Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
The biggest and most pleasurable surprise I have had at the multiplex this year is the astonishing crop of unique, stylistic and transgressive romantic comedies to hit theaters. Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s France-set Certified Copy used his typically metafictional approach to undermine the entire genre even as he tapped into the core of pain and anxiety that propels the conflicts not only of romantic comedy but romance itself. 87-year-old legend Alain Resnais used his own fourth-wall breaking effervescence to bypass the emotion to get to the sexual lust of love in Wild Grass.
I knew Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World would be no less aesthetically daring when the opening credits warped the dimensions of the apartment where the titular protagonist and his band practice, suddenly playing hyperkinetic colors cascading over the screen, matching the sort of industrial indie grind belted out by the band, Sex Bob-omb. In a flash, Wright uses some of the first moments of the film to recall the great experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, a man who took film form to new heights when he ceased filming and simply painted and scratched on film stock. What I noticed upon re-watching Scott Pilgrim was how much the seemingly random swirl of neon actually reveals about the characters, from the faint etching of “One! Two! Three! Four!” on Allison Pill’s credit or the straight edge exes for Brandon Routh’s.
What I did notice the first time I watched the film but saw even more clearly now was how much Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a logical progression from Wright’s breakthrough, the Britcom Spaced. Spaced, a British — read: funny - update on Friends with a dash of Three’s Company, used the conceit of two friends posing as a married couple to live in a nice, affordable flat to explore feelings of Gen-X ennui and idle. Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson (now Hynes) wrote characters who dreamed of being artists, only to toil away in minimum wage jobs and watch the same geeky movies and shows over and over without purpose.
Wright and co. turned the sitcom into a surreal masterpiece, using one episode to launch a zombie invasion, another to pit characters in Robot Wars-like combat, and so, so much more. Through it all, the crew never lost track of why they put so much focus into seemingly gimmicky, absurd episodes: in doing so, they captured the mentality of Generation X, social alienation that offered no cultural touchstone upon which to build an identity. So, they built it on the artifice of pop culture. For the first time, movies defined a generation, and the ones that did were typically filled with allusions to previous generation’s cinema. As funny as Spaced was, the central dramatic arc of the series concerned the characters bumping up against the limitations of that worldview, as critical of getting trapped in adolescent geek worship as it was gleefully accepting.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World jumps Spaced forward a generation, shifting the cultural bedrock from slacker cinema to the millennial age. The film’s frenzied, luminescent aesthetic befits a generation raised on the Internet, diagnosed with ADHD in disturbing numbers. Match cuts jump characters through time and space as Scott’s scatterbrain wonders off in conversation, only to pick up consciousness hours later; it’s a testament to how pointless everyone’s conversations are that each line can run into a later chat without any discrepancy.
Casting Michael Cera was a masterstroke on Wright’s part, and he did it for the exact right reason. He said he wanted someone who “audiences will still follow even when the character is being a bit of an ass,” and Cera has that quality in spades. But Scott is such a self-absorbed character that, paradoxically, his myopia breaks Cera of the increasingly narrow range in which he works. Cera manages to play his usual, endearing geek, only to then pit that type against itself. Wright has an underappreciated ability to draw out the stunted emotions of his male characters and the subtler maturity of his equally regressed females. The latter is particularly important because so many filmmakers take the easy way out and make their women not only the moral core of the work but the mental one. There’s an admirable lack of Madonna/whore complexes in Wright’s work, and every time he brushes up against that dead horse, he veers off magnificently as if a showboating pilot buzzing a tower.
Wright, working with Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic series, positions Scott as one of those awkward nice guys who doesn’t notice just how hurtful he can be. His geekiness makes him lazy and focused only on avenues of entertainment — his hilariously bad band, video game arcades — incapable of noticing how many girls he’s casually dumped as he continues to wallow in misery over the one time someone screwed him over. He dates Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a 17-year-old Catholic schoolgirl with strict Chinese parents whose repressed naïveté makes her view Scott as some kind of catch, validating Scott after the one time he got burned in a relationship.
When he turns his attention to Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), literally the girl of his dreams, we find that she’s not that much better. She’s had her own experiences with breaking hearts, and in her more revealing moments, she seems just as lost and confused by her place in the world as Scott, even if she is maturing faster than him. She’s just moved from New York to Toronto to get away from her life, but neither her change of location nor her constant skating through subspace can give off the impression that she’s going anywhere in life.
