Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Canada/US/UK 2010)

Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Edgar Wright is one of the brightest writing and directing talents of British Cinema. Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and the cult TV series Spaced proved that, but for his first North American production he was parted from Simon Pegg as his star and collaborator. Fortunately, he chose Canada and not the US for his source material and location and I loved every minute of Scott Pilgrim. Canadian culture is just a little closer to Wright’s British sensibilities and I think that allows him to pull off what is a rather wonderful mix of genres.

The story comes from a graphic series by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Set in Toronto the series features Scott Pilgrim as a 22 year-old slacker cum bass guitarist with surprising super powers which he is forced to utilise when he falls for Ramona Flowers, a young woman on the run from New York and looking for a new life. Scott finds himself having to battle Ramona’s ‘seven exes’, each of whom has their own special power. Somewhow they all turn up in a snowy Toronto seeking vengeance.

I should confess that it is more than 10 years since I was in any way interested in computer games and more than forty since arcades seduced me with the lure of pinball. Similarly I’m not that familiar with many music genres so I might have missed a lot of references, but there is so much going on in this film that I felt entertained no matter what. Essentially, the film is a slacker romcom, its narrative intertwined with an outline story about the rise of a pop-punk trio and the narrative of a super-hero struggle envisaged as a videogame. All of this takes place in a world of middle-class Toronto suburbia where seemingly no-one is over 25 or under 17. Having said that, the target audience appears to be the 25-35 age group seeking a form of immediate nostalgia. The whole thing works, I think, because casting and performances are universally good and the film has a real heart. The resolution of the narrative is such that it could have gone either way and I would have been happy. (The narrative also offers an interesting entry into the ‘dreamscape’ category inhabited by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Inception and Skeletons.)

I know that many people find Michael Cera irritating and his whiny voice doesn’t do much for me either – but there is something about the way that he uses his face and his body. Mary Elizabeth Winstead complements Cera’s whininess by playing a restrained and cool character, but she is matched by Eileen Wong as Knives Chau. Overall the range of characters and types makes this an interesting film for study of representations and identity with Kieran Culkin offering a more nuanced gay type than romcoms usually manage and the mashing of Bollywood, manga/anime and kung fu in games imagery. But the main attraction is still Wright’s unflagging exuberance in utilising every visual trick imaginable in exploring the comic book/videogame links that the story offers. He changes the aspect ratio, inserts game graphics, captions and comic strips and imaginative forms of speech bubbles. This seems to have put off some older reviewers – the normally perceptive Philip French in the Observer was quite down on the film.

Here’s a trailer for the film showing some of mixing of ideas and techniques:

What did strike me is that what seems new is often returning from long ago. For instance, the on-screen gaming symbols can be traced back to the early electronic pinball machines and I really enjoyed the animated words spewing from a character’s mouth on occasions. The first time I saw this was in a clip from a 1930s silent Chinese melodrama used in Stanley Kwan’s magnificent Centre Stage (HK 1992). I was also reminded of the clever use of graphics for on-screen texting in Take Care of My Cat (dir. Jeong Jae-eun, South Korea 2001).

Unfortunately, despite some great reviews in the US, Scott Pilgrim seems to have under-performed at the box-office in both North America and the UK (i.e. given the relative success of Wright’s two previous films and Universal’s investment in a wide Summer release with a large production budget). I’m reminded of another terrific graphic novel adaptation of the slacker world, Ghost Town in 2001, that suffered a similar fate (on a much lower budget). I fear that the average multiplex audience struggles with popular culture that takes itself seriously and I hope Edgar Wright gets the proper support that he needs in making films as good as this. I’ll certainly be there for the next one.

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