Edgar Wright is cinema’s most inspired mash-up artist, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World may be his finest hybridization to date, a romantic comedy recast as a mêlée-heavy video game that stands shoulder to shoulder with his zombie rom-com Shaun of the Dead and his Michael Bay-ified Ealing comedy-meets-Wicker Man actioner Hot Fuzz. In the sense that Wright’s films are steeped in pop culture, he stands as a kindred spirit to Quentin Tarantino, though his is a more jovial, heartfelt, rambunctious body of work, one in which all manner of camera tricks—whiplash edits, scene-connecting pans and wipes, outlandish CG—function as direct extensions of his parodies-cum-homages. Wright loves to flaunt his influences but isn’t afraid to acknowledge how silly his referentiality-overloaded stories can be, and that balance between earnest affection and self-conscious jokiness energizes his latest.
An adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series, the film charts the unlikely adventures of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a 23-year-old who plays bass in punk band Sex Bob-omb (a nod to Super Mario Bros.), is dating high schooler Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), and is smitten with a mysterious dyed-hair beauty named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who seems to have materialized straight out of his dreams. Scott’s budding relationship with the tortured Ramona is complicated by the fact that, in order to be with her, he must first defeat her Seven Evil Exes, all of whom show up at random to do battle with Scott à la Street Fighter IV.
Wright stages these conflicts like arcade game clashes, replete with combatants performing high-flying mega-moves while graphical effects—sparks and halos for punches landed and points earned, Dragonball Z-ish animé split-screens, 2.35:1 widescreen for momentous cutscene-like incidents—engulf the frame. Given that such flourishes continue throughout Scott Pilgrim’s hostility-free moments (with, for example, Knives’s declaration of “Love” for Scott appearing in cloud-like physical word form), such a device quickly becomes not so much a gimmick as an upfront articulation of the material’s video-game and comic-book roots, as well as a commentary on the way 21st-century young adulthood is filtered through shared consumer obsessions. Scott’s life is awash in Xbox-isms because his worldview (and, more broadly, current mainstream cinema) has been fundamentally shaped by them. And as with his prior output, Wright treats this synthesis of entertainment genres as a natural phenomenon, a logical expression of our synergistic media culture.
Consequently, there’s an unforced quality to Scott Pilgrim’s brew of love, desire, self-discovery, and Shoryuken-inflected finishing moves, as if these various elements were always ideal bedfellows. They certainly are in Wright’s assured hands, just as his central metaphor about the violent struggle of love is effortlessly wedded to his fighting-game conceit. Ramona’s Exes are a hilariously varied lot whose skills correlate with different video game genres; Lucas (Chris Evans), for example, is not only a movie-star caricature, but also a skateboarding maestro, while Todd (Brandon Routh) is a Mortal Kombat-esque telekinetic badass. Scott’s battles with them are not merely giddy and inventive, but shrewd representations of the need to fight for those you care about, the effort necessary to make relationships successful, and—canniest of all—the way in which budding romances demand that each participant grapple with their new flames’ romantic/sexual histories. The film’s eye-candy centerpiece skirmishes prove manifestations of the tale’s underlying thematic concerns, a marriage of form and content that’s empowered by Wright’s thrillingly uninhibited direction, which amplifies his narrative’s deadpan-on-mescaline comedy and sweet sentimentality.
Allusions abound for the geeky gamer at heart to, among others, Pac-Man, The Legend of Zelda, and Guitar Hero. Such nods are always in service of the story, such that Scott and Knives dual-playing the dancing title Ninja Ninja Revolution not only affords a setup for the finale and a spot-on gag involving the “Continue” countdown screen, but visualizes the relationships’ requisite it-takes-two teamwork. Rapid-fire referentiality is part and parcel of a film that can’t sit still for a single second, a hyperdrive pace that, coupled with Wright’s nimble editorial timing, enlivens Cera’s trademark sarcastic, halting-line-delivery routine, which mercifully isn’t permitted to slow the proceedings down into navel-gazing ennui. Scott is at once a familiar Cera creation and yet more self-possessed and jerky than usual. And as befitting a movie about the joy, pain, and warfare of love, his character’s attempts to juggle two women is made more difficult by the disapproval of his sister Stacey (Anne Kendrick) and gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin), as well as the lingering heartache over a dumping at the hands of now-successful singer Envy Adams (Brie Larson). A slight strain of moroseness infects Wright’s action, and even if Ramona and Knives aren’t exactly profoundly realized principal players, the writer-director’s ability to paint in quick, sharp brushstrokes—aided by comedically sturdy and reasonably soulful turns from Winstead and Wong—captures the love triangle’s emotions in huge bursts of digital-electric color.
The combined effect of Scott Pilgrim’s amalgamated style is to embrace modernity’s media-saturation paradigm without losing sight of the basic, piercing humanity that stands at its center. From the opening 8-bit Universal logo (and matching MIDI theme) to a frenetic finale in which Scott brawls with Ramona’s last ex, evil music producer Gideon (Jason Schwartzman, hopping down a faux pyramid à la the one from Q*bert), Wright creates an A/V whirligig to mirror teens’ ever-connected day-to-day existences, a state of being in which eyes and ears are perpetually trained on cellphones, iTunes, the Internet, HDTV, and/or game consoles. His film’s flash is, ultimately, as central to the proceedings as is Scott’s plot-driving odyssey toward awareness of self—and, specifically, the confidence and selflessness required for healthy platonic and romantic relationships. Not to mention that, on a purely visceral level, Wright’s aesthetics provide one big caffeinated jolt to the system, a dizzying barrage of sound and fury that reaches its peak during those moments when the focus shifts to the lightening-bolt bliss of Sex Bob-omb’s pounding drums, feedbacky guitar, and skuzzy vocals. Which in the end makes perfect sense, given that, at heart, Scott Pilgrim rocks.