Among the least inspiring phrases in the English language, I wrote in my review of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, is “based on a video game.” Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is not based on a video game, but video games are part of its artistic DNA, along with comic books, anime, kung fu movies and music videos. Big difference. Video game content may not make inspiring source material, but the video game experience is like anything else in life, I guess.
Closely following the spirit of the graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley which itself reflects all these creative influences, Scott Pilgrim tells the story of a 23-year-old Toronto slacker (Michael Cera, Juno) who finds himself caught up in a series of surreal grudge matches against seven super-powered opponents who all once dated the girl of his dreams.
Pretty impressive both as an adaptation and as an exercise in cinematic style, it’s a feat that probably only director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) could have pulled off. I like the movie’s narrative energy and creative cross-pollination of image media culture. I might be twice the age of the target audience, but a movie that brings something new is of as much interest for a fortysomething film critic as a twentysomething gamer. After all, we critics get tired of movies being just like all the other movies we’ve seen.
Where Dastan in Prince of Persia was just a glorified avatar, Scott is effectively a game player — which is to say, he’s an actual person. Unfortunately, he’s a an actual person buried in a world of artificiality into which precious little humanity intrudes — which is to say, the world of gaming.
The problem starts with Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a jaded, rollerblading goth chick from New York who initially seems way too cool for Scott. She’s the girl of Scott’s dreams — why? Just because he actually dreamed about her? Then the story floats a sci-fi explanation about Ramona passing through Scott’s head; he might as well have spotted her on the street. That’s not the girl of your dreams.
Ramona’s attitude toward Scott is equally artificial. After initially coming off almost too cool to talk to him, on their first date she snuggles up to him in her skivvies and takes him to bed, though at the last minute she decides not to go all the way (unless she changes her mind). This isn’t real behavior of a human love interest, even if she’s damaged goods; it’s just playing with the hero’s emotions, as well as those of male audience members.
Why exactly is Ramona into Scott? For that matter, why does Scott seem to have such success with women out of his league? Besides Ramona, there’s 17-year-old Knives Chau (Emily Wong), who may be in high school but is super cute and totally into Scott; Envy Adams (okay, she hurt him in the end, but she’s a gorgeous rock star who’s still into him, still jealous of his current girl); Kim, drummer for Scott’s band, the Sex Bob-ombs (Kim Pine), whom Scott dumped … and at least one more, right? I forget.
The idea that Scott has to defeat each of the seven members of the “League of Evil Exes” in order to date Ramona has an obvious gaming vibe; Wright himself acknowledges that Scott views Ramona as “a shiny object in a game,” but does the movie offer any other perspective on her? It’s possible to view the film as a sort of “Calvin & Hobbes” alternate version of reality, presumably within Scott’s head — but where Watterson’s strip offered two versions of reality side by side, Scott Pilgrim doesn’t seem to have more than one point of view.
It’s still fitfully entertaining and sometimes brilliantly silly — just not really engaging, and occasionally objectionable. Jason Schwartzman is a scream as the mastermind behind Evil Exes, Gideon Graves, and Kieran Culkin is very sharp and funny as Scott’s gay roommate Wallace — though the level of gay-themed humor is off-putting. (Scott’s okayness with Wallace’s gayness is so extreme that they share a mattress, not just a room, sometimes even with one or more of Wallace’s boyfriends.)
Only Knives Chau, Scott’s “fake high-school girlfriend,” seems to bring real emotions to the story. She doesn’t seem clued in to the game-level triviality of Scott’s reality, and the fact that the movie ultimately doesn’t know what to do with her, even at game over, is its last epic fail. Too bad the story wasn’t told from her point of view. I think I would have preferred Knives Chau vs. the World.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.