Not so long ago in the mysterious land of Toronto, Canada… Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was adapted to the silver screen by Edgar Wright. This was a first for the acclaimed British director seeing as he had only previously directed two original films. Shaun of the Dead (2004) was the story of a slacker protagonist (Simon Pegg) forced to get his act together and win back his ex-girlfriend in the midst of a zombie apocalypse which paid homage to the great zombie flicks of George A. Romero. Following this was Hot Fuzz (2007) which had a far more competent lead character in the form of Sgt. Nicholas Angel (also Pegg) who is forced to switch off his more by-the-book police officer role upon settling into a shady small town in the English countryside in a film that satirised the hyperactive feel of a Michael Bay action flick.
Both of these instalments in the so-called Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy had differing styles of filmmaking that were infused with traits from familiar genres. But they also had similar narratives that focused on an individual being pushed out of their comfort zone and onto a journey of self-discovery. This also happens to be the focus Wright’s third feature film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World despite not being an original product of his own. It derives instead from the mind of Canadian writer Bryan Lee O’Malley with his six volume series of graphic novels.
This could have been a cause of concern for die-hard fans of the books as usually the decision to adapt an entire literary series into one two-hour film has been met with disappointment from fans and can often result in their favourite stories either being heavily trimmed down or feeling overly convoluted. But not only was Edgar Wright’s adaptation incredibly faithful to O’Malley’s work, both tonally and visually, it was also regarded by many as a landmark for future film graphic novel adaptations to take note from. And 10 years later it is still viewed by many in the same light.
The story, as the title suggests, centres on Scott Pilgrim (not played Pegg but Michael Cera instead). He’s a 22-year-old unemployed slacker who spends his days playing bass in a band named Sex Bob-Omb while also dating a 17-year-old Chinese high school student named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), much to the dismay of his fellow bandmates. But one night at a house party, Scott comes across a mysterious pink-haired girl named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He is instantly smitten by her and much to his delight he manages to date her.
However, things take a turn for the completely unexpected on the night of a big gig for his band. All of a sudden, a threat bursts onto the scene in the form of a mystical fireball-summoning young man dressed like a pirate. Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha) announces that he is the first of Ramona’s seven evil ex-boyfriends all of whom have the shared goal of ripping Scott’s head clean from his shoulders. And from there the game is set in motion, quite literally as the world of the film takes place in a universe that includes the key features of comic-books, manga and most importantly video-games.
Now in the past the incorporation of video-game elements into film has been path that has been paved with more misfires than bullseyes. (One need to no further than Super Mario Bros (1993) or Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) to understand why video-games don’t translate well to the big screen). But what Wright and co-screenwriter Michael Bacall (21 & 22 Jump Street) managed to achieve so brilliantly when adapting the work of O’Malley is to use the various homages to video-games not as a gimmick but as a means of moving the plot forward. Whether it’s the opening Universal logo presented in 8-bit format with a synthesised rendition of the theme, or iconic sound cues like the Sonic The Hedgehog ring collection noise or even the little details like the depletion of a “pee-bar” following the trip to the toilet, there is a lot on display and it never feels messy. At times it’s quirky and also a tad corny but it does serve a significant purpose to the overall message of the film.
The reason the film is formatted to feel like a retro video-game is that it is used as a method of guiding Scott on his path to becoming a better person. With each evil ex that he takes on, he is forced to broaden his roster of moves ranging from close-combat fisticuffs á la Street Fighter, to trickery and deception or even weaponising his own bass guitar. The amalgamation of these elements leads to a film that is undeniably stylish while also being a very refreshing take on the traditional boy-meets-girl type of narrative with the exaggerated boss-battle moments serving as a metaphor for Scott’s attempts to overcome Ramona’s extensive emotional baggage and to be the right person for her. It is understandable that the dating scene can be tough for some, but I don’t think most people will ever have to deal with a sinister ex-boyfriend that happens to have psychic powers as a result of his strictly vegan diet.
There is no denying that Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is also a visual feast for the eyes with its gorgeous presentation evoking the feel of a colourful comic-book. This is due to the great work done by frequent cinematographer of Wright’s Bill Pope whose work must be commended for faithfully representing O’Malley’s world in cinematic format. Not since Robert Rodriguez’s take on Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005) has there been comic-book represented so accurately and in precise detail like this film. The pace of the film also flows like a comic-book thanks to the work of Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss who utilise a ton of quick cuts and smooth transitions to flow from one scene to the next. There isn’t a single moment that feels drawn out or cut short which is great praise to give as this film is adapting a series consisting of six volumes.
And when the high-octane action throws down it is both beautiful to observe and entertaining to watch unfold. If you need further proof then there are a number of videos on YouTube highlighting the iconic shots from the books and how perfectly recreated they are in the film. It’s this attention to detail that makes Edgar Wright a cut above all the rest in terms of visual storytelling. Those familiar with his work will be aware of how he cleverly utilises misé-en-scene in his films and that is fully on display with the varying environments of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. It is rare these days to see a director given the chance to incorporate their own unique style of auteur filmmaking when adapting a literary source material.
While those working behind the camera deserve all of the praise bestowed upon them, the same praise must be showered upon the film’s top-notch ensemble cast. Cera has most notably in the past been categorised into the socially-awkward introvert following performances in films such as Superbad (2007) or Juno (2007). It is almost as if his entire acting career has led him to portray this character of Scott Pilgrim. A large part of the humour revolves around him attempting to throw down with other actors who have had experience at portraying larger-than-life comic-book characters, like former Captain America Chris Evans and former Superman Brandon Routh.
Which leads to the League of Evil Exes: there could be a fight among the group for the title of scene-stealer. There are gleefully smug performances from Evans as action-star turned skater Lucas Lee and Routh’s psychic vegan bass player Todd Ingram. There’s also Mae Whitman’s bi-furious Roxy Ritcher and Jason Schwartzman’s creepy record-executive Gideon Graves who just so happens to be Ramona’s most-recent and the big bad evil ex. It took the best kind of actors to portray the worst kinds of people from Ramona’s past and it is clear to see that they are all having a ball bringing these characters to life.
There is also a ton of musical elements on display here. English record producer Nigel Godrich along with renowned musical talents such as Beck, Broken Social Scene and Metric all had a hand in influencing the soundtrack of Wright’s film emphasising the distinct tones of the differing musical groups. For example, Sex Bob-Omb have a very grungy aesthetic while the rivalling band Clash at Demonhead, lead by Scott’s own former flame Envy Adams (future Oscar winner Brie Larson), have a more indie-rock vibe about them. The many musical numbers are catchy and have a part to play in the film’s action sequences. This includes an intense bass-off between Scott and Ramona’s third evil ex Todd Ingram or much later in the film when Sex Bob-Omb are pitted in an amp vs amp style battle against the futuristic sounds of electronic-music duo the Katayanagi twins (Shota and Keita Shato) who also happen to be another pair of evil exes of Ramona’s (that she dated at the same time). The accompanying soundtrack has also made for a pleasant listen during the writing of this article, in particular the stellar, albeit incredibly brief, songs of Crash and the Boys.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World has all of the ingredients for a successful film: romance, action, comedy, video-games, comic-books, music. But it is a damn shame that despite the film’s good and ambitious intentions it actually failed to deliver a KO at the box office. This could be because mainstream audiences were unfamiliar with the property. Thankfully as the years have gone by the film still maintains a place in the hearts of many adoring fans and has amassed an incredibly loyal cult following. It’s easy to see why as it was made by a masterful filmmaker who assembled a great roster of talented actors to bring this world to life along with an incredibly talented production team who respected the source material and treated it with one of the major themes of the film: love.