Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

If I was going to get a tattoo, the short list for choices would include the Triforce from The Legend of Zelda video game series.  Sure, I could go the boring route and get my soon-to-be-wife's name, but marriage is 'til death do you part.  Zelda goes beyond death; when you die in the game, you just start over from your last save point.

I would like to point out that I am not a huge video game nut.  I don't own a Playstation 3 (or 2, for that matter), or XBox 360, or even a Wii.  Even as a kid, I was never a huge gamer.  I point this out to illustrate how much video games, particularly the ones from my childhood, still impact my life, despite the fact that they haven't been a big part of that life for many years now.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a love note to classic video games, wrapped around a love story.  Basically, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) meets the (literal) woman of his dreams, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and ineptly attempts to woo her.  Before their first (pity) date, Scott gets an email.  It's not from anyone he knows, and it includes the sentence "duel to the death."  His reaction is, "This is so...BORING.  Delete!"  That gives you an idea about Scott Pilgrim.  He is nerdy and nervous (you knew that because Michael Cera plays him) and absolutely idiotic.  That also indicates the attention span of this movie; there isn't much plot or character development, but everything moves so fast that you barely miss them.

That boring email was a notification that, to date Ramona, Scott would have to fight defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends exes.  The word "defeat" implies a certain amount of violence, and this movie happily supplies it, but in a very non-traditional form.  Instead of gruesome gore or ultra-realistic fighting, this movie opts for a fighting style reminiscent of early '90s video games, like Street Fighter II.  For those unfamiliar with games like that, let's just say that impossible physical acts, like flying, shooting energy blasts, and being thrown through buildings are par for the course.  There is no blood or torn shirts or jeans after the fight; if that alone didn't indicate that this film's violence is cartoony, then this would: defeated enemies turn into a pile of coins...just like in video games.  In between these fights, Scott tries (with varying levels of success) to understand Ramona, rock out with his band, Sex Bob-omb, and generally get a life.  In the process, he pitches some woo, breaks some hearts, kicks some butt, and gets his own kicked.  It's all academic, though.  Defeating the evil exes doesn't earn him the girl; he has to do that on his own.  This movie was set in Toronto, but but Cera, sadly, does not say "aboot" even once.

For a movie that exudes so much love for video games, I found it pretty friendly to non-gamers.  Sure, you'll get more from the movie if you know the references (I got chills when they played the respawn music from the original Zelda), but a basic knowledge of mid-80s games would be enough.  When Scott hits a bad guy, points appear on the screen, like in any old Mario game.  When bad guys die, they leave behind no body, but money, like in role-playing games, Zelda, or dozens of other games.  When Scott does well enough, an extra life appears.  It's not terribly in-depth stuff, but a lot of the sound and visual effects are taken directly from classic games, so there are levels to appreciating it.

Of course, if you are completely unfamiliar with video games (Hi, mom!), then a lot of this would appear absolutely random.  How that might affect your enjoyment of the film can be reflected in how much randomness you can take.  If you thought The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was quirky and fun, then you're pretty safe.  If you get frustrated and confused when classic Looney Tunes characters mimic Edward G. Robinson or Peter Lorre, then you're beyond my ability to help.

Normally, I would think action scenes featuring Michael Cera would also be beyond helping, but this movie disproves that theory.  The fight scenes, while basically relegated to the possibilities of classic 2-D fighting games, are varied and very well assembled.  Cera actually looks formidable, which is noteworthy on its own.  When you factor in seven separate fights, many featuring faceless underlings (how very Nintendo!), that means that Cera fights dozens of enemies, and each fight has its own style.  He is able to pummel ex number one, Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), but he has to outsmart number two, and challenges others to musical face-offs.  These scenes could easily have been repetitive, but each one felt fresh.

