To say that the comic-to-film adaptation Scott Pilgrim Vs The World has been well marketed would be a modest statement. Thanks to all the trailers, sneak peeks, cheeky cast reveals and secret screenings, not to mention the tweets, tie-in videogame and perfectly-timed release of the series’ final volume, the anticipation level among its target audience is off the chart. And it’s no surprise, since it’s effectively the Twilight or Harry Potter for hip geeks and geeky hipsters.
But where the big screen adaptations of the boy-wizard and girl-who-dates-supernatural-hunks franchises have the luxury of sequel-ready storytelling, Scott Pilgrim takes its six-volume arc and crams it into just under two hours. However, director Edgar Wright is perfect for the job. After all, this tale of twenty-something Torontonians fits right in with the work he has made in the past with collaborator Simon Pegg.
For Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) isn’t a million miles away from a Spaced character. He’s bumbling through life, using cultural touchstones (games and music, mostly) to shape and define his world. However, whereas the line between reality and fantasy was flexed in Spaced, here, it is broken, as the protagonist starts to date the literal girl of his dreams, a hyper-cool, roller-skating courier called Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). There’s just one caveat: Scott has to fight her seven evil exes in spectacular combat before winning her heart.
Appropriately for a film that uses music and sound effects from The Legend Of Zelda both diegetically and re-arranged in the score, these showdowns are of full-blown videogame-like proportions. They’re end level bosses, with each providing their own distinct settings and styles.
Take ex number one, Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), who launches mid-battle into his special move, a Bollywood dance sequence. Likewise, a later confrontation sees Scott’s band, Sex Bob-Omb, facing the Katayanagi twins in an amp versus amp musical assault.Their tunes wash over the crowd, and morph into CGI monsters in the air, recalling in their lucency the primitive spooks from Ghostbusters.
It is one thing to pack the film full of nods and references (and there are so many, we lost count), but Wright and his creative team are endlessly inventive and refreshingly experimental. The fight sequences are well staged, acrobatic and shot without a hint of shaky cam.
Editing is breathless, and aspect ratios are tinkered with throughout. Even non-action moments are given stylistic flair, as comic-book captions are used to push along montage sequences, or bridge a jump-cut between scenes. The results are always stimulating, as Wright pushes at the boundaries of modern filmmaking, revealing that what he could do with minimal budget was just a taster for when his imagination is writ large.
All this trickery would be nothing if not for the simple story at the film’s heart. Indeed, it could at times seem too stylised, and its layers of pastiche and parody may alienate some and confuse others. But its central romance is mature, genuine, and quite touching. For all the bluster and knockout punches, the conflict is a projection of Scott’s own inferiority complex, as he mines Ramona’s past for reflections of his own anxiety.
He’s a directionless slacker who lives in a scummy basement flat and plays in an amateurish, outmoded garage rock band, so facing up to the idealised rivalry of buff action movie stars, mystical vegan bass shredders, and smarmy super-producers seems like an insurmountable task. It’s a veritable slideshow of neurotic male anxiety.
That this is also a simultaneous exploration of Ramona’s own emotional baggage makes the development double-headed, and doubly moving. Wright’s direction is flexible enough to traverse both modes, dropping in dramatic moments that don’t feel jarring, but resonate more fully in the chaotic context.
Key to its success in this regard is the tremendous cast, headed by Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who offer up finely nuanced spins on the awkward man-child and impeccable female archetypes, with the latter ably hinting at emotional unease beneath the aloof, cool exterior.
Support comes from the likes of Anna Kendrick, as Scott’s sister, Stacey, and an unforgettable Kieran Culkin, as his playful roommate, Wallace. And cameo appearances from Brandon Routh and Chris Evans are real scene-stealers.
Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is also a prime adaptation. The feature stands up to the books, staying true to their ambition, warmth and wonder, while nailing down its narrative into something more workable on the big screen. In the transition, certain characters and sequences have been sacrificed. Kim Pine (Alison Pill), Sex Bob-Omb’s drummer, and Scott’s ex-girlfriend, suffers most, but that is to the benefit of others, such as Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), the high schooler whose fleeting relationship with Scott is cut short by his first sight of Ramona.
Oddly, Pilgrim himself loses out somewhat, as his own background, especially his traumatic relationship with electro-pop princess Envy Adams (Brie Larson), is relegated, leaving some of the character’s doubt missing. These debatable deficiencies, however, are swept away by the ending, conceived by Wright and co-writer Michael Bacall before the final book was finished, which is tighter, and arguably more satisfying than the source text.
On one integral level, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is a triumph of compression, a skill most adaptations now lack. It succeeds in tidy, economical storytelling that doesn’t skimp on pace, emotional payoffs or big laughs. On another, it embraces the hyperkinetic joy of comics, videogames, and life-defining music. When tied in with its superlative, astounding direction and visual sense, it is overwhelming. A true world conqueror.