It happens every once in a while that a movie I’m excited about slips through the cracks. Whether it’s because of life’s insanity, an over-abundance of interesting films in theaters, or just general film malaise, I will readily admit that I miss some gems.
That was the case with Scott Pilgrim. So I’m damn glad that I happened to catch the film months after its initial release. Because even though I was excited about the movie (it’s directed by Edgar Wright; who wouldn’t be?), the actual product was much different and better than I expected.
See, I thought Scott Pilgrim would be a fun little action comedy complete with fun pop-culture references, silly battle scenes, and a saccharine romance with Michael Cera’s unique brand of deadpan. Instead, I got one of the most visually creative films in years. I got a movie that is breaking convention and expectation at every turn, and a movie that creates its own logic based on hipster culture, video games, comic books, and universal feelings regarding young love and growing up.
Show this movie to your Mom, and she probably won’t get it. ”Why did he just pull a sword out of his chest?” and “Why do people explode into coins when they die?” are just two questions that will pop up during the movie’s runtime. And Wright doesn’t bother to explain these twisted choices in logic. Because he doesn’t have to. For our generation (X, Y, EchoBoomers or whatever you want to call us), raised on video games and an excess of pop culture, this movie presents the world as a weird mish-mashed hybrid of our emotional reality and the not-so-real world of music and gaming that we throw ourselves into everyday.
It’s in that regard that the movie really blew me away…not just from a visual perspective, but from a story and style point-of-view as well. For perhaps the first time in cinema, this movie collects all the oddities and obsessions and un-realities of my generation and recombines them in a way that, shockingly enough, actually says something about how we experience the world.
For years our generation has been told that we’re a signpost on the way to the decline of western civilization. Instead of having real relationships, we rely on social networking and endless walls of technology. Instead of playing sports, we “game,” sacrificing years of our lives in front of a screen, killing fake people and racking up points. We’ve even been told that this constant influx of media–movies, music, games etc.–has altered the basic way we relate to the world.
Ya know what? It’s true, but not really in the way the nay-sayers would argue. Gen-Xers have gotten married. We have jobs. We have kids, save for our future (sometimes) and are generally socially responsible. Our relationships are different, but they still exist and are, in some ways, stronger than the friendships and romances of our parents. We have our faults, but in general the doom and gloom predicted in past decades hasn’t come to pass.
And we still play Halo constantly.
Instead of screwing up our perception of the world, our constant interaction with pop culture has served as a lens through which we view the world. Bonding occurs over conversations about childhood heroes like He-Man, and we’re able to expel our frustrations by rocking out on Rock Band or blowing people up in a first person shooter. Everything about the way we interact with the people we care about has changed, but the interactions are just as meaningful, poignant, mundane and fraught with emotional substance and heartache as they ever have been.
This is what Scott Pilgrim vs. The World gets right. Most movies that incorporate video game elements, to this point in time, have been interested only in violence and escapism. It’s all about presenting a wildly unrealistic world completely separate from our own. Pilgrim, though, takes this same idea and aesthetic and applies it to an all-too-familiar storyline. We follow Scott, a lovable wimpy kid who plays bass in a retro punk/hipster band and notoriously breaks hearts…until the day the love of his life breaks his. He dates high school girls even though he knows it will end badly, he refuses advice from his sister and gay best friend, and he consistently runs away from anything that is confrontational or difficult.
Sound like anyone you know? Good, because that’s why this movie works. While I won’t go so far as to call the movie “realistic,” its main premise and characters are familiar and honest. When Scott meets Ramona Flowers, the girl of his dreams, we watch him fall in love, deal with his own insecurities, develop emotionally, and confront conflict head-on…
…All framed by the metaphor of having to fight Ramona’s seven evil exes (to the death) in order to free her from her past and win her over.
We have all the elements and makings of a video game here. Words like “Love” take on a visual importance akin to what they really mean to a twenty-two-year old. Scott “levels up” by defeating each ex (who explodes in a barrage of coins while a point counter ticks away his progress). The exes get more and more powerful until Scott finally has to come face to face with Gideon, a record producer who holds the fate of Scott’s band as well as the keys to Ramona’s heart.
So while all the amazingly visualized action helps creates a straightforward score card for Scott’s progression, it also gives the audience a familiar framework through which we can see a character actually grow and develop while dealing with familiar problems. Scott doesn’t have to defeat exes because it impresses Ramona…she would just like it all to go away. Instead, the fights serve as illustrations of Scott’s ability (or inability) to deal with Ramona’s past. Each ex challenges his ability to see Ramona as the perfect angel he’s built in his head, and each victory is about his ability to get past his qualms.
At the end of the movie, though, Scott’s battle takes on a decidedly different bent, and the final battle sequence, complete with its “one ups,” “power ups” and “two-player modes,” is a direct illustration of how Scott is developing into a more passionate, self-respecting individual who knows what he wants and is determined to do what’s required to get it.
For a generation that’s been force-fed the idea that video games are the quintessence of over-simplification and unnecessary, unrealistic ultra-violence, this is a breath of fresh air. The stylistic elements of our childhood are used here (and used well) to bring a story to life. A real story, filled with honest emotions and personal limitations, familiar themes and unexpected twists. When I sat down to watch a movie about a guy fighting his girlfriend’s evil exes, that’s not what I expected.
I won’t go so far as to say this movie is great or the story is life-changing. It’s fairly straightforward and standard in its storytelling–a well made emo film whose style and framework elevate it to something more. In the end, though, it’s about a boy learning to grow up and chase after the girl he loves. That’s something we’ve all dealt with before. But whereas our world of media is decidedly separate from our mundane lives, Scott’s world fuses the two and creates a kind of fantasy fulfillment that never sells out the emotional accessibility of the story.
But we still get to see a pixelated sword fight and demon hipster chicks and old-school wavy visual sound waves coming out of an over-cranked electric guitar. Because while I love a good story with good characters, I have to side with my generation on one point: badass fight scenes are cool.