‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ fights the odds to earn very high praise

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scott_pilgrim_vs_the_world_ver2_xlgScott Pilgrim vs. the World

Written by Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall

Directed by Edgar Wright

U.S.A., 2010

For those familiar with the work of English director Edgar Wright, saying he is adept at bending various genres should not come as a surprise. It would appear easy to label both Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End as spoofs, but each is boosted by genuine storytelling and character development which elevates them above the fray, whereas spoofs are primarily content with poking fun at the genres they tackle. In 2010 Edgar Wright chose to flex some directorial muscles in rather unorthodox ways with a silver screen adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Speaking of things unorthodox, the titular character’s universe is nothing like the what regular humans understand Nay, what appears on the surface to be a familiar pasture is in fact a candy-coloured world where onomatopoeias decorate the background whenever a loud sound erupts and evil ex-boyfriends can return from the past (?) and hunt you down like a pack of lions on a lamb.

Hold on just a minute now. If Edgar Wright thinks he’s going to walk off into the sunset that easily just because he’s chosen to adapt a unique comic book with a bunch of funny graphics and Michael Cera’s awkward acting style, he’s got another thing coming. Before claiming victory, he must face off against Movie Making’s 7 super challenges!

Edgar Wright Vs. Story. Fight!

Set in modern-day Toronto, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World follows the film’s titular character, played with the usual awkwardness by Michael Cera, a 22 year old rock band bass player who doesn’t seem to do much with his time other hang out with the other band members (Mark Webber, Alison Pill, Johnny Simmons) and try to make goodie with his 17 year old high school girlfriend, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Things get a little weird when, one night at a local party, he encounters a pretty if peculiar looking girl named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he dreamed about only days earlier. Smitten by her looks and stand-offish charm, he pursues her despite the strings attached to Knives. What he soon learns is that in order to get snugly with Ramona, he will have to face against and defeat her 7 evil ex-boyfriends (including one ex-girlfriend). Karate, skateboarding on icy ramps, testing one’s vegan sensibilities following electric guitar battles…everything is fair game if it means getting to stick around with Ramona.

Teenage and young adult romantic comedies are a dime a dozen and had been for years already by the time Scott Pilgrim graced the silver screen. This story distances itself leaps and bounds from other genre entries by embracing the absurd without ever explaining it. There is no logical reason why Ramona’s former lovers should materialize out of thin air, nor why they should necessarily be evil. The film is an adaptation of the comic strip of the same name from author Bryan Lee O’Malley, so most of the credit for its inventiveness should naturally go his way but suffice to say that realizing a proper cinematographic translation requires deft direction of which Wright has plenty. He brings a terrific panache to the proceedings, livening things up with a rapid fire pace that may leave some heads dizzy barely a few minutes in. True to his style, the edits come in fast and furiously but consistently serve the purpose of the story by highlighting specific comedic and dramatic beats. The film feels like one gigantic action scene straight out of a fantasy video game yet many of the characters feels as fully realized under the circumstances. Scott Pilgrim himself is something of a jerk, as evidenced by his expedient dumping of Knives Chau upon setting his sights on Ramona. The compounding attacks from the latter’s former partners, all of whom excel in evil behaviour, forces Scott to change his own way, at least a little bit. The ludicrousness of the plot end up anchoring the overall story. Victory!

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Edgar Wright Vs. Action. Fight!

This is where things really get really surprising. If Hot Fuzz offered the director the opportunity to showcase his ability to depict large scale, prolonged gun fights and car chases, Scott Pilgrim is where he lets loose with hand to hand and weapon to weapon combat. As previously stated, the pacing in an Edgar Wright film can be very quick but never so much so that it becomes incomprehensible. As martial arts film fans know full well already, rarely is cinematography and editing as crucial as it is during a fight. Well, not only do those elements come together to create some wildly imaginative combat sequences but so do the visual and sound effects.

In essence, the fight scenes in Scott Pilgrim are much like the other scenes in the picture but on acid. Changes in the aspect ratio, dramatic slow motion shot, onomatopoeias colourfully describing the intensity of the impact of a punch or kick, all with requisite jibes tossed between the protagonist and whichever feisty foe challenging him. The action is a cacophonous just as it is kaleidoscopic. Each is set-up much like in fighting video games, complete with ominous voice over and even a large ‘VS.’ logo appearing just as the contestants are about to engage in fisticuffs. The best part of all is that no two fights are ever the same. Be it for the location, the antagonist’s special abilities, the personalities involved, the emotional stakes, each and every battle is given a unique twist. The violence also finds a comfortable middle ground between lighthearted and bruising. Attacks are depicted as being extremely intense, vicious even but characters tend to get up pretty quickly after each assault and, coupled with all the crazy colours and sounds inundating the scene, Scott Pilgrim’s violence never becomes concerning. Big win in this department.

