Friday, 3 September 2010
Directed by Edgar Wright
Written by Edgar Wright, Bryan Lee O'Malley (comic)
Starring Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin
Release date(s) Out Now
Running time 112 minutes
Scott Pilgrim, an immature 23 year old slacker going nowhere in life, meets the girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers. Now he must defeat her seven evil exes in order to be with the woman he loves.
The ambition of the original Scott Pilgrim comics has no lesser goal than to define a generation. This is the ADD generation where twenty-something males grow in a state of perpetual adolescence. Scott is a relatively ordinary youth if a bit sketchy, dating a high school girl named Knives Chau until something better comes along, completely self centred but still oddly lacking in self esteem. It's a mundane life, but through the videogame and pop culture infused mind of Scott Pilgrim it's a cataclysmic battle between good and evil where he sees himself as the white knight on the side of good.
Whether we are supposed to take these events literally as a fusion of the real world and videogame elements, or as the work of a juvenile fantasist is never really confirmed. Ultimately it doesn't matter, this is a commentary on the youth of today and the journey of growing up.
The first thing that most people are going notice when watching this film is the distinctive visual style. Indeed the visuals are dazzling, with comic-like special effects seamlessly integrated into the world. Sound waves pour out of musical instruments, batman like sound effects appear with each punch, videogame-like status indicators display vital statistics, and the effect is really quite unique. I don't think I have ever seen a film which so expertly merges live action with these unreal comic book and videogame elements, it truly does succeed at bringing the comic panels to life in a way that no other film has. I shudder to think about the inevitable imitations we will now see over the coming years.
In addition, the sound work is highly impressive, making use of some nostalgic videogame sound bytes. In a film where musical pop culture is as pervasive as videogame and comic book, it is fitting that the music for each of the three bands we encounter has been composed by big names from the industry. Scott Pilgrim's band Sex Bob-omb has none other than Beck writing their music, whereas Crash and the Boys has Broken Social Scene humorously breaking from their usual style. Meanwhile indie darlings Metric contribute their song Black Sheep to mega superstar band Clash at Demonhead.
The acting also deserves praise for the most part. While some of the minor characters stray unfortunately close to the Napoleon Dynamite school of teenage acting (ie. act badly and blandly because that's how teenagers sound), the casting is generally excellent.
Of course everyone's going to be talking about Michael Cera as Scott Pilgrim. He does ok with the role, although he's a bit weedier than one might expect Scott Pilgrim to be from the comics. In some scenes he is just too effeminately over the top, particularly with the running gag on Scott's hair. Otherwise his comic timing is excellent as usual, while it does falter somewhat due to the film's general pacing problems in some of the more rushed scenes like his first dream sequence, but that's not really his fault. It is also refreshing to see Cera leave his comfort zone with the various action scenes he is involved with, and he definitely kicks a fair amount of ass in these scenes.
Special note needs to be made for some of the evil exes. In particular Brandon Routh as the vegan-powered Todd, who provides some of the film's funnier moments, and above all Chris Evans as brilliantly funny action star Lucas Lee who really does steal the show for his few scenes. It is a testament to the quality of acting among even many of the minor roles that such a sense of character can be conveyed through only the few lines they are afforded.
However, the star performers in this film are Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Kieran Culkin. Winstead as Ramona has an intangible quality about her that seems to simply dominate proceedings when she's on screen, as well as the most bizarrely anime-like eyes I have seen on a live action actor, which helps her match up to how her character is drawn in the comics. Meanwhile Culkin takes the best character from the books, Scott's witty and self assured gay roommate Wallace, and turns him into the best character in the film in what is possibly a breakthrough role for him.
Of course you are always going to have problems adapting a comic book series to a film. For starters the surreal nature of comics generally doesn't translate well to the big screen and Indeed, some scenes work better than others. For example Matthew Patel's fight with Scott is a bit too over the top, complete with a Bollywood musical number and dancing demon hipster chicks. I didn't need to see that.
More crucially though, you're condensing six decent length books into a film that's under two hours long. Inevitably this means you're going to have pacing problems, as well as story elements and character depth cut out in order to fit. Unfortunately in this case the result is something of a mess.
Now I don't envy the job that director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) had on his plate; given the running time, it seems likely that studio execs told Wright to keep the film under 2 hours in order to appeal to their target demographic and to maximise potential cinema revenue. This means they need to get through one out of the six comic books in just twenty minutes each. As you would expect then quite a bit of the background story and narrative meat has been removed with the hope that this would allow Wright to flesh out what remains.
The problem is that even this wasn't enough, and the scenes that are left in the film still feel incredibly rushed, condensed and cut into a sequence of quick-fire events that simply don't allow the audience to gain any appreciation of what they're watching. In any good story, you need a certain amount of time to dwell on the key plot points and revelations, and time to get to know the characters and become emotionally invested. This film takes no time to do any of this, and sprints through scenes like there's a time limit (fitting for a videogame movie perhaps), haphazardly introducing new characters and relationships and then moving onto the next bit. It doesn't help that the script itself is not as sharp as the source material, and indeed the best lines are taken straight from the comics.
For what is essentially a love story, there is no great romantic scene between Scott and Ramona. Any time anything even vaguely emotional or profound takes place it's over in about three seconds, notably toward the end where Knives has her moment of enlightenment complete with the sublime Broken Social Scene song Anthems for a Seventeen Year old Girl. This scene lasts four seconds before unceremoniously cutting to the next. Sadly, this almost dizzying manner of storytelling is entirely typical of the film in general, which constantly feels like it's rushing to the finish line.
But in fairness when you consider what Wright had to work with, he has generally done a good job of whittling down the content to the key plot points and streamlining them so that the film as a whole does not suffer from everything else that has been cut. I would even say that there are certain parts of the story where Wright has improved upon the comics, particularly with the ending.
The final book involved a rather confusing and, once again, over the top battle between Scott and various forms of his nemesis Gideon, much of which went over my head. The film makes this a much simpler affair, while still maintaining some of the more humorous, and indeed the more profound moments from this climax. In fact the coming of age moral of the story is actually more focused here than in the comic books, with a very clear resolution. This ends things on a very satisfying note that, for all the frustrations I have with the pacing of this movie, had me leaving the cinema with a positive impression.
Ultimately Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a remarkable technical achievement, visually revolutionary and aurally sublime, and the acting is mostly good with some great laughs. Unfortunately, the pacing and structure of the film is off and the result is a messy affair. This film could have benefitted from an extra half hour with which to take its time over some of the more important scenes, but that doesn't stop it from being an enjoyable 2 hours.
Great audio production
Poor pacing and structure
Skims through the books