SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD

NOT HERE TO MAKE MONEY AND STUFF

RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW
By Joel Kalkopf
8th August 2020

Edgar Wright and 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World' go together like ice cream at intermission and the theatre - it just works, and you can't imagine an alternate reality without it. There aren't many filmmakers who have the confidence in their own style to open their film with an 8-bit version of the Universal theme. Nay, there aren't many studios who would greenlight such a thing, even less so now than 10 years ago. Huge credit to Universal for that, even if they did insist on having it played properly at a different point in the film (it's when Chris Evans as Lucas Lee appears from his trailer, for those playing at home).

Based on the graphic novel 'Scott Pilgrim' by Bryan Lee O'Malley, this film is even more unique than other comic book adaptations because it was a partially collaborative effort. Wright, who wrote the screenplay alongside Michael Bacall, began creating this film even before O'Malley had finished writing the novel! It shows how much love and admiration existed for the source material, as - if certain reports are to be believed - the three of them would bounce not only dialogue but visual ideas off each other. It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario, and frankly one that I don't think matters too much. Ultimately, what Wright created is a visual grenade to the senses, and deserves to be celebrated.

But, if the source material was so adored that the film was green-lit before completion, it was being helmed by a director who had a track record of hilarious and unique films, and it clearly had a following, why then was it a box office disaster? The film made just over half its budget, and yet continues to gain cult status as time progresses. Why?

There are a myriad of wonderful and unique aspects to 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World' that can be celebrated for the 10 year anniversary, so choosing just a single one of its quirks to focus on would be like not having any ice cream when you go to the theatre - impossible. Yes, it made no money originally, but it would be difficult to find anyone who has actually seen it and not fallen in love with it, or at least respected it. Fans have continuously sustained the love and appreciation for this film, so I will take up the batten and hopefully preach and spread said adoration. So, for this piece, I want to look at some of the amazing things in this film that were overlooked and bypassed by audiences 10 years ago, but in reality absolutely rock, and that we can no longer take for granted today.

Let's start with the unforgettable dialogue. Full of quotable gems and lines worthy of a bumper sticker, Wright and Bacall created a quick-witted, expressive, smart and memorable script. On a personal level, it's Wright's best script work, clearly aided by the already existing catalogue. To pinpoint why this didn't translate to more bums on seats is a bit of a mystery to me. Perhaps the visual expressions were too distracting, perhaps they pass you by too quickly. Regardless, it deserves more attention. Some of my favourites are...

Tell it to the cleaning lady on Monday!
You were once ve-gone, and now you will be-gone!
I'm in lesbians with you.
They sound even better live.
Bread makes you fat?!

Most of these need context and I've probably just ruined them for people, but they needed to be shared.

'SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD' TRAILER

More than just great one-liners and quibbles, there is great skill in crafting a script that doesn't overwhelm the audience with new ideas, and roots the world that Scott lives in. You'd think that everyone being a martial arts expert and bursting into coins would raise alarms, but not so. Audiences revel in the madness that this world encapsulates, more than happily going along for the ride of a lifetime, following our hero's journey with glee and anticipation, completely buying into the world.

The words in the script would be nothing without the brilliant acting behind them. Or is it that the acting would be nothing without the brilliant words behind them? Either way, both are great, so now I want to discuss how great the cast were, and how criminally underrated this ensemble was. Michael Cera ('Juno') is fantastic, and deserves more roles than just the socially awkward guy. Scott is not a likeable character, so it can be prove difficult to have a protagonist like that carrying the film, but this isn't the case with Cera, as he brings so much joy to his torment, and so much swagger to his sadness. Unfortunately, he is always a mixed bag with audiences, and that proved to be the case yet again.

There are so many cast members who have since gone on to superstardom, which speaks volumes of the talent scout Wright had at his disposal. Supporting Scott in his quest for love are Anna Kendrick (the 'Pitch Perfect' franchise), Alison Pill ('Snowpiercer'), Kieren Culkin (TV's 'Succession') and Aubrey Plaza ('Ingrid Goes West'). Mary Elizabeth Winstead ('Birds of Prey'), playing Scott's love interest Ramona Flowers, was a relative unknown at the time - or certainly was to me anyway - and expertly carries the emotional core of the film with a delicate touch. We haven't even mentioned Ramona's evil ex-boyfriends - sorry, "exes" - Chris Evans ('Knives Out', the 'Captain America' trilogy), Brandon Routh ('Superman Returns'), Jason Schwartzman ('Rushmore') and Mae Whitman ('The Perks Of Being A Wallflower'). Oh, and what about Scott's exes? That's right, throw in Academy Award Winner Brie Larson ('Room'), and Ellen Wong (TV's 'Glow'). The talent here is ridiculous! It's also worth mentioning that this film now contains Superman, The Huntress, Captain Marvel and Captain America, just for good measure. If you were marketing this movie now, I'm not even sure who you would put on first billing. I do, actually... it would be Ellen Wong - she's amazing in this and even better in the recent anniversary table read.

