Sunday, 29 August 2010

Film Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

(Directed by Edgar Wright, running time 112 minutes)

NOTE: This review isn’t completely objective, having read all six volumes of the original Scott Pilgrim graphic novels.

While still waiting on World’s End, the third film of the humorously dubbed “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy”, so far made up of modern British comedy classics Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, director Edgar Wright has gone completely state side, although further north... Canada in fact. Setting his sights on the comedy graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim, Wright intends on not only transferring the downright surreal and outlandish humor to the moving picture, but at the same time cramming all six volumes into the space of nearly two hours (incidentally, “vs the world” is the subtitle to volume two, while the film that shares the same name it’s still about six).

Like novel, like film, the story follows the daily trials of Scott Pilgrim (played by Michael Cera), a young adult living in Toronto and bassist for his aspiring band Sex Bob-omb (a’la Super Mario). Things quickly (and conveniently) take an unlikely shift when Scott falls for the mysterious Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). After hitting it off, Scott soon learns that Ramona has not only been with seven others, but he must defeat them all in order to stay in a relationship with her, being dubbed the “League of Evil Exes” (not ex-boyfriends, emphasized for reasons to knock the socks of the male viewers). What sounds like an odd set up is actually only the half of it. When you take into consideration that the league is more of a collection of super villain like characters with real powers in a world where bodies explode into loose change, any fight would surely be some form of spectacle.

The first thing viewers will notice however is how casual people react to displays of magical powers, super human strength and gravity deifying martial arts when the punch ups get heavy. Even the side characters show moments of other worldly fighting ability at times. Further more, the basic structure of daily life plays out at times like an 8-bit video game, with ability stats, experience points, life bars and extra life pick ups. Even some of the fights themselves play out like a game of Street Fighter or Tekken and that just scratches the surface of video game references. Throughout the entire run, random in-jokes and subtle hints will keep the most twitchy thumbed individuals with a great sense of reverence and nostalgia. The writers clearly have as much love for the medium as those of you.

But it’s not all Pac-Man (contrary to Scott’s belief), underneath all the geeky flash is actually a surprisingly solid social and relationship based narrative. From the get go, Scott is in fact a rather unlikable character, so rather than just an excuse to get laid in the long term, each fight also seems to slap some sense into his messed up inner mind (of which we get surreal literal glances of periodically). On top of that, Scott also appears to have baggage of his own as there’s very little in the way of the XX chromosome that hasn’t had a fling with him, particularly in the case of his recently dumped teenage girlfriend, the young Chinese Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) who is also the band’s biggest fan, border-lining on religious devotion. Despite being oddly left out of the marketing campaign and trailers, she is one f the most important characters who is having to deal with the break-up in her own irrational way. But don’t worry to those of you who may be fearful of walking into a “romantic comedy”, it’s much of that ill-fated genre as Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead was. Along for the ride are a mish mash of social stereotypes as the gang of friends including Scott’s gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin) who is one of the most down to Earth yet funny characters in the whole film, along with the pessimistic other members of Sex Bob-omb. In fact, there are plenty more realized characters to fill up the roster, but I’d be writing this for days to each fully mention.

Regardless of whether you have read the original stories or not, Edgar Wright’s new coat of paint is actually very faithful with only a few noticeable changes, for better AND for worse. On one hand, some scenes have been completely re-imagined, such as the the battle between Scott and the fifth and sixth evil-ex twins where before it was a series of encounters (with robots), this time around is a giant musical standoff between the twins and Sex Bob-omb where their music summons giant monsters. It’s a hilariously over the top sequence but at the later stage in the film not out of place and fits perfectly with the constrained length. Yet on the other hand, audiences WILL notice the fast pace of the overall plot, more so for those unfamiliar with the series. While hardly too erratic, the film is trying to get to each set-piece fight to the next while trying to also keep the consistent mood of the characters. More to the point, what happened over a course of a couple years, this time around happens in what feels like a week or two and it shows. Another is the general style of editing. However this is rather a mixed bag down to personal preference. The film utilizes an eccentric form of editing that mirrors the style of the graphic novels such as separate character frames, jump cuts without warning, information boxes that spring up throughout and flashbacks in the original art style. While I could have done without the latter that feels tacked on and lazy on the film-makers’ part, the rest in something very unusual in conventional cinema and as a result creates a unique viewing experience. Yet while trying to be as objective as I can, I have to admit this fast paced comic style will be bewildering to those very used to traditional editing techniques.

If you’re willing to take real life yet hurl basic science and social norms into the sun then you’d be able to appreciate Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. For all it’s over the top fight sequences and video game conventions, there’s also a good chunk of characterization and well written humor, meaning there should be AT LEAST a few things to enjoy, long time fan or not. For fans however, the adaptation is outstanding. Sure plenty has been cut and remodeled but it’s all to provide a coherent viewing experience that’s faithful and not an insult.

Also starring Chris Evans, Jason Schwartzman, Mark Webber and Alison Pill.

As a side note, the graphics novels are worth reading. The scenes that were changed are significantly more fleshed out, yet best of all there’s significantly more characterization and depth to the many side characters (including some great ones that never appeared in the film).

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