Saturday, September 4, 2010

New World Pilgrim

The theater in which I saw Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was conspicuously vacant, or rather nearly so. In the seats in front of me sat a twenty-something couple, and a few (empty) seats over from them was man in glasses and shorts who seemed to be getting on in his middle age. I wondered what this latter gentleman was hoping to get out of the movie, and I still do (he laughed on occasion, though, so good for him). I wonder because Scott Pilgrim has rather extraordinarily, considering how much it cost to make and market, what must be one of the narrowest demographic slivers for a mainstream movie I have ever seen. The farther away in either direction one is from the 20-something age cohort that grew up in the late 1980s and early-to-mid-90s, the less appeal Scott Pilgrim must hold. Accordingly, it appealed quite a lot to me, much more than I expected.

If the style of this interactive trailer doesn't make you smile a little, this movie is not for you.

This is a film that begins with a 16-bit rendering of the Universal Studios logo with accompanying midi fanfare, followed by the opening strains of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Most moviegoers who were aware of Zelda and Link in their SNES heyday are either too young to fondly remember when such references were current, or they remember fondling the pimply girl down the street because they were too old for what was back then strictly kids stuff. I “got” it and laughed in spite of myself, thinking it was just being cute. It is in fact a signal, much like Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France” in Inglourious Basterds, of what director Edgar Wright’s getting at, the framework he’s using: in this case, 8- and 16-bit video games.

Much of the whole movie, for sure, is “being cute,” with a young 20-somethings love story featuring Michael Cera (surprisingly not annoying), mashed up with a ‘vanguish all the bosses’ video game quest structure, taking all of a Super Nintendo game’s tropes—experience points, fight announcers, enemies that drop money when defeated, ridiculous physics—for granted and blending it all with a comic book aesthetic and more besides. It sounded tacky in concept , and after Kick-Ass I was done sick of postmodern irony applied to awkward comic book wannabe heroes, but somehow here it works (though it does start to wear out its welcome as nears the finish line). And rather than just being cute, just a surface distraction, the video game element is actually neatly tied in to the story, which, stripped down, is about a young man, and an emotionally immature young man at that, having to deal with his new love’s past; that he has to deal with it by literally engaging it in colorful and hyperactive combat, learning more about her with each ex encountered, is just the creators offering a new take on a well-trod theme.It’s Chasing Amy with the comic book window dressing brought to the fore.

It is fair to ask, of course, why these characters’ reality should be filtered through a video game lens. I can’t guess at the intentions of Bryan Lee O’Malley, creator of the original Scott Pilgrim comic, not being at all familiar with him and his work. But Edgar Wright’s two previous features, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, were both (delightful) exercises in film genre homage. Wright additionally did an enthusiastic Hot Fuzz commentary track with Quentin Tarantino, whose outlook and film output, is based not on the objective world, but cinema, particularly the junk food cinema he consumed growing up in the 70s and 80s. Wright is a generation removed from Tarantino, and so perhaps this is just that stylization taken a step further. If Tarantino’s work is life-as-film, then Wright, working in the internet age and drawing on his own upbringing, is life-as-entertainment-media: video games, comic books, sitcoms, alternative music, and yes, movies.

Whether this all is a completely good thing, is debatable. I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim thoroughly, but I don’t know that I fully “connected” with it. However well-integrated its kinetic visual scheme is, its winking self-consciousness always kept me from getting too invested in the goings-on. Again I wonder what the older man in the audience made of this movie. This is no idle concern; as of September 2nd, three weeks after its August 13 opening, this $60 million production has only grossed $33 million, including overseas box office. While the movie is not solely a gaming in-joke, the audience still needs an "in," which may well be hurting business.

These economics make it even more a product of the present time, when we are living more of our lives than ever before in front of a screen and in a virtual world, and when a shared culture is giving way to ever-subdividing niches in a hyperactive media world. On its own terms Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is entirely successful, more than it has any right to be. Any major fault one can have with it has less to do with its filmmaking and more with its narrow focus on the pet interests of 30 year-old video game nerds, a fault that ultimately lies with today's fractured society.


  1. Good thoughts, thanks. I enjoyed the film, too. I've only read the first two graphic novels, but it seemed like a pretty wonderful adaptation, and Wright was the perfect choice for director. Its biggest problem was opening opposite The Expendables, which was an unexpected hit across demographics - including Scott Pilgrim's. Scott Pilgrim is the sort of film a small audience will love, but I would think a broader audience would enjoy - if they saw it. It'll make up money internationally and in DVD sales, but I'm not happy the Hollywood suits will remember it as a bust. You'll probably enjoy this interview with Wright.

  2. Thanks for the link, I'll definitely check it out.

    It is a shame that it'll be considered a bomb, but I think it will be an influential bomb. I imagine there are enough budding film directors in its target audience that are going to absorb the amazing filmmaking techniques at work (the transitions!), and five or ten years on its impact will start making itself known. Hell, maybe it'll even pave the way for a video game adaptation that's actually good.