185. SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010)

“‘The books walk a line where you wonder if it’s fantasy, or if it’s really happening, At some point it stops mattering,’ O’Malley said, adding that he believes Wright captured the “whimsical weirdness” of the series.”—“Scott Pilgrim” franchise creator Bryan Lee O’Malley, quoted in L.A. Times article

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DIRECTED BY: Edgar Wright

FEATURING: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, Jason Schwartzman

PLOT: Scott Pilgrim is a slacker and bassist in the garage band “Sex Bob-omb”; his heart was broken a year ago by a former bandmate who cheated on him and went on to musical stardom. Scott, who’s in his early twenties, has taken to Platonically dating a wide-eyed high school girl named “Knives”. He (literally) dreams of a quirky, assured girl his own age by the name of Ramona Flowers, but while wooing her he learns that he will have to defeat her seven evil exes in battle in order to win her.

Still from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
BACKGROUND:

  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was selected to go on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies in the 5th Readers Choice Poll. Actually, it ended the poll tied and was involved in a run-off vote which also ended in a tie, at which time it was declared the winner by editorial fiat.
  • The film is based on a series of six graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley. The script was optioned after the first volume was published, and filming began before the series finished its run. Since the script was completed first, O’Malley provided the screenwriters with his notes on how the story was to end. O’Malley actually asked for permission to use lines from the screenplay in later “Scott Pilgrim” books. The final “Scott Pilgrim” volume was released in 2010, the same year as the movie.
  • Scott Pilgrim cost $60 million to make and earned only $30 million in its theatrical run. It has proved to be a home-video hit, however.
  • The film’s original ending, which had Scott reuniting with Knives, was rewritten due to negative audience response.
  • Naturally, the film inspired a video game adaptation.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Split screens. Besides the “Batman”-style “ka-pow!” lettering floating past during fight scenes, the visual motif you may notice most about Scott Pilgrim is the abundant use of split screens. This is not simply a stylistic affectation; the device refers to the movie’s graphic novel inspiration, mimicking the freedom of the printed page to place each image inside the frame that best suits it, however bent. That’s why we selected the fanned out rouges gallery of the League of Evil Exes as our indelible image (some of the promotional material features the same iconic image, with the actors occupying different spots on the evil spectrum for variety’s sake).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A villain sets up a duel to the death by email, then brings his own Bollywood backup singers—who happen to be levitating “demon hipster chicks”—to the fight.  When he’s defeated, he dissolves into a shower of coins. If you don’t think that’s at least a little weird, you probably need to put down the video game controller for a few hours a day.


Original trailer for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

COMMENTS: When Scott Pilgrim flopped at the box office, it became the first official cult movie of the 201x’s. An alternate reality comedy that feels like something Monty Python would have come up with if they’d been raised on video games and graphic novels instead of “The Goon Show” and Oscar Wilde, Pilgrim was too strange for mainstream screens, and too strange and cool to be forgotten by the lucky few who caught it during its theatrical run. When I saw it in theaters, I thought it was tremendous fun, but a disposable, youth-oriented plastic trinket. I realized at the time that it was a cult movie in the making, however, and Pilgrim has grown on me my since my first viewing—to the point where it now seems an essential moment in postmodern hip cinema, and a major paragon of the style its creator calls “whimsical weirdness.”

It’s shiny surface sheen is stylistically fascinating, but at heart Scott Pilgrim is a coming-of-age tale for the PlayStation set. With its role-playing game quest to defeat seven escalating opponents (right up to the final “boss” battle) and it’s onscreen scoring system (defeated enemies turn into piles of coins as a digital score rises from their corpses), Scott Pilgrim becomes the first film in history to use the video game as a metaphor for growing up. The movie milks maximum mileage from the gamer conceit: when Scott goes to the bathroom, we watch a pop-up pee meter go from full to empty so we can stay informed on the condition of his bladder. The viewer is stuffed inside a video game console, treated to constant text updates on the characters’ status. Pilgrim‘s weirdest joke may be casting übernerd Michael Cera as a ladykilling action hero; and of course, Pilgrim‘s high-flying, digitally scored melees are precisely the kind of fantasy that video game avatars allow übernerds to live out, only this time with a real live girl as the prize.

But even beyond the basic 8-bit/4th wall technique, director Edgar Wright piles on the artificiality and stylization whenever an idea crosses his mind: multicolored valentines bloom from young lovers locked lips at first kiss, comic book text legends (punch-accompanying “POW!”s, and even the mundane “ding-dong” of a doorbell) constantly appear, and when a character’s profanity is bleeped out on the soundtrack a black bar also appears over her mouth.  Sometimes Wright’s choices are overly referential and fall flat, as when one expository scene is announced by the “Seinfeld” theme song and followed by an inexplicable laugh track, but you have to admire his willingness to try absolutely anything, and there are more hits than misses in the mix. The film moves almost too fast at times, with dream scenes emerging back into reality with no warning (there’s little difference between the two states anyway), and jarring leaps forward in time. But Wright embraces the short-attention span aesthetic and makes one of the cornerstones of the film; it’s neither a satirical jab at youth culture nor an unconscious adoption of its rhythms, but a stylistic choice that works in the context of the zeitgeist he’s trying to evoke. The fast-cut style is also necessary to fit in all the film’s teeming ideas: Scott Pilgrim is delightfully overstuffed, a real bargain for your rental dollar.

