“I don’t think overwhelming the audience is necessarily a bad thing,” opines the British filmmaker Edgar Wright. “Sometimes people get so used to bland, microwaved films, they crave to be lulled into the same pace and structure. I hope it’s a good thing if a film feels fresh and different.”
Wright is about to find out if his thesis holds true. After directing the king of all zombie comedies (“Shaun of the Dead”) and a hilarious deconstruction of the Hollywood buddy-cops genre (“Hot Fuzz”), the filmmaker has returned with “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” which opens Friday. This wild, breakneck picture — a cross between a teenage romcom, a superhero adventure and a live-action “Street Fighter” video game — tells of an amiable, 22-year-old Toronto slacker (Michael Cera) who falls for the enigmatic, out-of-his-league Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
But as soon as the couple starts going out, Ramona’s romantic baggage, in the form of her seven evil exes, interrupts their bliss. Each old flame challenges Scott to a duel to the death, the fights becoming progressively more difficult.
Fortunately, although Scott appears to be just an aimless, skinny guitarist waiting for his life to begin, he also has superpowers. Based on the six-issue graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is a singular mixture of comedy, fantasy, kung-fu and garage rock, all cranked to 11. Beginning with some truly trippy opening credits, Wright uses every conceivable tool in his filmmaking arsenal to depict the world through Scott’s contemporary, geeky, fantasy-prone eyes.
“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” also comes closer to duplicating the experience of reading a comic book than any other adaptation that has come before. The screen often splits into panels; text balloons float in the foreground; words like “Plok!” and “Thop!” pop up when people punch each other. Flying, telekinesis and impromptu swordfighting are not uncommon. Occasionally, animation takes over. In one shot, a character’s facial features are suddenly replaced by an emoticon.
On the soundtrack, a few notes from the “Seinfeld” theme song segues into a laugh track, or a snippet from “The Legend of Zelda’s” overture leads to the recognizable beeps and boops of a Nintendo game console or an Apple computer.
It’s initially exhilarating — you have never seen a movie quite like this one — although depending on the age and temperament of the viewer, that excitement can devolve into fatigue over the course of the picture.
“‘Scott Pilgrim’ is taking all the media young people consume and trying to find an equivalent cinematic language,” says Peter Debruge, a senior film critic for Variety. “Manga Japanese comics, video games, comic books, even the vernacular for text messages and Twitter — they’re all blended in a way we’ve never seen before, which is extremely exciting.”
But Debruge also feels the relentless in-your-face style of the film overwhelms the story and characters.
“To young people, boredom is the worst possible thing anyone can suffer from,” he says. “So this movie gives you a kind of attention deficit disorder-filmmaking that throws everything at you at once. The pace is where I think the generation gap comes in. As innovative as this film is, it becomes exhausting to people past a certain age.”
Michael Bacall, who co-wrote “Scott Pilgrim” with Wright (in close collaboration with O’Malley), says he and the director were aware of the potential to push things too far and risk alienating a segment of the wide audience at which the film is aimed.
“We were aware it would skew younger, but at the same time we worked really hard to make the love story something that anyone could identify with,” Bacall says. “In terms of the underlying video game mythology throughout the movie, we’re at a point in history where several generations have nostalgia touchstones for video games they grew up with. We tried to touch on every era of the gaming culture, which at this point a lot of people can identify with.”
Wright first heard of “Scott Pilgrim” at a 2004 screening of “Shaun of the Dead,” where executive producers Jared LeBoff and Adam Siegel, who had acquired the screen rights to the comic, gave him the first issue in the series.
“They said ‘This is your next movie,’” Wright recalls. “I read it and loved it. I thought there was something fascinating about the central premise of fighting for love. I really liked the way the book reminded me of pop art and Roy Lichtenstein, and I wanted to embrace that. It was a perfect gift to let your imagination run riot.”
Over the course of six years, Wright and screenwriter Bacall traveled to Toronto to visit O’Malley, “pick his brains and live in the locations a little bit. If we hadn’t had access to Bryan — if it had been an Alan ‘Watchmen’ Moore situation where the creator was off the radio and wasn’t interested in a movie — I wouldn’t have done the film. Even when we depart from the plot of the books, we stay true to the emotions and the characters. The movie has the same spirit as the comics, which is sometimes more difficult to capture than the plot dynamic.”
Wright defends the rapid-fire pacing of the movie — even some of the simple conversation scenes feel like fight sequences — by pointing to previous films that successfully tested the audience’s stamina to keep up, such as “Run Lola Run.”
“The dialogue is really sharp in the book, and I like screwball comedy timing, so I wanted to make the dialogue pretty rat-tat-tat, even when the characters aren’t making jokes,” he says. “But that’s nothing new. TV shows like ‘The Simpsons’ or ‘Arrested Development’ or ‘30 Rock,’ they have the pacing of a Marx brothers movie. Some of the comedies made in the 1930s were paced incredibly fast. It’s really a matter of not talking down to the audience. Once you establish your pace, they get up to speed pretty fast.”
Wright says distributor Universal Pictures test-screened “Scott Pilgrim” five times, each showing resulting in increasingly high scores as the director tweaked the movie, including trimming back some of the fight scenes. “I’m a person who will happily sit through a 20-minute fight in a Hong Kong film, but most people aren’t like that,” he says.
The result may not necessarily please all film critics, but thus far, fans of the original comic seem to approve. Lucas Siegel, an editor for www.newsarama.com, a website devoted to pop culture, thinks Wright’s film is “groundbreaking” in the way it captures the graphic novel so thoroughly.
“Bryan wrote the books almost more for himself than for any specific readership,” Siegel says. “It just so happens that there’s a large number of disaffected youth who wish their life was more like a comic book or video game — who wish relationship issues could literally be punched in the face. That’s exactly what is conveyed on screen, and for a certain subset of our culture, this is a translation of their daily thoughts and feelings. That’s why the frenetic pace of the movie makes sense: Your mind is constantly going from 0 to 60 and back.”
The shrewd marketing campaign for “Scott Pilgrim,” which is rated PG-13, has been aimed squarely at the age group who would appreciate it the most.
“‘Kick-Ass’ is an interesting counterpoint in that I think they made a lot of mistakes with their marketing campaign,” says Gregory Ellwood, editor-in-chief of the entertainment website www.hitfix.com. “It was a movie intended for people aged 18 and up, but distributor Lionsgate tried to make it seem so funky and fun that they lost the audience that would have most enjoyed it. There was a hipness to the movie that was missing from the marketing.
“‘Scott Pilgrim’ is a movie for people between 12 and 35 and even older,” Ellwood says. “Most people I know in that age group who have seen it, love it. It’s got a tough battle on opening weekend because it’s up against ‘The Expendables.’ But I think it will have good word of mouth and could keep playing and playing. I’ve seen it once and I want to see it again.”
The success of “Inception,” which has grossed nearly $400 million worldwide, proves audiences will show up in huge numbers for movies that break the mold. Now it’s Wright’s turn to find out if his artistic daring works.
“I really like it when people say they were stunned at how visually intense the movie is, because for better or worse, so many films are so bland now,” Wright says. “There’s a reason for that kind of style in this film, because your protagonist is 22 and massively hormonal. Hopefully this kind of highly stylized visual translates into an illustration of the huge highs and crushing lows of being in love. I just want to keep surprising the audience. It fascinates me to wrong-foot them.”