August 24, 2010 12:00 PM | Matthew Hawkins
['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a not-so-regular column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that takes a look at movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games. This latest entry takes a look at the recently released, much-heralded Scott Pilgrim Versus The World.]
To say that the Scott Pilgrim Versus The World is the biggest thing to happen to video game related cinema in a very long time is an understatement. Though what's taken center stage more so than the film itself has been the intense reaction; people either passionately adore the movie or vehemently loathe it.
Critics and viewers alike have characterized the film as either a love letter to all video gamers out there or a damning indictment of how YouTube is destroying the minds of our youth. And there appears to be no middle ground; the most vocal side has been the fans (at least the diehard contingent), who claim that you're either one of “us” (whom the movies was made for, though the criteria used to determine if one is part of the club or not is somewhat in question) or you're not, end of story.
And despite all the hyperbole (much of which has been a massive turnoff, personally speaking), I don't think it's misleading to state that this particular motion picture is indeed a watershed moment for the genre. After all, most examples, at least from tinsel town, are either big screen translations of some hit title, with all the perils and pitfalls that come with the such territory, or an original story that attempts to tap into the world of gaming itself, usually in a manner that the filmmakers believe to be clever, but often is not.
Sometimes there's an attempt to make some kind of deep insight or commentary, which again usually misses the mark completely. Whereas Scott Pilgrim Versus The World from very early on gave the impression that those helming the project truly understood the subject matter. And we all know that people who actually "get it" is far and few between in the world of major motion pictures, regardless of the topic or audience.
Still, everything has its detractors; some saw nothing more than yet another overly produced, transparent attempt at exploiting the video game market-share. You know, sometimes there's just enough appealing elements to arouse suspicions, as if it was the handiwork of some marketing team, as opposed to a single entity that is simply knowledgable about such matters.
And as unpopular as it will be to admit, I can understand where such an opinion is coming from. With the key word being unpopular; after the opening box office dust had settled, many were incensed by its relatively poor performance (debuting head to head with an action flick starring every macho superstar the sun AND the ultimate chick flick starring the queen bee of chick flicks certainly did not help matters much). Which in turn caused a massive backlash of the anger directed at the critics that gave Scott Pilgrim less than kind scores, almost all of whom have been decried as those who quite obviously "don't get it".
So coupled with the rabid fanaticism (which I find to be a massive turn-off, even when it's for something I’m into), along with the fear that the video game-y aspects might indeed be pandering (sorry, but I somewhat believe that way too many nerds falls to easily to things that are purely for the sake of self-validation), plus my bias towards anything that comes from Hollywood (I've seen way too many projects featuring the best indie minds that still blew in the end), and with my innate need to be a contrarian (I just like to be difficult), I went in assuming that I'd probably hate Versus The World. Or perhaps love it? Either way, I'd feel just as strongly as everyone else. Hence why I was genuinely shocked when the credits began rolling. After all was said and done, the movie that draws the line and has created such a divide is... in my humble opinion... shockingly middle of the road.
The basic concept of the movie (and the comics that it's based upon) is actually quite novel: there's this slacker from the great white north, our hero Scott Pilgrim, who falls head over heels for this weird girl with the purple hair (at least it starts off that color), Ramona Flowers. But to be her main man, he has to deal with her seven deadly exes, and each encounter plays itself out like a battle from some video game.
Other players take part in the drama, specifically the way too young to his girlfriend (Scott's in his early/mid 20's, whereas the other girl is 17 and still in high school) who is unceremoniously dumped when Ramona hits the scene, Scott's wise-cracking gay roommate, and the folks that make up the band he's in. But they're all secondary characters to the battles that Scott must engage in, at least far more so than in the comics, which I'll touch upon in a bit.
The film contains many video game-like elements (obviously, hence why we're talking about it in the first place), mostly as it pertains to the aforementioned struggle with Ramona's exes, which are presented as epic boss battles. Each encounter fills the screen with visual cues that are instantly recognizable to your average gamer; you've got accompanying stats, power ups, point tallies, super meters, even coins that are dropped when a foe bites the dust. The opponents themselves often mimic the behavior of fighting characters from actual games, most of them fairly obscure, at least for something produced by Hollywood. I’m fairly certain I saw allusions to certain King Of Fighters characters. So all that attention to detail gets an immediate thumbs up for me; none of the references are lazy or way too obvious.
Most surprising of all is how many of the little flourishes, like sound cues, originate from big-time titles that should be recognizable to pretty much everyone. I can only imagine what portion of the budget went towards getting those rights. The one thing I feared the most was how in your face and obnoxious these details would be, so thankfully they're used sparingly and mostly in an appropriate manner; to enhance the action but never distract. Otherwise, it would have indeed been pandering. Additionally, for something that is fantastical, the action is actually quite logical and therefore convincing. The tried and true video game convention of finding each bosses weak spot is represented and executed rather admirably.
Again, never has an original, mainstream movie utilized all the tropes of gaming to such a "legit" degree. With the last example being perhaps Tron from so many years ago, hence all the accolades. Yet I still didn't find myself all that impressed. Truth be told, despite how spectacular the action might be, it's still hardly groundbreaking, aside from a purely licensing perspective. For years, fans of games have sought to produce their own takes on what a video game conflict in the real world might be (just search YouTube and literally countless examples will pop up).
Make no mistake; Scott Pilgrim is the biggest, richest, most bombastic take on it thus far. And one with enough weight to legally call upon all its references. Yet at its core is something many gamers have seen before, simply shinier and prettier. At the same time it's impossible to ignore how for many non-hardcore gamers, this was their first taste of such cinematic expression of gaming, so it's still understandable why so many were blown away. Still, the biggest issue is how it isn't all about video games and fight scenes…
Now might be a good time to remind everyone that the movie is originally based upon a series of hit indie comics, and my general rule is to never compare the source material with the adaptation. Which makes absolutely zero sense when you write a column that reviews movies based on games, but I'm mostly referring to books/comic books made into movies. The two mediums are SO different that they it's almost unfair to stack them against each other (but often happens due to how common such translations have become).