The cast is an interesting blend of known and unknown actors; you usually don't see so many recognizable actors in small parts in the same film, with less known actors playing larger roles.  Cera's impeccable timing and geeky charm are perfect in the lead role.  Mary Elizabeth Winstead is almost as likable as the too-indie-cool Ramona, and she does a good job when she must give her character some depth.  The rest of the characters are completely one-dimensional, but the movie does not demand (or, honestly, deserve) depth from them.  As such, the supporting cast is just a series of likable caricatures.  That's not a bad, thing, mind you.  This movie doesn't slow down enough for genuine emotion to get in the way, so caricatures is exactly what this movie needs.  The supporting cast is surprisingly good, too.  Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, and Jason Schwartzman make up the most notable evil exes; they are all suitably varied, angry, and amusing.  Anna Kendrick has a small role as Scott's mean sister and Kieran Culkin is supremely entertaining as Scott's indifferent gay roommate.  Thomas Jane makes a cameo as a member of the Vegan Police, too (did I mention that this movie is random?).  The other important roles are handled by relative unknowns.  Ellen Wong, in particular, is impressive as Scott's fake high school girlfriend.  The rest include Scott's band (Alison Pill, Mark Webber, and Johnny Simmons) and his own evil ex, Brie Larson.

Director and co-writer Edgar Wright has an excellent instinct for blending stupid and charming in comedies.  His last two films, Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, show this instinct off well.  Scott Pilgrim doesn't have as much heart as Shaun or the bromance of Hot Fuzz, but it does have more energy and enthusiasm than those movies combined.  This was obviously assembled with a love for the source material.  I haven't read the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels, but there is just so much going on, with so many distinctive characters, that it has to be the case.  I knew from his other work that Wright could handle jokes on film, but I was very impressed with the action sequences and the post-production work.  Certain sounds appeared as words (when the phone rang, for example, you see "rrrrring!!!"), 8-bit video game graphics popped up on occasion, and the battle effects looked great.  In short, this movie felt like it was adapted from a comic.  Not because it has super-heroes or stilted dialogue, but because it takes the visual and the written and blends them in a way unique to that medium.

While I enjoyed the breakneck pace, quick wit, and general fun this movie has to offer, I admit that the movie is open to some very just criticisms.  This is not a deep movie.  There is no emotional core to it, beyond some pretty simple teen drama stuff.  The characters are essentially character sketches, typically more suitable for Saturday Night Live than feature films.  The focus on the fight scenes ruins any chance of the movie having much of a plot.  The jokes, action, and editing in this movie are so fast that it's difficult to pay attention to anything, even if there was a plot.    Oh, and Aubrey Plaza's character was obnoxious.

And yet, I loved it.  This isn't a movie that is going to make you think, it's going to make you laugh.  While the target audience is clearly aimed at the video game generation (1980-present), the dialogue is really sharp and there are several moments that made me laugh out loud.  The soundtrack is clever, abrasive and funny, like the scenes it is featured in (bonus cool points to Edgar Wright for getting Canadian bands on the soundtrack).  I recognize a charmingly simple stupidity in Scott Pilgrim's character that reminded me of one of my favorite cinema characters, Navin Johnson from The Jerk.  Both are essentially nice, but absolutely clueless and the choices they make are as misinformed as they are.  Like Steve Martin's movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is not a film that tries to to do more than be fast, popcorn-light entertainment.  And in that, Scott Pilgrim is victorious.
UPDATE 11/10/10: Okay, I just re-watched Scott Pilgrim for the first time.  I was a little worried that this movie wouldn't stand up to repeated viewings because it is such a shallow film.  As it turns out, I still loved it.  I picked up on many more details (especially with how the soundtrack plays off the plot and characters) the second time around and was generally entertained throughout.  I have finally read the complete Scott Pilgrim graphic novel collection, and that gave me a greater appreciation for some of the detail that went into the movie.  Like The Watchmen, this film is ridiculously faithful to its source material, but Scott Pilgrim is not beholden to it; little things were changed to make a great comic into a great movie, as it should be.  The movie is still very shallow and has a pretty niche intended audience, but it is, above all else, a lot of fun.  Oh, and if you haven't seen the mock movie posters for Chris Evans' character yet, check them out here.  They're fantastic.


  1. What sucks is that somewhere my brain knows what the Zelda re-spawn sound is and would know it instantly if I heard it, yet I cannot conjure it up.

    Have you seen Gymkata?

  2. First off, no I have not even heard of Gymkata, but from what I've gleaned from IMDB, it sounds like something I'd enjoy.

    As for the respawn music, it's what played in the Game Over/Continue screen Here's a link to a piano version of it:http://www.vgmusic.com/music/console/nintendo/nes/GameOver.mid

  3. Your stars are broken because it does not display as a gillion stars. Please fix it.

  4. The stars are accurate, but it's a snaking scale. You can read it as 11.5 out of 10, if you like.