Scott Pilgrim vs the World: The Film: The review

Scott Pilgrim vs The World

This is part of a series in which I have fun with films that choose to portray games and gamers in the celluloid medium. It’s first of 5 reviews that I plan to post haphazardly over the next couple of months. Hope you enjoy, even if you completely disagree…

Among the nerd/geek community the Scott Pilgrim film has been a divisive topic. Some hate it for its ADD-infused pop culture references and cartoon antics, while others seem to love it for much the same reasons.

I’ve kept my distance from the film and comic books for fear of getting sucked up in the hype and being influenced by either side of the debate. The adulation heaped on this franchise is quite frightening; I found it almost impossible to play the game with two fans as they were compelled to pause every two seconds and excitedly tell me about the real burrito place in Toronto that they’d visited, or the backstory of one of the idle characters that you come across. At the same time Scott Pilgrim’s detractors can go so far as say that everything Oni Press (the publishers of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic book) have ever done is terrible and that Jim Mahfood should fucking die (I am not quite sure what the link to Jim Mahfood is other than he has also been published by Oni). Everyone seemed so caught up in attacking or defending this phenomenon that I was not sure whether I should get involved at all. That said, it isn’t really fair to call Scott Pilgrim a real phenomenon seeing as it flopped at the cinema.

Hipster nerds look on in surprise at not being as popular as they imagined

As it turned out, it was late one night and I wanted to watch a popcorn film where I didn’t have to think. Michael Cera’s cherubic face was staring at me (if I ever meet the guy I’m going to high five him for meaning that girls are starting to think nerds like me are worth giving a chance) so I figured it was time to see what all the fuss was about.

I’ve now watched it 3 times and I still don’t really understand.

The premise is that hipster loser Scott Pilgrim (Cera) is in a band called the Sex Bob-Ombs (cue a series of jokes playing around with their name and casual nods to Super Mario Bros) who are a bit rubbish. At the start of the film he is dating a teenager but soon falls for a girl called Ramona and ends up having to battle her seven evil exes to the death in order to win her hand – all while dealing with his own ex-girfriends and his inability to get a life.

If you can stomach Cera he is at his awkward, stumbling best in this film. That said, scenes are frequently stolen by Kieran Culkin as Pilgrim’s gay room/bedmate, Chris Evans as douchy ex number two and Thomas Jane as a Vegan police officer, with each delivering a couple of lines that made me smile if not laugh out loud.

The fight scenes are a lot of fun and well choreographed; the style and colour is also great with the film really exuding a comic book feel. Edgar Wright (director of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Spaced) is at his best visually, the sets are great and the number of little sight gags and references is very pleasing. I don’t want to refer to any of them explicitly for fear of spoiling them for people who enjoy the film, but they are abundant and clever (the special features and commentary are on a par with the homage meter in the Spaced DVD release).

Look at them, they are like real people, except more colourful

My problem is that, despite it being well-filmed and the actors offering good performances with what they have to work with, Scott Pilgrim vs the World is pretty bland and a little insulting if you happen to like games.

The characters are all odious, for a start. There isn’t a single character who I can say I walked away from the film liking. Scott Pilgrim himself is an incompetent, unlovable arsehole. No one in his group of friends bothers to point this out to him, possibly because they seem to think he is awesome (his deluded 17 year-old girlfriend), are too busy navel-gazing (Ramona), being self-obsessed twat-caricatures (his band) or are as big of an arsehole as him (his roomate). The only people who even try and point out his inherent flaws are made out to be jokey, one-note characters who everyone is supposed to hate – even though their insistent urgings that Scott Pilgrim not be such an idiot are about the only reasonable thing anyone says. Watching Scott struggle to make garlic bread made me feel so very, very old.

There is no one to root for in this film, although in many ways it should be applauded for its almost perfect snapshot of twenty-something going nowhere types. Unfortunately the film seems to suggest that this is in some way cool and aspirational. This might be the fault of the source material but it pains me to think that Wright managed a much more balanced view of this kind of lifestyle in Spaced, over ten years ago.

It also isn’t a very funny film, despite its constant attempts at humour. I’ll admit that my view on this is entirely subjective as what is funny to one person is just a long list of toilet jokes to another. Some people will definitely rinse more laughs out of the recurring joke about Cera’s hair being badly cut so he has to wear a hat, or Kieron Culkin’s promiscuity (I suppose it is better than the typical “gay” asexual confidant you often find in this kind of film), and talking about the band The Clash at Demonhead over and over again until you get that it is an obscure NES game. I struggled to muster much enthusiasm.

The most insulting part of the film is its celebration of gaming culture. This seems to rest entirely on playing old Zelda and Final Fantasy music alongside a half-hearted wink to the audience.

