[10 August 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It couldn’t be more obvious - it even starts out like a video game. The moment the 8-bit Universal logo appears on the screen, followed by an equally Nintendo-esque electronic score, Edgar Wright’s brilliant Scott Pilgrim vs. the World announces its retro revolutionary intentions with a jolly joystick bang. Based on the popular graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley and steeped in a generational zeitgeist that few in the over-35 crowd will cotton to, it’s a mind-bending journey into surreal slacker satisfaction. It’s all indie rock posing and punkette hairdos, cartoon balloon captioning and post-production pizzazz. Had it come from any other filmmaker, perhaps someone without the geek cred to keep ‘Net Nation happy, we’d be looking at another long winded clash between cool and coot.
But because it’s Wright, because it’s from the same aesthetic that brought us Shaun of the Dead, Spaced, and Hot Fuzz, we can dig beneath the surface to see what it really going on. Yes, this is a comic book movie aimed squarely at the demographic that continues to embrace those frilly “funny books” as real live literature and it’s so wrapped in late’80s/early ‘90s nostalgia that you can practically hear Kurt Cobain complaining about it via indecipherable lyrics. It’s a sensational shoe-gazing exhibition, with Wright as prophetic puppet master, pulling the strings and expanding the language of film with ever trip through the in-joke editing bay. Will this make the older members of the audience happy? Hardly. In fact, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World may be the first film since Easy Rider relying on a firm anti-Establishment position to push its potential box office value.
Like listening to rock music at unconscionably loud levels, Scott Pilgrim confronts you with its coco-nutburger craziness. It wants to challenge your perceptions about what is acceptable in an otherwise traditional RomCom and deconstructs the various interpersonal symbols - baggage, exs, commitment - that drive the genre, most times to dismal distraction. It represents a massive artistic leap for Wright, considering the desire to remain true to the project’s pen and ink roots. He also explores the world of videogames inherent in O’Malley’s universe, offering sequences with power-ups, bosses, coin rewards, extra lives, and references to everything from Pac-Man to contemporary arcade fare. It marks an important step in cinema - a movie that actually plays to a particular, insular demographic, one so ensconced in the console title dynamic that every single sequence reeks of the Activision variation on a theme.
Of course, the question then arises - can such a ploy actually succeed? Will programming to a gamer in lieu of a geezer actually work? The short answer is “No”. The longer answer involves re-invoking the LA Times article discussed previously re: Inception, as well as dragging out those old metaphoric examples - Kick-Ass and Watchmen. For weeks the success of Christopher Nolan’s dreamscape masterwork has been weighed as something quite generational, teetering precariously on the definition of those who “get it” and those who do not. The shortcut has always been age and agility with a control pad. In essence, the box office triumph has wrongly been chalked up to a glorified geek ideal that Scott Pilgrim caters to like Lemmings at a cliff diving competition. By these passable pundits’ logic, Wright has a multi-billion dollar Avatar on his hands.
...except, he doesn’t. He’s made a great film, nay maybe a cinematically significant one. He is challenging the very idea of what does and does not belong in a standard boy/girl narrative. He uses the last two decades in popular culture as a jumping off point and applies these idiosyncratic elements to the necessary genre contrivances. The results not only rewrite the rule book, they reinvent the very celluloid that they are printed on. So imagine the dismay of the Inception hater, the one who watched 15 minutes or so and dismissed the movie with a “only for gamers” sway of the critical hand. What will they think about something specifically made for said audience, a film so reliant on the meshing of these mediums that it should come with a cheat sheet and a special segment on G4 TV’s X-Play.
One imagines, however, that few will go back and rely on the argument - unless, of course, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a massive hit. Then, those left scratching their head will need a fallback position - and guess which medium gets the blame. As mentioned previously, both Kick-Ass and Watchmen were seen as nerd-specific attempts to attract a world wired web contingency, and for the most part, they only marginally succeeded. The reason? Such a voting block is small at best, selective at the very worst. They might embrace Wright’s vision as their own, but as with both of the titles mentioned beforehand, Pilgrim is an adaptation, meaning it is O’Malley’s baby. It has an established purpose among the viewership. Purists might balk at some of the film’s narrative/character tweaks. Others will weathers the tweaks because of how sensational and spectacular Wright makes them.
Inception‘s success is really nothing more than originality gone mainstream, a serious science fiction film finding its way into the cultural discussion during an otherwise ordinary popcorn movie season. Scott Pilgrim could do the same, but if it does, it will need the full support of the gamers to do so. Geezers, at this point, are not all that important. Later, when (and if) the movie strikes a chord, they can come in to check all the hoopla and complain on the way out. But if the true faithful don’t embrace Wright, don’t recognize how wonderful his vision really is, O’Malley’s Canadian slacker could find himself rubbing up against the likes of Dave Lizewski and Dr. Manhattan. There is nothing wrong with being a noble failure - except perhaps, the last part of that phrase. From what is on the screen, Scott Pilgrim shouldn’t be one of them.
That won’t keep the conversation from constantly swinging back to the whole old school/new breed breakdown - and frankly, it should. At some point, Hollywood needs to learn a lesson about catering to a particular flawed focus group. They’ve ruined the RomCom over it, and are treading precariously toward rendering the horror film irrelevant. Outright adaptation of video game titles have also been tricky, the number of successes far outweighed by the worthless wastes of cinematic space. For his part, Edgar Wright delivered an astonishing entertainment with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. If it works, blame the game-obsessed geeks. If it doesn’t, the geezer’s revenge strikes again.