“Everybody has baggage,” she tells Scott, but hers comes in the form of seven evil exes who challenge Scott to duels to the death. Each battle has its own fighting style, from a warped Bollywood dance to a showdown between bassists to a battle of the bands fought through amps. Wright ingeniously changes up color palettes to ensure that not only the fighting differentiates from other battles, but the look of the film itself shifts too.
Underneath the brilliance of these fights, however, is a nagging question: why are these jilted lovers fighting Scott? None of them seem that hung up on Ramona, and even the ringleader, Gideon (Jason Schwartzman) never cared about her when they were together. O’Malley and Wright make the exes more a projection of Ramona’s guilt and aimlessness than people in their own right. Rather than portray her as just a femme fatale who dates someone just long enough to break his (or her) heart. By unloading her hang-ups onto Scott, she brings him into her world, the dark, nebulous transition from Scott’s obliviousness and adulthood. When Knives, who blames Ramona for Scott dumping her instead of the boy, starts to stalk and attack Ramona, we see how Scott has his own baggage that he can’t own up to. Like Spaced’s Daisy, Ramona may be a bit more mature than the men in her life, but she’s just as mired in listlessness and feelings of inadequacy.
But let me back away for a moment to discuss why Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is not just insightful but, quite simply, the most damn fun I had at a theater this year. There isn’t a single scene that tries to be funny and fails. Wright and Michael Bacall’s script fluidly adapts O’Malley’s comics, which struck a balance between early Kevin Smith, Pegg and Stevenson’s writing on Spaced, and even a heaping dose of Tarantino circa Kill Bill. One-liners fly so fast that I’m still finding one I hadn’t yet heard on a third watch: when her ex-girlfriend joins the fray, Ramona excuses that aspect of her past by saying it was just a phase. “You had a sexy phase?!” asks Scott incredulously. Nearly everything Scott’s gay roommate, Wallace (Kieran Culkin), says will make you double over in laughter.
Then there’s the matter of Wright’s visuals. There haven’t been as many sight gags in American comedic cinema in, oh dear, decades? His penchant for reference humor finds its most frenetic outlet, quoting liberally from classic video games, action movies, Natural Born Killers (the use of a laugh track in one sequence, which also plays the Seinfeld bassline) and the split-cell design of comic books. Gideon is openly modeled after the vile, demonic producer Swan from Brian De Palma’s woefully under-seen music industry musical Phantom of the Paradise.
De Palma could be seen as the overriding influence on Wright’s film, and Scott Pilgrim at times resembles what the elder director might make if he could get his hands on a sizeable budget again. Wright puts digital animation over the movie, scribbling onomatopoeic words like “Ding-dong” for doorbells or adding action lines and lighting bolts to communicate the “epic epicness” of the film’s tagline. The use of split-screen makes the film more like a comic book, but it also carries De Palma’s stamp through and through, as do some of the more complicated camera movements and the odd use of iris. Wright has his team throw in objects such as a “pee bar” that hovers over Scott and drains as he empties his bladder, depict the battle of the bands between Sex Bob-omb and the Katayanagi twins as a duel between beasts summoned from the power of rock (and house) music. It bewilders me even now to think that the film cost less than $100 million when it contains more ingenuity and more dazzling effects than Michael Bay’s Transformer movies.
Like De Palma, Wright never lets the joke get in the way of a deeper sincerity, but where De Palma’s vision is fundamentally cynical, Wright’s is more optimistic. It shows in the greater rapport he has with actors, whom he trusts, and the giddy playfulness he brings to his work. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending the first time I saw Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, feeling that it arrived too quickly off of a climactic fight that didn’t calm things down enough. Now, however, I find it as clever as anything else in the movie. As with Spaced, Scott Pilgrim ends an resolved note, but an ambiguous one. The characters have only finally made it to a breakthrough, but we won’t get to see them at last move into the next phase of life. It’s perhaps the most touching moment in Wright’s canon so far, proof that after he’d made bromance so affecting with his last two features, he could finally do love with adroit skill. It’s easy to get caught up in how fun Edgar Wright’s movies are, because they have all held up to all the repeat viewings I can give them. But it took me a while to see just how much empathy he has for his characters, and how fluidly he can make the personal work of another artist (O’Malley) his own. Armed with a perfectly chosen cast, a deft script and a touch of brazen visual surrealism that surely damned the film by making it ahead of its time, Wright has shattered the boundaries between film, video game, comic book and cartoon. What’s more impressive is how effortlessly he does it.
