separated from that iconic comedy. Sure I know what it is, but that’s because I’m a geek. While the movie is perfectly easy to follow even without a knowledge of all these in-jokes and references, it makes it hard to keep track of who exactly is the audience for this type of film. It’s people like me (obviously) – and, while I love it, it’s far too steeped in pop culture nostalgia to appeal to a younger teenage crowd and far too saturated with “hipster angst” to appeal to the older crowd.
Still – and here’s the thing – it’s very hard to picture anybody sitting down and not finding something to love in the film – unless they’re entirely cynical and jaded. In fact, my better half – who has a history of counterbalancing my geeky film love – was won over by the film’s charm despite a slight unease at its premise. I can just see it being a very tough sell to get those bums in seats. Consider this a wholehearted sales pitch right now: it’s the most visually impressive film of the year so far (if not the past several years), and it’s brimming with energy and enthusiasm.
The cast is solid. Michael Cera definitely needs to develop some range (he’s been playing the same character from Superbad to here), but the rest of the cast is superb. Especially the young Ellen Wong as Scott’s schoolgirl girlfriend and Kieran Culkin as Scott’s sarcastic roommate. Of the exe’s (which, Ramona stresses repeatedly, should not be interpretted as “evil ex-boyfriends”), Brandon Routh and Chris Evans stand out, particularly with fantastic subversions of their usually cool demeanours. I think I love the movie’s quirky wordplay as much as I love its impressive visuals (my personal favourites include a one-liner relying on a stressed pronounciation of “vee-gone” and an action movie threat made through a payphone). The script allows the actors a chance to ham it up, as well as actually having a bit of fun with its own mechanics (at one point even the stunt doubles are involved, as the bad guy in question checks his text messages and grabs a coffee).
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World might not be the most thought-provoking film this year, nor the best-told – but it is the most visually stunning (okay, maybe it ends up locked in a wrestling match with Christopher Nolan’s Inception). It’s solidly entertaining and brilliantly engaging. I can safely say that you have never seen anything quite like it before – which is quite the complement in today’s day-and-age of recycled action movies and romantic comedies. It’s a charming and impressive film which I wouldn’t be surprised to see standing tall at the end of the year.
Thank you very much to Universal Pictures for inviting us along to the Irish premiere of the film. It was an absolute pleasure and a wonderful night. I would note however, that the MC for the evening didn’t direct any questions from the audience to the cast and crew in attendance, instead sharing some fairly mundane anecdotes (albeit delivered in the witty styles of Michael Cera, Anna Kendrick, Jason Schwartzman and Edgar Wright). Still, it was a fantastic evening and an absolute pleasure to make it along.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | action, brandon routh, bryan lee o'malley, choreography, chris evans, edgar wright, ellen wong, films, graphic novel, Ireland, kieran culkin, Movies, non-review review, review, scott pilgrim, scott pilgrim vs. the world, universal pictures, universal pictures ireland, visuals