Movie Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

At its core, "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" is a movie for geeks. It isn't the storyline, the characters or the dialogue, though they all lend a hand in making this a pleasantly geeky film. It's the visual flourishes. Those little bells and whistles, literally and figuratively, that pop up and shape the way the film is presented. You've seen them in the commercials, the motion lines and wacky high scores that pop up continually. In a lesser film, these would be hacked gag jokes. In "Scott Pilgrim," the effects become the film itself. These details tell the story, shape the mood and define the characters as much as the dialogue and the sets. So, it's a good geeky movie. But is it worth seeing?

Spoiler Alert: I'm not going to tell you exactly how this movie ends, but everything else is fair game. I'm not going to tell you if Scott Pilgrim, played by the same Michael Cera you've seen a dozen times by now (though I like this version better than when he calls himself "Jesse Eisenberg"), gets the girl, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, last seen playing John McClane's daughter in the last Die Hard movie). I will tell you it's a satisfying, original ending that's a bit more complicated than I would have expected, and that's a high compliment for any romantic comedy. Yes, at its heart, "Scott Pilgrim" is a romantic comedy.

Do we need a synopsis? Couldn't be simpler. Scott Pilgrim is a guy in a band. While he's dating a high school girl, he finds a woman he likes even better. After they start dating, he starts running into her exes, and they always want to fight. Even if they haven't seen her since 7th grade, or if they're in another relationship, they want to fight Scott Pilgrim. He keeps fighting them until he gets to the boss battle at the end. Also, there's a battle of the band in there, somewhere.

Full disclosure: I haven't read the graphic novels, either. Having seen the movie, I might be interested in a "Scott Pilgrim" sequel, but I'm not interested in picking up the comic books. I'm not reviewing how well the comics were adapted to the big screen. But a certain knowledge of comics will definitely help the viewer appreciate the movie.

"Scott Pilgrim" leans heavily on references and tropes stolen directly from comics and video games. The two don't often mix well. Though we think of gaming and comics as being part of the same multiverse, in fact the styles can be quite disparate, as "Scott Pilgrim" demonstrates. In one scene, Scott and one of the seven evil exes will be running at each other, and the film will split into the classic two-panel framing with motion lines and intense attack faces pasted onto each of the dueling pair. In another, much more awkward scene, Scott battles an evil ex Dance Dance style, complete with voiceover calling out "Combo" as the words appear on screen.

Maybe I'm just not a Dance Dance Revolution fan, but I definitely enjoyed the comic book aspect more than the video game. It isn't about my current preference. I haven't been an avid comic book reader for about 20 years, though I do have thousands of books stored safely away in my vault. But I never stopped playing games of all sorts. For comic book fans, Scott Pilgrim emulates action comics, perhaps some shonen manga thrown in for fun. For video gamers, there are lots of Dance Dance references, plenty of ideas from fantasy RPG games and lots of fighting games thrown in. Think Soul Calibur more than Mortal Kombat or Tekken. There are no hadoukens thrown in the entire movie, and I'm not sure whether to be disappointed or impressed by the film-maker's restraint.

The movie doesn't go for the easy laugh, though it doesn't dig too deep, either. You'll get a minute of Final Fantasy theme music, but no interstellar warrior taking a helmet off to reveal she's really a woman. There are plenty of cool references and interesting ideas that stretch the boundaries of what we've seen on film. The Universal studios logo at the beginning, for instance, is a 16-bit, pixilated render, with appropriate accompanying music.

This is part of my problem with the movie. I would have loved to see a Mario Kart reference, or a moment of Halo craziness. There were plenty of rewards for my tastes, but when the movie made a reference I didn't understand or enjoy, it fell flat. That isn't to say that the movie was only good when the references were good. The characters and the dialogue were quite entertaining. In fact, the evil exes were not the best part about the film, not even close. I could have done without two or three evil exes (edit away the Japanese twins for a double combo).

One of the interesting questions the movie presents is how the audience is supposed to deal with the fantasy elements on screen. One reason that the movie flops when it relies too heavily on the gaming aspects is because game characters are not only lacking in dimension, they are usually quite literally us, the audience. Sure, there may be expository cut scenes and dialogue thrown in, but the person on screen who is moving, jumping and throwing daggers (or magical stars, if that's what you prefer), is also the person playing the game. The character might get 20 minutes of my time, but for most of an eight hour gaming story, I'm the one who's actually living through the action.

In a movie, on the other hand, we might want to immerse ourselves, but we're secretly hoping the actors surprise us. We don't want the actors to reflect us, we want them to be more like interesting friends we'd like to have. They should be witty, poignant and exciting, like a good friend. We don't want to stare into the screen through our own eyes, our own perspective, and have to deal with the real people we see.

So, how are we supposed to understand the story of a guy who has to defeat his girlfriend's seven evil old flames in physical combat? Is it literal? Does Scott Pilgrim really have to beat up a bunch of people to win Ramona's heart? It works even better allegorically. Ramona has a lot of baggage. Ramona's relationships are always affected by the experiences she had in her past. Even that doofus she dated in middle school still affects how she'll treat a current relationship. Want a happily ever after ending for this story? You'll have to defeat the boss villain, the guy Ramona still obsesses over.

In a Julia Roberts movie, this would involve world travel and very long, very dull walks on the beach. It would be a lot of conversation among people she just met who she treats like old friends and sage gurus. Sounds like somebody got dragged to another movie this weekend, huh?

In Scott Pilgrim, there's some witty banter, but most of the conflict is resolved with flaming swords. The past turns into a pile of coins when you defeat it. Back story is summed up in well-animated little blips.

I wholeheartedly recommend Scott Pilgrim if you're already inclined to appreciate the media. If the idea of comic book ink lines and video game 1-up sounds are completely unappealing to you, even in an action-packed romantic comedy, avoid this one. You can't turn them off; you can't ignore the fireworks. They are part of the story telling. But it's not just an interesting plot, it's an interesting way to deal with the story itself. Scott Pilgrim is not a video game movie or a comic book adaptation, it's a romantic comedy that uses symbols and stylings of comics and games to tell an interesting, inviting story. The worst part is that's it's a romantic comedy your girlfriend won't appreciate, unless she's just as crazy about comics and games as you are.