The first 30 minutes of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World won me over with an exhilarating visual style and inventive cinematic language: this is fresh, this is new, this is a story told in a way we haven’t seen before. But during the rest of the movie the freshness wore off, the excitement faded, and I was left with a singular, inescapable conclusion: this just doesn’t work as a feature film.
Pilgrim combines elements of comic books (it’s based on the series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley), video games, anime, rock’n’roll, pop culture, and just about everything else under the sun (even the 1960s Adam West Batman) into something so bold and unique that you can’t help but admire the effort director Edgar Wright put into it. If nothing else, the visual style of Scott Pilgrim has secured it a place in cinema history.
Scott is played by Michael Cera as a shy, put-upon twentysomething slacker living in suburban Canada. He plays in a band (Sex Bob-Omb), lives in a cramped apartment with his gay roommate (Kieran Culkin), and is in an innocent relationship with highschooler Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), following a bad breakup with his previous ex Envy (Brie Larsen) a year prior.
Scott seems to be ambling through life unmotivated, but he soon comes across the lovely Ramona (first in a dream, then at a party), and he’s instantly smitten. Though Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has little interest in Scott, his persistence soon wins her over. But there’s a catch: “if we’re going to date,” she tells him, “you may have to defeat my seven evil exes.”
It’s actually a beautiful little metaphor: to pursue a successful relationship with Ramona, Scott must overcome all the emotional baggage she carries with her from past relationships. This is a surprisingly deep and resonant theme for this kind of movie, and something that isn’t usually explored in mainstream cinema.
For most of Scott Pilgrim, the metaphor is literalized as Scott physically battles the exes (Brandon Routh, Chris Evans, Jason Schwartzman and others) in video game action setpieces during which he transforms into an action hero and anything can happen. This is my one real qualm with the film, and the problem with literalizing a metaphor. Why does he have to fight them?
Most of them no longer care about Ramona, and we’re never given a satisfactory explanation. What are the rules of the fights? None – Scott can get thrown fifty meters into a building, then get up and deliver a single punch that shatters his enemy into an explosion of coins and bonus points.
And thus, the bulk of Scott Pilgrim becomes watching these metaphorical battle scenes that are well-choreographed and visually exciting but completely devoid of not only suspense or tension, but anything that would allow us to understand what is going on, or who is winning.
It’s all wham-pow-crunch with an arbitrary and predetermined outcome, and the audience is simply unable to fundamentally interact with these scenes. A life meter, that old video game standby, would have helped immensely here; the final fight features characters that begin to flash when they get low on health, but until then? Nada.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim quite a bit. It’s funny, touching, and filled with characters we like and care about. I’m also part of the target demographic, someone raised on comic books and video games who might get an emotional tinge during a music cue from The Legend of Zelda. It’s something I look forward to revisiting in the near future.
But Pilgrim, in direct opposition to director Wright’s previous films, the tightly-scripted Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, displays a basic storytelling flaw that distances itself from the audience and turns the second half of the film into an all-style, no-substance chore to sit through. We can understand the internal logic of a Road Runner cartoon better than what’s going on here.