It is rare that the phrase “there has never been a film like it” can so gleefully and accurately be applied as it is in the case of Universal Studios’ “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Equal parts romance, fighting and comedy, the film comes from the mind of Edgar Wright as he processes the work of Bryan Lee O’Malley from the page to the screen. Through Wright’s camera, we get an action-packed yarn built out of comics, video games and the director’s relentless love for making movies.
The premise is deceptively simple; Scott (Michael Cera) falls for Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and must defeat her seven evil exes in order to date her. Along the way, Scott must also deal with his own ex, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) and get his band, Sex Bob-Omb, to the top of the Battle of the Bands in order to win a record contract from the elusive G-Man. Within this format, there is a surprising number of characters and a through-line that actually casts doubts on the good intentions of both Ramona and Scott.
To tell his story, Wright uses just about every tool in the modern filmmakers’ repertoire to bring O’Malley’s comic to the screen. The origins of Ramona’s exes are told in comics form, while a narrator (voiced by Bill Hader) occasionally reveals information to the audience and every fight begins with a fighting game style “VS” tag appearing on screen. Though mostly shot on complete sets or practical locations, the film is constantly augmented by special effects designed to recall comic book tropes including motion lines and lettered sound effects. The latter is particularly interesting, as the film has a modern sound that mixes with added visual cues, the visually augmented SMACKs and CRASHes enhancing the goings on, transporting the fights to a place few other films can go.
Of course, readers of the graphic novels know that the sound effect visuals reflect the movie’s faithfulness to the source material. While the film veers off into its own version of the story – most significantly in the final segment – it retains a remarkable amount of the spirit. Beyond the occasional use of exact compositions from the series, the film maintains the energy and freedom of the books. This is particularly true in Scott’s fight with Evil Ex #1, Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha). Prior to the battle, the film simply augments scenes with the heightened video game/comic book reality. However, once Patel crashes through the window of the Rockit Club, the normal rules of reality recede entirely. This is to the film’s credit. Too often, movies based on comics work very hard to drag the characters and situations into the mundane world, but “Scott Pilgrim” refuses to come down to Earth in such a manner.
Instead, Wright uses recognizable human experiences as the underpinning of each epic battle. While the first fight is about confusion and tentative steps into a relationship, the fourth is about Scott’s shock at Ramona’s more “worldly” experience with Evil Ex #4, Roxie Richter (Mae Whitman). These very human undertones help make the mad world of the movie more relatable to audiences who may be less familiar with gaming tropes, while not compromising the feel of the film’s reality.
The movie also maintains a surprising amount of the comic series’ cast, which is no easy task considering the sprawling number of secondary and tertiary characters creator O’Malley introduced over the course of the 6-volume tale. Michael Comeau, Monique, Sandra and Tamara Chen all make appearances. Every one of them, with the possible exception of Tamara, receives their own title card from the books upon being introduced. It is a helpful technique that has not been altered whatsoever in being brought to the screen; simple black text on a white background revealing a name, age and one vital stat. Sadly, Joseph and his relationship to Stephen Stills did not make the cut, nor did most of Kim Pine’s story. Her relationship to Scott is mentioned, but the full details were too much for the film to contain. As it is, the film already has plenty to do with its martial arts movie/video game inspired main plot.
The story itself is utterly incompatible with the traditional three act movie structure, and the progression from boss battle to boss battle may be troublesome for certain viewers. At 112 minutes, the film breezes by in a flurry of punches and energy, but the rhythm can grate. In the books, the fights are buffered by the various subplots and the growing tension between Scott and Ramona as the entire story takes place over the course of a year or so. The film compresses that story time down to a number of weeks (illustrated by Ramona only changing her hair color three times) and the spotlight remains squarely on Scott, Ramona and his inability to deal with Knives properly. The unrelenting focus on the main relationship and the epic battles could leave viewers breathless.
It also creates another potential problem with the character of Ramona. Though it is easy to empathize with a protagonist that is fighting for the affections of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the Ramona she portrays is much tougher to like. She’s colder, coarser and surprisingly more guarded than her comic book counterpart. Though her head never glows when she gets irritated, Ramona spends a great deal of her screen-time in that emotional state. Since the film primarily deals with action and relentless energy, it is difficult for it to stop for a moment to slow down and truly give the audience a moment to fall in love with her. Even in the film’s rather chaste love scene, Ramona Flowers remains a mystery.
Perhaps, she is meant to be unknowable, however. In the final volume of the series, we learn Scott’s memory is the most unreliable narrator of all. Indeed, the film makes a subtle inference that everything we see is Scott’s perception of events. From that standpoint, it would naturally be difficult to understand Ramona because the adolescent male mind cannot even begin to perceive a woman; it is still difficult enough for a fully grown man.
Every actor in the film gives their all to their parts, with Alison Pill, Kieran Culkin and Aubrey Plaza consistently stealing scenes with impeccably delivered wry remarks. Brandon Routh is a standout as self-important vegan Todd Ingram and there is probably no one else on Earth who could play Gideon Graves besides Jason Schwartzman, king of seething animosity. Star Michael Cera brings Scott to life in a way fans may not expect, but it works for the cinematic version of the story. Though Scott is a hero in his own mind, Cera’s natural meek charm prevents the character from ever becoming obnoxious. Ellen Wong plays Knives Chau (age 17) just right. As her break-up with Scott is the B-Plot, she keeps the character contained and charming. There even comes a point where the audience may want Scott to go back to her.
“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is, quite possibly, the purest window into the mind of director Edgar Wright. Since his days working with Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes on “Spaced,” Wright has been consistently bringing a more supercharged and pop-culture influenced reality into the public consciousness. Once he made the switch to films, that influence grew bigger with “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” both of which offer worlds that are recognizable while being governed by altered physics. With “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” he is finally inviting people to see what he would truly like the world to look and feel like, and it is a pretty rad place to be.