Universal’s AVC-encoded 1080p transfer looks magnificent. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a mixture of dazzling effects and lo-fi, indie-music-as-visual-aesthetic cinematography, thus creating a possible quality leap between the brilliant, popping colors of the animated effects and the drab look of snowy Toronto. Fear not, this transfer handles the juxtaposition almost flawlessly, presenting a healthy, natural amount of grain and an eye-popping presentation of the more striking visual aspects of the film. Black levels are incredible too, and the shot of Scott silhouetted in total darkness as he wears a blue parka looks perfectly crisp, not washing out the blue in the black at all.
As for the audio, well, I had to keep turning the volume down because the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is so overwhelming I was afraid neighbors would come knocking even in the middle of the afternoon. The combination of the film’s garage/indie soundtrack, overwhelming Foley effects in fights and subtler use of sound gave Scott Pilgrim one of the better mixes of any film this year, and it’s all been ported over to the home theater. There are as many gags on the soundtrack as there are in the visuals, so the audio quality is especially welcome in unpacking the film’s numerous treats.
Edgar Wright has never been one to let his work hit home video without copious extras, but he outdoes himself here. First up, he offers a whopping four commentaries: 1) Wright, co-writer Michael Bacall and Byan Lee O’Malley; 2) a technical track with Wright and cinematographer Bill Pope; 3) cast commentary with Cera, Winstead, Wong, Schwartzman and Brandon Routh; 4) a second cast commentary with Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Kieran Culkin, and Mark Webber. I have not had the chance to listen to all of them yet, but the first cast commentary is light while insightful and the snippet I listened to of the second promises some goods as the supporting players are all hungover from the premiere they attended the night before.
Elsewhere, we get:
- Deleted scenes: 21 deleted and extended scenes, almost all of which would have been a welcome addition to the film. Wright also throws in the original ending which seemed the more logical and appropriate choice when I first watched the movie but now that I actually see what was proposed, I agree with the choice ultimately made.
- Alternate Footage.
- Blooper Reel.
- Documentaries: four docs on various aspects of the film, the highlight of which is a 50-minute broad overview of the movie’s production.
- Pre-Production: An 85-minute look into the long and studious pre-production process on the film, from casting to rehearsal to set design.
- Visual Effects: A more in-depth look at some of the more impressive animation sequences in the film.
- Soundworks Collection: A sadly brief examination of the masterful sound editing on the feature.
- Music Promos: Includes music videos, remixes and montages set to the film’s music.
- Adult Swim: Scott Pilgrim vs. The Animation: An animated short made for Cartoon Newtork.
- Blogs: Wright’s production diary
- Galleries: Production stills and press kit material.
- Trivia Track: A pop-up feature with tidbits. Somewhat unnecessary given the presence of four commentary tracks.
- U-Control: Offers Picture-in-Picture storyboards.
- Scott Pilgrim vs. the Censors: Re-loops the dialogue to avoid swears.
- Theatrical trailers and TV spots.
And if that’s not enough, the disc is also BD-Live enabled.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is Edgar Wright’s third straight masterwork in a row (fourth if you count Spaced). With a fraction of the usual summer blockbuster budget, Wright has delivered the most inventive mainstream film in years, but also one that develops the same themes that have occupied him his whole career. It changed my opinion of Cera, deepened my appreciation for Winstead (who is one of the best young actresses working) and Culkin, and gave us a fantastic newcomer in Wong. Some say Scott Pilgrim is destined to become a midnight movie, which I’m sure would send Wright over the moon. I think that’s probably true, but I also believe that the film is cleverer than midnight popcorn fare. As much as I still love to cheer on its lunacy, I find myself increasingly affected by its ideas and more and more able to see myself, and my friends, in the characters. Wright was already ahead of the curve in terms of making riotous, reference-heavy genre film with heart, but here he not only transcends genre, he transcends art form. He’s so ahead of everyone now that he’ll have to take the next few years off just to let people catch up. That is, if he wants them to at all.
- Jake Cole is a journalism student at Auburn University, where he regularly avoids people in favor of writing about film, television and music on his blog, Not Just Movies. When he is not writing movie reviews, he is inevitably writing something else and will continue to do so until he runs out of excuses not to go outside.
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