There are six big, comic fight scenes, multiple romantic subplots and back stories, a Battle of the Bands, and so many quirky supporting characters you almost need a scorecard to keep up. The young cast is astoundingly well-chosen for their roles, and the many minor characters play a major role in making the film feel legitimately mock-epic. Besides Cera as everyboy Pilgrim, there’s cool love interest Ramona Flowers (enchanting Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose shifting dye jobs call to mind Kate Winslett’s Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind); jailbait romantic rival Knives Chow (Ellen Wong); wisecracking gay roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin); Stephen Stills, Young Neil, and Kim Pine, Scott’s band-mates in the awkwardly named “Sex Bob-omb”; a horde of evil exes (including future screen superheros Chris Evans and Brandon Routh) who’ve become Hollywood action stars or Vegan bass players… and even with that list I’ve still omitted somebody‘s favorite of the dozens of supporting characters who make up Scott Pilgrim‘s world.

Scott Pilgrim dispenses with logic scene by fractured scene. It’s anarchic in spirit, but it’s actually tightly controlled and easy to follow and connect with.  With its ADD edits, geeky embrace of everything pop culture and willful ignorance of any other type of culture, and amiable twenty-somethings who act like John Hughes’ teenagers of an earlier era, Scott Pilgrim suggests either that the onset of adulthood is slipping ever closer to 30, or that the film is aimed at a demographic aged much younger than its protagonists.  I prefer to believe the latter; and, like the aforementioned Mr. Hughes’ film, the movie’s innocence about love and growing up creates a nostalgic crossover appeal for adults, even if they don’t get every NES video game system reference. I’m no real fan of video games, graphic novels or hipster garage bands—but I loved Scott Pilgrim.

Edgar Wright’s previous two films were cultish genre spoofs: the zombie parody Shaun of the Dead and the cop burlesque Hot Fuzz. This movie saw Wright stretch his talents with a far more baroque, but equally hilarious, approach. With Pilgrim Wright no longer exaggerates the conventions of existing genres to ridiculous lengths; he invents an entirely new genre.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…lives and breathes the style of the original books, with animated squiggles and hearts and stars filling out the frame in many individual shots. Some of this is cute; some of it is better, weirder than ‘cute.'”–Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (contemporaneous)

“An acid trip of surreal fantasy and hyper reality…”–Louise Keller, Urban Cinefile (contemporaneous)

“The style is Sega surrealism, the narrative strategy 30% Bunuel and 70% Bally.”–Andy Klein, Brand X Daily (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Movie – It’s rare in this day and age for an official film site to be up almost five years after the movie has left theaters; this site contains basic cast info, a stills gallery, and a Facebook feed along with links to buy the movie in multiple formats. And that’s just the first of two cover pages!

IMDB LINK: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Scott Pilgrim the Movie on Vimeo – Director Wright’s 12-part video blog provided behind-the-scenes footage as the film was being shot

‘Scott Pilgrim’ Gets a New Life on DVD – Wright discusses the movie (with illustrative clips) for the AP news service

An EPIC Conversation with Edgar Wright & Michael Cera of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World – Interview with Wright and star Cera for “Geekadelphia”

Scott Pilgrim vs The World cast interview – Video interview from The Guardian with Cera, Winstead, Schwartzman, and Kieran Culkin

Scott Pilgrim vs. the disappointing box office – The Toronto Star‘s apologia for the film’s poor box office on the eve of its DVD release

CAPSULE: SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010) – This site’s original, too-dismissive, review of the film

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Scott Pilgrim” 6 Volume Bundle – the original 6 volume graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley

DVD INFO: Universal’s packed DVD (buy) and Blu-ray combo pack (buy) releases were genius marketing; the studio actually realized that Scott Pilgrim was a cult film, and that fans would throw money at them if they were offered a top-notch product. The discs contain a record four (!) commentary tracks: one by Wright, screenwriter Michael Bacall and “Pilgrim” cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley; one with Wright and cinematographer Bill Pope; and two separate commentaries with nine of the film’s actors spread between them. As far as extra features go, there are too many to comfortably list in a paragraph (check the product description in the link above for a full list), but what will excite fans the most is the numerous deleted scenes (including the alternate ending).

Universal has also packaged Scott Pilgrim with several other movies in multi-feature packs. You can buy it in a Blu-ray boxes together with director Wright’s equally hilarious Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (buy), in a “Real Heroes” set with Hellboy 2 (yay!), Kick-Ass (boo!) and Wanted (what?) (buy), or paired with Greg Mottola’s E.T. comedy Paul (starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) (buy).

Naturally, Scott Pilgrim is also available digitally (buy/rent on demand) if you just want the movie itself with no frills.

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