Now it's time to mention probably the biggest standout of this film, and that's the visual language. Wright's flavour is so deeply embedded, you sense that there is a complete freedom of expression to every wave of his wand over the frame, so much so we dare not question the absurdity of it all. I mentioned that there is a grenade of ideas and information that's thrown at the audience, but it's never too complex or overwhelming because it's handled so expertly, and importantly, so confidently. There is meticulous detail in every frame, from the hidden X's to the fight numbers and everything the background encompasses - the more you watch 'Scott Pilgrim', the more detail shines through, and the more you will be rewarded.

Wright's flavour is so deeply embedded, you sense that there is a complete freedom of expression to every wave of his wand over the frame, so much so we dare not question the absurdity of it all.

Every frame is bursting with life, as Wright plays with not only everything on camera, but off it too. He moulds everything together so that it really feels like the pages of a comic have come to life, blending quirky video game iconography with a graphic novel aesthetic. I even recently learnt that Wright made sure none of the actors blink on screen - amplifying the animated feel of the film, showcasing the lengths he was willing to go, and the trust his actors had in his vision. And what a vision! How can you not love the genius typography and flying onomatopoeic sound effects flying across the screen? When the ringing of a phone or the word "love" starts spiralling in the air, my eyes widen and my brain explodes in the visual poetry.

What's more, Wright ensures that the comedy is woven not only through the dialogue, but through his visuals. There are jokes everywhere in the frame, jokes that only work as visual gag. It's so refreshing to witness, and it's a craft that Wright has worked on throughout his filmography. Here, Wright uses split screens, lighting, staging, choreography and transitions to comedic advantage, culminating in a wholly enjoyable - and hilarious - cinematic experience.

Of course, it would be remiss to not discuss said transitions. I have personally never seen more creativity for an otherwise overlooked film device, with Wright showcasing that creativity at any given chance. The use of wipes and whip pans draw the film out like a comic book, whilst being completely original and engrossing in innovation. He uses every tool at his disposal to ensure the desired aesthetic is upheld, never taking for granted the old adage "don't tell when you can show". The scenes progress with an ease and smoothness that forces the audience to be completely involved in the film's world - more often than not, even changing scenes without anybody noticing. The transitions are swift, and have a swagger to them that remains the gold standard to this day. The only plausible explanation I can think of as to why this never translated to a wider audience is that nobody expected it, so it can feel like an assault on the senses.

There is so much to love about this film, and so much to appreciate as it revels in its cult status. I touched on only a few aspects that I believe stand out, but there is so much more that should be discussed. To name a few, the skilled fight sequences are a joy, the title sequence is bombastic, the easter eggs, the stats boxes that appear for every character, the characters themselves, and of course, the music. It's not a genre of music I generally listen to (garage-noise-alternative-brit-rock?), but it fits so well and is expertly mixed for the film. 'Black Sheep' by Metric might be an example of perfectly marrying a song to a film.

Despite all this love, I am certainly no hero. I didn't see this film at the cinema upon release, so I feel as guilty as everyone else. Maybe it's because there was little to no marketing, and the marketing that did come through was completely misrepresenting. Maybe it's because I didn't know of the source material, so like many these days, I wasn't interested in an original concept. Whatever the case, I regret it. My love for 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World' continues to grow, even watching it twice in the last week just because I could (and for "research"). I feel like this film takes you for a ride, but it's not a rollercoaster with ups and downs, it's a tunnel of love that excites at every turn.

'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World' wasn't a success by even the most forthcoming analyst, regardless of how much its adored today. I do think that maybe general audiences just weren't impressed with what they saw, labelling the visual language as an indulgence, not an artistic license. There might be a point to this, as the visuals of a film need to give access to a character arc or a story, but here, they really act as more of a world-building tool. Works for me, but clearly not for everyone. I genuinely don't think audiences know what hit them. For what it's worth, Wright and the cast continuously express their pride in the final cut, and with so much to be adored after all these years, I've yet to see a film quite like it.

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