For me this is when Scott Pilgrim vs the World is at its weakest. The references to the 8-bit and 16-bit era feel cloying and forced. So keen is the film to let you know that it’s aware about obscure games and films that it will often keep repeating a reference until the joke is bludgeoned to death.  The plot device in which Scott ‘gets a life’ was so painful that I physically winced.

Yet, the film won’t range too far with its references for fear of losing the target audience. So we get Sonic ring sounds, Mario Bros themes and people playing DS games. You know, from when games weren’t all about violence and paedophilia. This despite the story apparently having an extremely casual view of human life with Pilgrim killing dozens of people throughout (having them disintegrate into coins seems to be considered fine) and only one casual comment being made about this before it is safely swept under the carpet.

I suppose I should be thankful for the upbeat nature of the film when so many outsiders only have Panorama’s latest show, Fox News and Hackers as a point of reference for games. This does just about stop the saccharine nature of the film from beginning to rot my teeth.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World is not a terrible film, it is simply pedestrian. Its fans are welcome to it despite there being better films of this ilk (even Mallrats has a better story arc). As a piece of teen ‘dramedy’ it will sit comfortably next to American Pie and The Breakfast Club. I guess I was hoping for something a little more from a talented director, as well as a more discerning audience amongst the gaming scene.

Stats:

Director: Edgar Wright

Starring: Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, Ellen Wong, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jason Schwartzman, Chris Evans

One to ignore: Mary Elizabeth Winstead

One to watch: Kieran Culkin

Shaun

Back when AJ was extolling the lack of virtues of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World over Xbox Live I found myself disagreeing with him quite strongly. Now, having read his full review, I’ve found that I’m a lot closer to his opinion than I suspected I would be. Or, at least, the things I like about the film hinge on similar central points as his arguments against the film.

There are a number of things it’s easy to agree on. Cera does a pretty good job, although I’m not keen on his Scott Pilgrim as he’s simply not as cluelessly full-on as O’Malley’s original creation. Culkin does indeed steal many scenes and Evans is also excellent. The band Sex Bob-omb are definitely pretty shit, although the songs we hear later in the film do sound better… or at least, I liked them more as I got progressively more drunk. And AJ highlights the film’s real strength, which is Wright’s superb direction; he approaches shots with a fine balance between economy and perspective. Every camera change has a purpose, and it’s often to accentuate the script’s off-beat comic timing. The set design is pretty good and I enjoy the sense of place, as well as the fact that there’s often a disconnect between the film’s set-pieces that’s reminescent of the jarring shifts of old-school level design.

I could harp on about how I don’t think Scott is an “odious” character (come on, the dude makes plans to hang out with his evil doppelganger! How bad can he be!), and nor are the majority of his friends, but that’s not really the point of this second opinion – and plus my opinion is skewed as I’m a fan of the comic books. What I want to address is this idea that the film is “a little insulting” to gamers.

Over the course of the film Scott experiences a fairly simple character arc: he has problems, he meets someone, there are obstacles, he overcomes them, he learns something about himself. What makes the film interesting is that this simple tale is framed in the rich, nostalgic, retro language of 8- and 16-bit videogames. Yes, the references are obvious – Zelda, Mario, Sonic, Double Dragon – but this is done purposefully. The idea is not to reduce videogames to a couple of well-known icons but rather to take advantage of how these characters, visuals, sounds and ideas have developed into mainstream cultural icons, to the extent where they are recognisable and emblematic outside of their original context. Scott Pilgrim is a directionless slacker and the only things he really knows anything about are bad music and old videogames. Small wonder, then, that his personal tale of redemption and growth is framed in these two mediums. It’s a fusion of character and context and plot and narrative… almost as though Wright were designing a game, huh?

Sure, it’s a shame that there weren’t subtler allusions and more obscure references buried in there, and that would have added a bit of superficial breadth to the film, but to bemoan that this wasn’t done misses the point of the film. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is not a film about games. It’s a film that on a commercial and directorial level recognises the widespread cultural influence of classic videogames and their iconography, and on the level of its internal narrative integrates that influence into the story it tells. It’s a film that revels in the structural absurdities of videogames and tries to articulate them in another medium. It’s a film that enjoys the fact it can take widespread recognition of gaming icons for granted. It’s a film that says hey, gamers, your treasured cultural heritage is shared pretty widely these days. You’ve made it. There is no more ghetto.

[P.S: If the film’s promotional material heavily pushed it at gamers, then that would count against my argument, sure. I didn’t see any more promotional material than a poster and a trailer on YouTube so I can’t really say. But that would be a criticism to level at the PR team rather than the film itself.]