Yet fans of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels will be delighted by the efforts of director Edgar Wright. Well, most already are; he does a brilliant job of packing each frame with as much vital and complimentary info as possible, yet without burning out the viewer. And most importantly, faithfully adapting the characters and events. To a certain point at least.
Because in the end, six volumes (these aren't single issues we're talking about but actual graphic novels) truncated into a two hour movie is a tall order regardless. Things start off nice and smooth in the beginning, yet as things progress, stuff just starts happening left and right, leading to mass confusion. Initially the moments between fight scenes not only help to set up the next conflict but provide a much needed breather, which is done away towards the end, with one fight happening almost immediately after another.
On that note, Scott Pilgrim really is like many games: the story is strong initially, but eventually fades into the background. Also, as witty and inventive as the editing might be, it’s still mostly stuff you've mostly before and is practically par for the course, given the material and audience. A methodically, quietly paced teen comedy just doesn’t work in this day and age. Or so says convention; as good as it is to be serviceable, it's also nice when one sticks their neck out and try to actually innovate, which isn't necessarily the case here, aside from a few genuinely cute and compelling edits here and there.
Back to the positives: easily the greatest highlight was the phenomenal casting. I actually found the big screen adaptation version to be superior to the original graphic novels in several aspects, thanks to how (most) every character was brilliantly realized. Stand outs include Ellen Wong as Knives Chau (the aforementioned tossed aside high school hottie), Alison Pill as Kim Pine (the drummer of the band, as well as former girlfriend of Scott's; her dead-on portrayal is absolutely uncanny), Jason Schwartzman as the big boss Gideon (the actor always does a stellar job playing a smarmy fellow, good or bad), and most definitely Kieran Culkin as Wallace Wells (the aforementioned gay roommate; as most everyone already knows, he completely steals the show). Unfortunately, one of the greatest weaknesses is Scott Pilgrim himself.
As noted, there are both plusses and minuses with this particular adaptation. I personally was never fond of Scott in the books, and many of his less than stellar qualities don't make it over due to time limitations, thankfully. Though on the flip side, what made the books work was the look at those around him, primarily the ramifications of his behavior. And much of that is lost as well, again due to constraints. In the end, you have a lead character that is not at all sympathetic, let alone interesting.
For all intents and purposes, he's just another generic lead from a contemporary teen flick, doing all the same nonsense one comes to expect in similar films: you want to like him at first, but acts like a douche for absolutely no real reason. Sure he redeems himself in the end, but call me old fashioned, because if the character is not identifiable, let alone likable somewhat early on, I could care less about the end result.
Though the coffin on the nail is how Scott is portrayed by Michael Cera, who coincidentally has starred in about three dozen generic teen flicks before this one. In his defense, he's not nearly as whiney or emo here as in everything else, but it's still not quite the same Scott that many might have envisioned in their minds upon first reading the books. Though the funny thing is, I've heard from more than one person that the Scott he portrays in the animated shorts that recently aired on Adult Swim is far truer to the source material and simply superior (unfortunately, as of this writing, I have no had a chance to check out the animated shorts).
Not to go on a completely different aside, but while watching the Oscars earlier this year with friends, I couldn't help but roll my eyes during the John Hughes tribute. Sure I enjoyed his movies, but I felt his significance to the overall world of filmmaking was being overblown, and the effort was designed to pander to the 80s nostalgia demographic. Well, I am here to admit that I was 100% wrong.
Because Scott Pilgrim does make me long for a time in which big screen young people were indeed fragile and broken as always, but also relatable and most importantly sympathetic on a fundamental level. Something that is sorely absent in the efforts of today’s filmmakers, ones who are left to fill the hole that Hughes and his contemporaries have left (as unfair such a responsibility might be). That's not to say that there was no passion put forth in the production of this film, far from it. The level of craftsmanship is without question. But again, call me old or jaded, because it's going to take much more for me to care about a movie that happens to have all these super cool gaming elements.
Is it wrong to compare Hughes to Wright? Probably. But I really can’t wrap this review up without touching upon the fact that many have deemed Scott Pilgrim the movie of today’s generation. Ultimately I’m not the one to make such calls; perhaps it will be. But considering that I am part of that club, at least I believe that I qualify, and how I love video games, am a sucker for a good fight scenes, can appreciate a self-assured/quick witted pace, as well as a decent take of love, and still didn’t find Scott Pilgrim all that satisfying, I cannot share in the sentiment. Plus, any talk of target audience is silly considering how, no matter who a movie is ultimately aimed at, if it’s good it will be appreciated no matter what, period.
Again, perhaps if the video game aspects were front and center, instead of window dressing for something else, my tune would be different. Despite how lengthy and elaborate the fight scenes are or how well executed the game aesthetic ended up being, at its heart, Scott Pilgrim Versus The World is a love story. One that is rather weak and thin. If the aforementioned game elements had brought something new to the table, the movie as a whole might have been salvaged, though it's impossible to say ultimately to what degree. Being something different overall would have undoubtedly helped (which goes against my just stated belief that I wished it was more like the teen dramedies of the past, I know).
In the end, Scott Pilgrim is your average teen romantic comedy by today’s standards. One that is solid, but definitely unspectacular. Which also happens to have a bunch of neat video game references. Nothing more, nothing less.
[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]
Categories: Column: Cinema Pixeldiso