Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Films based on video games have always been notoriously noxious in quality. From Super Mario Bros. to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Hitman to Max Payne, the interactivity that works so well on an Xbox has never translated onto the silver screen with any degree of success. With Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, director Edgar Wright seems to have come up with a solution: dispense with the video game altogether. Never has there been a more energetic, hyperactive and Nintendo-influenced film, and while its roots ostensibly lie with a cult comic book series of the same name, its biggest influences, for better and for worse, are video games.

The film follows Pilgrim (Michael Cera), the bass player for an inadequate band, Sex Bob-Omb, as he attempts to win the heart of the mysterious Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). There’s just one obstacle in his way. Well, seven, to be precise. He must defeat her past lovers, all seven of whom assemble against him as the League of Evil Exes, lead by Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman). As a set-up, it’s a fairly ingenious spin on the standard romantic vehicles – Juno, Nick and Norah, Paper Heart – that have begun to bog down Cera’s career, while the multiple turns that the plot takes aren’t exactly predictable.

In many ways, this film is the logical progression for Edgar Wright. He made his name back in 1999 by directing Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes’ Spaced, where his direction ensured that the TV show’s multiple pop-culture references and rip-offs were made in a reverential and skilful style on a deceptively small budget. Then came the perfectly executed Shaun of the Dead – still the high point of his short career – followed by the slightly overindulgent Hot Fuzz, which together allowed Wright to ascend to the A-List of Hollywood directors, rubbing shoulders with Tarantino and Spielberg.

Having proved his mettle with his first two features, Wright was given a larger budget to accommodate his growing ambitions, and the result is Scott Pilgrim. However, to the surprise and disappointment of this reviewer, it’s not a film that’s easy to embrace. From the first pixellated frame to the last, the experience of viewing the film is an utterly bewildering assault on at least two of your senses, and it never allows its audience time to adjust. Although the running time stretches to almost two hours, the film could not be more enthusiastically hyperactive as it jumps from one scene to the next with smooth, rapid cuts. The camera is continually restless, as if Wright is desperate to show us something new, terrified of boring his audience. This leads to words, usually onomatopoeic, filling the screen whenever possible – if a doorbell rings, it is unfailingly accompanied by a floating ‘ding-dong’ written in the font of a comic book.

Strangely, the cumulative effect of the film’s continual efforts to entertain and surprise render the movie as a whole rather sterile. Music plays at all times, as if the makers were afraid of silence – never mind if a pause is meaningful, for Wright it’s not entertaining enough. One longs for just a single scene containing a comprehensible and normally paced conversation, and for the camera to remain still for more than five seconds. It’s as if the perpetually teenage Wright is dashing around his cinematic bedroom, grabbing out his favourite records, comics, films and video games, desperate to show you excerpts from every single one, with the ironic effect being one of bewilderment or even disaffection for the viewer. It’s a film composed of bits, and seems to have been edited in chunks, with little attention being paid to the overall picture. It lacks coherence, and as the film leaps from one cartoonish fight to another, one begins to feel the urge to shake Wright violently by the shoulders and plead him to calm down. His enthusiasm isn’t infectious; it’s just tiresome.

If the kinetic and undeniably impressive visuals of Scott Pilgrim concealed something more substantial, the film’s hyperactivity wouldn’t create such a problem. Yet underneath all the whip-pans, floating words and vanquished foes exploding into coins Mario-style, the film is curiously hollow. This imbalance comes as somewhat of a surprise, particularly considering Wright’s previous successes: beneath the flippant comedy of Shaun of the Dead lay a genuine and moving romance, while even Hot Fuzz was grounded in the believable bromance between Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Here, there is none of that substance. As the film never pauses to breathe, it fails utterly to develop its characters – they remain ciphers, always playing second fiddle (or controller) to the flashily stylish visuals and pop-culture savvy dialogue. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is certainly a unique experience, and aims itself fairly effectively at those who grew up with a Nintendo 64 or Sega Megadrive, yet its overall effect is a fairly numbing one. Much like the video games with which it is clearly enamoured, this is a technically stunning film, but one which is impossible to love.

Originally published by Cherwell Online, 21/08/2010.

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