Movie Review: Scott Pilgrim Vs The World

They say that the 21st century belongs to the geeks. If that’s the case, then Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World may just be the film of the century.

Sound absurd? Maybe. But at the very least, this action-romance-comedy is the quintessential film of the geek generation.

Director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) once described this movie as a cross between Say Anything and Kill Bill. It may sound ridiculous, but it’s an apt description for this deliciously fun movie based on Brian Lee O’Malley’s six volume graphic novel series.

Michael Cera plays Scott Pilgrim, a 22 year old Toronto slacker who is currently “in-between jobs.” He’s the bassist of a band with his friends and they have aspirations of signing a record label contract and making it big. On the personal front, Scott’s recently started dating  high-schooler, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), as his way of rebounding from a heart-wrenching breakup he had just gone through. Scott meets the girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), at a party and is immediately smitten by her. Unfortunately, Ramona comes with some heavy baggage in the form of “seven evil exes” which Scott must defeat in battle if he is to date her.

Sounds like a reasonable premise for a movie, right? If you can buy into that, you’re going to love this film. (If not, well, you’ll probably feel like this fuddy duddy did.)

What Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World does best is encapsulate all the things I liked about my childhood into one very nostalgic and fun film. References to video games, comic books, television, music, and pop culture naturally pepper the film throughout without seeming forced. Co-Screenwriter Michael Bacall explains the film’s secret in handling references as “…trying to make it punctuation as opposed to prose.”

Did I love every single one of the references the movie makes? Of course not. I didn’t particularly care for the pseudo Dance Dance Revolution-ninja game Scott and Knives play together, but it was a necessary plot device in the film to show a visceral video game rather than a couch/controller based one. There’s also a much ballyhooed Seinfeld reference that I didn’t LOL at personally, but I did respect the fact that they got the rights to Jonathan Wolff’s theme music from the show while also shooting the scene like an authentic Seinfeld scene.

That’s the key here – authenticity. See, the internet generation can smell a phony a mile away. A lot of the drek Hollywood has put out in the last decade reeks of cashing in (Gamer, anyone?) on what studio executives perceive as the “geek culture.”

One of the reasons why Scott Pilgrim works is because it’s crafted by geeks (Brian Lee O’Malley and Edgar Wright) who grew up with the very same things the film refers to. These people have played those video games, read those comics, watched those television shows, and listened to those bands. They just happen to be accomplished writers and filmmakers with the means and creativity to share highlights from their formative years.

Most of the video game references are general enough that people who aren’t avid video game players will enjoy them. Do you get the concept of receiving points for defeating  an enemy? Ok, how about the concept of landing multiple punches in a row on an enemy constituting a “combo”? Not so obscure, right? Now, let’s take it a step further. What if defeating an enemy turns them into a bunch of coins that fall to the floor? I hope you see where the film goes with this.

For people who have played a lot of video games in their childhood, boy are you in for a treat. It starts with a smirk or maybe even a chuckle at the opening Universal logo ditty rendered completely in 8-bit sounds. Your ears will perk up when you hear the “finding a secret” sound from Zelda in the opening scene. You may even fist pump when the ethereal “choose your Zelda file” music plays during an early dream sequence.  By the time you hear the announcer from Tekken exclaim “KO!” as Scott defeats the first evil Ex you’ll undoubtedly have a shit-eating grin on your face.

My personal favorite, though, was a scene in which Scott tries to deflect attention away from his girl issues by exclaiming to his band, “Hey guys, I learned the bass line from Final Fantasy II!” He then proceeds to play the battle theme from Final Fantasy II on his bass guitar!

Edgar Wright earns +999 geek credibility!

While Scott Pilgrim Vs The World’s video game references may receive the lion’s share of attention, music also plays a huge role in the film as well. Besides the core love story, the film is also about Scott’s band, Sex Bob-Omb (+200 points if you can name that reference), as it progresses through multiple battle-of-the-bands competitions in its quest to receive a lucrative label deal.

Sex Bob-Omb’s music is actually done by Beck and he hasn’t sounded this lo-fi and raw since 1994′s “Loser.” There’s no shortage of actual musical talent standing in for the other in-film “bands” either. Members of Broken Social Scene play Crash and the Boys’ music while Canadian indie rockers Metric stand in for the heavenly Clash at Demonhead. To top it all off, renowned producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead’s “sixth member”) composes an 8-bit infused punk score for the film.

Eagle-eyed viewers will notice Scott Pilgrim wearing different band T-shirts throughout the film. Plumtree and The Smashing Pumpkins (with the apropos “SP” logo) come to mind. Hell, there’s even a Tragically Hip acknowledgement in the movie! (The movie is set in Canada, after all)

The film itself is a fantastic concert of grin-inducing visual and audio effects, endearing acting, and witty repartee. Edgar Wright’s previous two films have shown that he’s a master of quick edits, scene transitions, and comedic timing. These skills allow him take Scott Pilgrim’s visual panache to dizzying heights.

It may sound trite at this point to declare that a movie is like a comic book brought to life, but it’s truly appropriate for this film. This movie is like a comic book brought to life.

Seriously, no other film this side of Sin City has come this close to imagining what a comic book would look like with live on-screen characters. Verbs and phrases in stylized lettering slickly animate onto the screen when the action calls for it. Multiple split screens capture character reactions, evoking images of split comic panels. Scenes quickly cut from one to another seamlessly, giving the feeling of hurriedly flipping to find out what’s on the next page. The film’s style is just as much of a star as any of the actors and will quite probably be the focus of word-of-mouth buzz.

image courtesy of entertainment weekly

Scott Pilgrim’s cast is a veritable who’s who of a new generation of talented Hollywood actors. Many will talk about Kieran Culkin stealing the show as Scott’s gay roommate, Wallace, and deservedly so. His grounded wisdom and comedic chops would make even a straight man want to sleep in the same bed with him. Ellen Wong is an adorable manga character come to life as Knives Chau. It’s hard to imagine that this is her film debut, as she nails every scene she’s in.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a confident and cool Ramona Flowers – I just wish there was more time to fall in love with her. The film clocks in at just about 2 hours, but between squeezing in 7 epic fight scenes and establishing Scott’s world, there’s not much time for Ramona’s character to breathe and develop fully. Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Mark Webber, Alison Pill, and Johnny Webber round out Scott’s group of friends and they all lend their own charm to the film.

On the dark side of the room, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, and Jason Schwartzman delight in tormenting our precious little Scott Pilgrim. Evans in particular is memorable as an over the top skateboarder/movie star whose voice can be only described as Gob Bluth mixed with Christian Bale’s Batman. Even “unknown” actor, Satya Bhabha, has an epic Bollywood-meets-mystical-internet-humor fight scene as Ramona’s first “Evil Ex,” Matthew Patel.

I realize that the Michael Cera backlash is out in full force, but please don’t let whatever feelings you may have on him stop you from seeing this film. His performance is decidedly Ceran, but he does do the Scott Pilgrim character justice. If you want to, you can even talk yourself into believing that Cera has increased his acting range to include nerd-rage and almost-asshole.

Plus, if you’re an Arrested Development fan you won’t want to miss the George Michael/Ann reunion during the film. Yes, Mae Whitman is in this movie and no, she’s not quite as…homely.

I’m 28 years old. I’ve seen movies in the past that I could partly relate to as a portrait of a generation. Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything comes to mind as a particular highlight. I just wasn’t born in the right era to call it my own.

With Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, my generation finally has its Say Anything. That is, if Lloyd Dobler could wield a flaming sword and inflict a 64-hit air combo on Diane’s dad.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World opens in US theaters on August 13th.

About Andy Yen