Edgar Wright Vs. Acting: Fight!

This is where the film take a hit or two. The star of the show, Michael Cera (although one may be forgiven for believing the frantic action and special effects are the true stars of the movie) once again finds himself in a familiar role, reduced to playing an awkward young man lacking polish in his social skills yet somehow earning the adoration of pretty girls.  Cera is effective at playing this sort role and as the saying goes, if something is not broken then don’t try to fix it. In all fairness, there are some moments when Cera puts on an angrier mood and such scenes are welcome although no one is fooling themselves into thinking things are about to get legitimately intense. It would only be a few years later in Magic Magic that the young actor would truly break out of his usual pattern. Mary Elizabeth Winstead of all people, despite that her character is supposedly the apple of Scott Pilgrim’s eye, gets lost in the shuffle. A charming actress with natural spunk, Winstead has shown on a few occasions the ability to give a scene a lift. Here she is aloof and distant, rarely fully engaged with her surroundings. The onus falls more on the writing than the actor, but it changes nothing of the fact that Winstead simply is not interesting in the film. The supporting cast however, from Ellen Wong, Jason Schwartzman, Chris Evans to Kieran Culkin are clearly having a blast with their roles. Wong in particular, a complete unknown when the film was released, steals a handful of scenes. Win!

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Edgar Wright Vs. Visuals: Fight!

Much like with the action, the film offers such a luscious treat in terms of visual effects and cinematography. There are some very dynamic camera movements at work here and the computer generated effects add plenty of character and humour to the story, often make the action scenes we discussed above all more enthralling. The visuals themselves often look very exaggerated, as if demanding the audience to pay attention to them, but it works in the context of this strange and whimsy film, enhancing the notion that Scott’s world is flavoured with the fantastic. The film comes across as a hybrid between a motion comic book and a video game on the silver screen, which made for a different kind of viewing experience. A decisive win!

Edgar Wright Vs. Music. Fight!

This is possibly the trickiest selling point of them all. While wildly energetic, the soundtrack is dominated exclusively by rock, sometimes grungy, other times a bit more poppy. On the one hand this is understandable because of the sort of music Scott Pilgrim and his band mates enjoy playing. That said, if this sort of music doesn’t sit well with any viewers, they might be in for a rough time for the film is littered with it from start to finish. Interestingly enough, real bands offered their talents to make up the soundtrack although the picture’s cast members lip sync the words. The music is a mixed bag of rousing tunes and disposable, musically droll fair. Draw.

Edgar Wright Vs. Comedy: Fight!

Well, this would be somewhat embarrassing if Wright failed at this stage of his quest to adapt O’Malley’s book. After all, he was one of the major forces behind both Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. Few words need be spent on elaborating how clever, catchy and just plain comical much of the dialogue and finely tuned performance are. Much of the cast delivers them in spot on fashion. Scott Pilgrim also offers plenty of visuals gags, many of them found in the action scenes and they work incredibly well too. The jokes come in so quickly that just blinking might cause one to miss a laugh. Needless to say, as far as comedic value is concerned, Scott Pilgrim is the sort of film fans can re-watch numerous times before finding all the gems. Big win.

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Edgar Wright Vs. Lasting impact: Fight!

Ultimately Scott Pilgrim vs the World is a film that its admirers promote loudly and proudly whenever the opportunity presents itself. They did it from day it opened theatrically and still do today. The problem is that few people pay attention to the rumpus. The numbers do not lie: the picture cost close to 90 million dollars and struggled to earn 47 million during its theatrical run. What’s more, whenever the name Edgar Wright is uttered, few reply first and foremost with ‘Scott Pilgrim!’ That isn’t to belittle the achievements that are the movies that make up the famously baptized Cornetto trilogy but it is a bit sad that Wright’s third theatrical venture never made much of an impact on moviegoers. For all the action, comedy and special effects on display, one would think the feature would do gangbusters. Alas, it was never meant to be.

That said, as the years go by more and more people will surely come across this most curious of action comedies. Online streaming (legal and otherwise), bargain DVD bins and word of mouth will see to that. It would be nice to live in a world where Scott Pilgrim is a massive hit that is adored by movie lovers the world over but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

-Edgar Chaput

 

Stay tuned on Saturday June 21st for…

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