In some ways, Scott Pilgrim vs the World is the best video game movie made thus far. Then again, it’s really the only true video game movie ever made. Other movies merely borrow the plot of the video game they are based on. Scott Pilgrim vs the World adopts aspects of video games and manifests them literally in the world of its story. Meters pop up to indicate the status of the characters. Vanquished opponents explode in a shower of coins and award points to the victor. Various actions elicit sound effects reminiscent of video games (including some that are recognizably lifted straight out of The Legend of Zelda or Sonic the Hedgehog). Even the Universal globe at the beginning of the movie is rendered to look like an 8-bit graphic.
The movie also pays homage to its graphic novel roots. Black lines often divide up the screen, dividing it into multiple shots and angles much like the panels of a comic and sound effects are signified by onomatopoeia words (such as “thud,” “thwack,” and “krak”) popping out of the scene at appropriate times—an effect which will probably remind many people of the old Batman TV series with Adam West. The movie is also filled with other whimsical touches. A kiss is often preluded by a fade to black and a pink heart popping onto the screen. Curse words are censored out with a bleeping noise and a black box appearing over the speaker’s mouth (prompting one character to ask, “How are you doing that with your mouth?”).
For all I know, these are actually shots lifted out of the graphic novel the movie is based on. I haven’t read Scott Pilgrim, you see. And I’m happy to report that the movie entertains just fine without any knowledge of the source material. I’m told that the broad strokes of the plot are the same: Scott Pilgrim is a 22-year old pathetic shlub of a boy living in Toronto with his rather bad indy band. Currently he is dating hyperactive 17-year old Knives Chau, but it is clear that she represents a rebound relationship for him after a bad previous breakup. And then he meets Ramona Flowers who is the girl of his dreams (literally. She appears in his dreams before he meets her in real life). He manages to go out on some dates with her, but then he finds out that she has seven superpowered evil exes and that he must defeat them all before he can continue to date her. Although Scott Pilgrim seems vastly overmatched, his world obeys video game rules in which even the lowliest character can perform the “Fight” command and earn power ups throughout their journey. We are thus treated to, essentially, seven wildly creative boss fights rendered on the movie screen.
The central metaphor of the movie is not very subtle. The characters spell out how Ramona’s evil exes represent the previous baggage she brings to her new relationship, and in order to defeat them, Scott must learn the nature of her previous relationships and discover their weaknesses in order to ensure his own survival. Scott also has some previous relationships trying to sabotage his chances with Ramona, and in the end he must learn how to get in touch with his inner feelings (which are represented by flaming katanas) and move past his and Ramona’s dirty laundry. Despite the obviousness of the metaphor, it gets applied in a lot of fun and surprising ways throughout the movie.
I’m told that the movie hugely condenses the story of the graphic novel, cutting out several sub-plots and side characters in order to fit everything into a reasonable movie length. I didn’t really mind it. The central pacing problem of the movie is that it has to fit in seven major battles without becoming repetitive, and fortunately the fight choreographer is up to the task. Scott’s battle with the first evil ex-boyfriend is a straightforward beatdown, but each one after that involves twists on the formula (I particularly loved the battle with the vegan ex-boyfriend). Nonetheless, fitting that much action into the movie has the effect of giving it a rather frenetic pacing, and director Edgar Wright has elected to roll with it, often tossing away several hours in-story at a time with a simple camera cut (often to the confusion of Scott Pilgrim) and packing in as many sight gags as possible. This is a movie which is determined to do absolutely anything it can to keep you entertained, from hilarious send ups of indy band songs to the “expression” on Knives’ face when she realizes what’s going on. I don’t know what the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel was like, but the movie at its heart is a galloping comedy.
Nonetheless, even a movie like this needs to be anchored by well-developed characters, and this is where the time constraints of the movie hurt the most. All of the characters are essentially plot devices defined more by their relationships to the main couple than by their personalities. Michael Cera is fully capable of playing his typical role as an awkward boy looking for love, but he doesn’t get a chance to show much dramatic range otherwise. Ultimately, although he is winsome enough that we can root for him, he doesn’t quite connect with the audience as a real person. Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes for one cool hipster chick, and she very clearly enjoys herself during the fight scenes, but even so Ramona Flowers remains a cypher. It’s never clear exactly why she agrees to date Scott Pilgrim other than that he is nicer than all of her exes. Possibly the biggest success ends up being Ellen Wong as Knives Chau. The character could have been an irritating distraction whose purpose is to be gotten rid of so that the main couple can get together, but instead she remains relevant throughout the story. Although 25-year old Wong doesn’t quite look like a plausible teenager, she successfully channels Knives’ energy without becoming grating. In fact, her character makes a better emotional connection with Scott in some ways than Ramona does (which the movie acknowledges at one point).
Despite the brick-to-the-face nature of the story, there are some themes in Scott Pilgrim vs the World to consider. And compiling all the references to video games, comic books, or Canada would be a fun exercise that would probably reveal unexpected depths. Nonetheless, the movie really isn’t meant to be taken seriously (what does that say about video games, I wonder) and really has just one purpose: entertain us for a 112 minutes. And when you see the first evil ex-boyfriend summoning a harem of Bollywood hipster chicks, I think you’ll agree that the movie succeeds.