When I first saw the trailer for “Scott Pilgrim Vs The World” I was excited to see the finished product. I have long been a fan of the work of director Edgar Wright and the movie’s recipe of nerdish pop-culture references, motion graphics, video game physics and lovable losers looked like it could be a winning formula. It hadn’t occurred to me however, that these very things were what disappointed and bugged me most about two recent films I expected to like but did not; “Zombieland” and “Kick-Ass”.
Like those aforementioned films, I left the cinema let down. “Scott Pilgrim” is an adaptation of a comic-book about a 23-year old slacker who falls in love with a delivery girl, but in order to be with her, he must defeat her “Seven Evil Exes” in video-game style confrontations. So far, so good. The problem is that director Edgar Wright from the first frame throws every single visual trick in the book onto the screen to realize this video-game world. Its not enough that the fight scenes resemble “Street Fighter II” but everything the characters do is governed by animated behavior which is drawn from not only video-games but comic books too. So, sound effects are realized as words-on-screen in a Batman-in-the-60s style, people going for a wee is represented by a diminishing “Pee Bar” like a draining battery, typography pops up all over the place, and actions are accompanied by 8-bit video-game sound effects. At first this is great, by 10 minutes into the film when its constantly happening, not so great. When the action gets going, we are treated to a constant barrage of this stuff which takes in everything from “Tekken” to “Legend of Zelda” to those Dance-dance revolution games. This leaves a mess; both visually and plotwise. As a nerd who grew up with comics and NES, I should have revelled in it, but it was too much. The effectiveness and novelty of such references were lost in the avalanche.
It reminded me in some way of “Inglorious Basterds”. A director takes elements of his style which in isolation are memorable additions to his work but stretches them out over an entire film. When Tim and Daisy in “Spaced” enter into computer-game fights in the real world the result was thrilling and original, coming as it did in the middle of a real program about people you cared about. Similarly, when Wright used his now signature quick-editing-montage in “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” it was a treat. In “Scott Pilgrim” we are witness to one long, giant pop culture reference literally represented on screen using every trick in the book. The result is exhausting.
But this is not the films only problem. I suppose I could put up with all this techno-wizardry if it accompanied the story of characters I could cheer for. Sadly, the central characters of this film are simply unlikable, mean people. A friend remarked how he just felt bad for Knives Chau, a 17-year old girl Pilgrim ditches for the girl of his dreams, Ramona. Knives does nothing wrong, but is essentially cast aside as yesterdays news in fairly cruel fashion. Yet we are supposed to root for Scott.
This film really is a classic case of style without substance. It has its moments, but most of them are already catalogued in the heavily rotated trailer. When I think about it, alongside “Zombieland” and “Kick-Ass” I wonder if I just don’t have the taste for this brand of post-modern hyper cinema. Self-referential narration, tricks of typography , music-video-editing, breaking the fourth wall, and constant pop-culture references seem to be increasingly present in films aimed at the geek market. But if all this smoke-and-mirrors just clouds shallow, whiney, unlikable characters (which populate these aforementioned three movies) the films fail to stand up. What we are left with is a self-referential circle-jerk which will eat itself.