Scott Pilgrim vs the World: *** 3/4 (out of 4)

In short: Scott Pilgrim vs the World is a very good movie, especially if you're the kind of person who likes this kind of thing. But I can't figure out how to define what "this kind of thing" is.

There's always something special about going to a midnight movie release. The people in the theatre are willing to wait in line for hours in order to see something first. If comments are made during the movie, it's because they deserved to be made; if there is applause at the end, it's because it was well-deserved applause. Being around that much enthusiasm is a wonderful thing; being a part of that enthusiasm is even better.

And yeah, I was part of the enthusiasm for Scott Pilgrim. It wasn't so much the comic that did it, mind; I've only read each book once, and each took about twenty minutes, or about as much time as they were offered on screen. It wasn't even the atmosphere around the comic - an indie-manga-video-game-inspired book speaks to me even if I don't love the thing, I must admit. No, what inspired me here was my absolute love for all things Edgar Wright. His first two movies, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, are two of my top-ten favorite movies; and Spaced is a wonderful show in its own, special way. So far, Wright has done no wrong; and if he turns his attention to a property that I at least respect, well, who am I to argue?

It was with that baggage that I walked into Scott Pilgrim last night with sky-high expectations. And, while I can't say that all of my hopes were met, I did come out happy and impressed. It was great - but I have no idea who to recommend it to.

A short, not-very-helpful plot summary - Scott Pilgrim is a jobless 22-year-old slacker, living in Toronto, and playing in a band. He unexpectedly falls madly in love with the new girl in town, Ramona Flowers; she (shockingly) agrees to date him, but fails to warn Scott about the dangers, specifically her 7 Evil Exes that he must defeat in order to win her. Thus, the movie shifts from a straight-up manga romance to a Street-Fighter-esque video game - and then back and forth a few times, with some other genres mixed in along the way.

Edgar Wright is no stranger to the "action-romance" genre; Shaun is a romantic zombie flick, and Hot Fuzz is effectively a buddy-cop-romance (unconsummated, but wonderful for playing). What has made this sub-genre work for him has been his effective use of sketched-in-but-distinct characters. Yes, at least one character is given a proper story arc (Scott); and a few others get fuller arcs in the comic (Knives, Ramona, Envy, arguably Gideon). But most of the characters are just barely there; we're told names and ages, and most of them get a few lines, but otherwise there's not much depth there. That turns out not to matter; by the end of the movie, I wanted to know more about these people. Kim and Wallace, in particular, stood out as characters that could carry a movie on their own, and this without actually knowing a thing about them.

How about those major characters? Scott is, indeed, an ass; and in that I believe Michael Cera was well-chosen, because it's such a contrast to his normal roles. Ramona is shallow, but that's okay, given that this movie is about Scott's crush on the distant girl; and she is positively haunting. And Knives - oh, Knives! This is a 17-year-old girl growing up through heartbreak, and she shows it. Besides the idea that she's an interesting character (and both nuanced and potentially real, an interesting feat), she's also incredibly well acted and charming. The actress that plays her will be the breakout actor of the movie, if there is any justice. And... well, honestly, that's about it. Everybody else is secondary, if wonderful in their secondariness.

(I suppose there is arguably another character - Toronto, the snowy wasteland of young adults, clubs, movie shoots, and assorted Canadian-ness. It's an interesting mix between a mostly-unknown major city and a dark, underpopulated wilderness; and of course it's full of fighting and not-exactly-bright colors and parties and over-the-top, out-of-nowhere, video-game-y action. It's not a showy setting, but it's sketched together as well as any of the secondary characters; and it clearly has its own gravity in the world, with characters escaping from its grasp only to return years later. But, as with most cities-as-character discussions, the metaphor can only be stretched so far. Suffice it to say that it's interesting.)

Another thing that makes Scott Pilgrim distinct, and possibly revolutionary, is its use of background CGI. The effects are lifted straight from the comic book, with the door bell exclaiming "DING DONG" in bright letters on the screen, or movement lines flying from a strumming guitar. Of course, these are also building blocks of the video-game inspired world that the movie lives in; it's not enough that these elements are on screen for us to see, but the characters themselves comment on them too (even if they are perfectly happy to see people jumping dozens of feet into the air and hordes of enemies burst into coins on their death). But even while the viewer's attention is explicitly drawn to this visual style, it soon becomes a simple part of the background, and later subsumed into the larger story. It starts a little ostentatious, and ends up shockingly subtle; all in all, it just works at helping to portray the world. I hope this, if anything, is copied.

Finally, of course, there are the action scenes, and I was happy to see that these were just plain fun. I don't know that they're going to hold up very well on repeat viewings (except in allowing time to look at the small details of the CGI), but for a first viewing, it was a treat. Yes, the choreography is a bit ludicrous, and the stunt-doubles more obvious than usual; but so what? It captured the style of the comic (and its genre) perfectly, and it made me grin more often than not.

The audience loved the movie, cheering for both the opening Universal logo and for the ending credits. I have to say that I was as happy as them. I'm sure I'll keep picking at the movie over time, and I'm not likely to go out and see it again this weekend; but for now, this was a great movie experience, and something that should be supported.

*** 3/4

A few side-notes:

  • It's really hard to not talk about the set pieces in great detail, because they're so good. The fights are distinct and interesting, and they're all full of blink-or-you'll-miss-it cutenesses.

  • The video game version of Scott Pilgrim came out earlier this week for Playstation 3, and it's wonderful. Sure, it's pretty short and fairly shallow, but it feels like a well-written novelization of the movie. It plays like River City Ransom; the soundtrack consists of remarkably high-quality chip-tunes; and the video-game references are turned all the way up to something that I just love to see. It's fluffy, but really fun, and it's a wonderful companion piece, especially in how it allows us to see more of the set pieces I mentioned above. Plus, we got the cyborg drummer in there! Yay!

  • The plot of the movie and the plot of the graphic novels upon which the movie is based are, while similar on their face, really quite different. The main difference is in time scale; the movie is told over a few days, while the book takes months or years to reach its conclusion. The main effect of this change is in Scott's relationship with Ramona; in the book there is a sense of a relationship building up over time, while in the movie it's all about the immediate "crush" phase of the relationship. This is important.)

  • Based on the trailer showing before the movie, the marketing team around this movie really had no idea what kind of movie they were showing. There was no Tron trailer; instead we got romantic comedies, the new utterly-horrible-looking M Night Shyamalan movie, and Jackass 3D. This surprises me, because the television and other media marketing seemed to be so on-target (read: me).

  • Early in the movie, a Nintendo DS Lite was shown being played without a cartridge in its main slot. After hemming and hawing for a few seconds, I was delighted to see that this was because they were playing a specific Gameboy Advance game in the other slot. The creators were paying attention. This made me happy.

  • I have still not figured out who Ramona Flowers reminds me of in real life. I feel like I should be able to point at a friend and say "you're Ramona!", but I just haven't worked it out; and that tip-of-my-tongue longing for a name is likely to eat at me for weeks.