I can honestly say I was taken entirely by surprise by Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
When it came to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz I had a good time oh sure. Deep in my insides though I felt like I was watching something meant for someone else. Which may or may not be the way a lot of people over a certain age are responding to Pilgrim.
Linda Holmes wrote a brilliant article about critics savaging not so much the movie, but the supposed target audience of the movie instead - check it out here. It’s one of these written pieces that keeps coming back.
Why is this movie incredible? Let’s start at the start.
The Generational Issue
I’ve never felt the generation debate until this whole Pilgrim thing slapped me across the cheek with it.
I’ve had a fair bit to do with youth media, where it is generous to describe content as “raw” and “edgy”. There were often lengthy debates as to whether youth media was “raw” and “edgy” because young people were inexperienced and clunky with communicating ideas… or just because we’re so used to ingesting Older Media that the youth voice is a flavour we’re not used to.
Scott Pilgrim is a major Hollywood motion picture where almost all of the characters presented on the screen are under thirty. Most of them even under twenty-five. Are they young people played by old people? Heck no! Maybe Knives but the point is heck no! For an audience trained like barking seals not to take a “comic book movie” seriously if it doesn’t have a Marlon Brando in there, the difference in flavour is already extreme.
TIM ROBBINS: Sorry boys, I can’t stay. I was only here in the first place to establish some sort of credibility.
I did a really quick double check about that under-30 thing and the oldest speaking roles I could find in Pilgrim were the camp-tastic Vegan Police. It’s a far cry from Jor-El, I’ll tell you that much.
But at least if we’re going to fill our Hollywood movie entirely with young people we’ll be able to cut down on “risk” by grounding it in traditional storytelling, right? Oh sorry what’s that? We’re going to make the most memetastic and troperiffic film ever? With thousands of throwaway pop references and the kind of mood whiplash that could see bipolars in neck braces? And fair enough too!
The Story Issue
Critics of the movie claim, amongst other things:
- The main character Scott Pilgrim is unsympathetic
- We never find out enough about the love interest Ramona Flowers to justify Scott’s obsession with her
- There are too many “evil exs” - couldn’t it have just been three?
- Put four more dot points here
For me, these people are missing the point. Point the first: Scott isn’t meant to be sympathetic. He is a product of his environment - a generation that has grown up with so many demands on their focus, so many new technologies and conflicting mediums that their attention spans are shot to all buggery. We watch Scott casually peruse an email vital to the plot of his own movie. He will be forced to fight an entire league of antagonists - which itself hints that he might now be technically dating his dream girl. And as he skims a few key words and phrases he ultimately exclaims: “this…is…so…boring.”
He rejects it. What does he do then instead? Stare at a door. He’s waiting for a delivery person to arrive with the package, a package that could conceiveably spend the entire weekend in transit.
The characters in this movie are so technologically adept they can SMS each other in their sleep. Literally. Information is so accessible that it has lost all value - only that which is interesting or entertaining will be accepted and processed. As we meet characters and visit places for the first time, little title cards give us singular facts to remember them by, culminating in a most triumphant “fun fact” about a particular drinking hole: that it’s a dump.
Scott asks high-schooler Knives to talk more about him. As she begins to do so we’ve already cut to a completely different location, and that’s not an accident. The way Scott processes information has seen everything she’s said between then and now edited out.
By the time Scott Pilgrim is facing off against Todd the Vegan he asks dream girl Ramona Flowers for his backstory - maybe the backstory has some vital tidbit of information he could use to defeat him! It doesn’t. This is the last time Scott asks to hear anyone’s backstory. Any information that isn’t helping to accomplish what you’re trying to do - immediately, right now, this second - is worthless and should be skipped because we don’t have time. Now let’s go stare at a door.
Couple that with the fact that the amount of tasks the younger generation are expected to perform daily are increasing exponentially - can you see what I’m driving at? Seven Evil Exs are far too many to fit into a two hour movie - and that’s the point.
The Relationship Issue
In a video game you’re expected to perform certain tasks to progress, that’s it. In a relationship, particularly when young and inexperienced people get together, there’s a major tension when people fulfill the tasks expected of them and nothing else. “When was the last time you got me flowers?” “We always do the same old thing, never anything unexpected or out of the ordinary!” “When was the last time you surprised me?” We’ve all heard those kinds of things before amirite!
Scott hears that he has to fight Ramona’s evil exs before he can date her. That’s now his pure focus. He’s got seven to go through - better get a move on! Wait a minute though, are they dating? He asked her and she said they were. Right. But he has to defeat the evil exs before they can date officially, correct? Look - Scott has to do the “Evil Exs” thing anyway, so he can do that ridiculously long-term blown out project first and then he can check with her, yeah?
Even as Scott is initially trying to understand that he has to “fight” Ramona’s Evil Exs, she clarifies: (no, no,) “defeat”. That’s some slippery language there. Does that mean he’s not supposed to be fighting them in order to defeat them? As he becomes more and more successful at dispatching them, Ramona becomes more and more uneasy and disconnected. Uh oh, boy! Check yourself! There’s a major gap in their communication here.
During one fight Scott engages in, Ramona disappears entirely with no explanation or follow up call, and, in fact, refuses to take his call. After another fight where Scott emerges victorious, the tense aftermath sees he and Ramona enter into a verbal fight themselves. Can I just clarify he’s meant to be fighting these people? Can he clarify? That would make me feel a lot easier.
This guy - we’ve already seen he’s not the best multi-tasker - has been given a gargantuan movie-wide task to perform and he’s lost focus on everything else, including the actual girl he’s doing it for. Why is he chasing after her, does he know or remember? Of course we don’t know anything about Ramona Flowers, neither does Scott!
But this is where I really get excited about Scott Pilgrim. So far the terms in which I’ve been talking about it make it sound like a purely modern construction, something so Generation Y, so pop, so “right now”. But what’s the main story? It’s a guy who is so focused on what he needs to do to be successful that he loses focus on why he needs to be successful in the first place. His relationships suffer. Well I guess that hasn’t been done in cinema before.
OH WAIT I think I remember this one time they did it
Finally, The Technical Issues
For this movie to be such a triumphant example of a young people’s story told in a very youthful way, I can’t believe how well put together it is. Nothing about it is sloppy or loose. A common feedback I hear is that people were genuinely seeing things they had never seen before. A personal highlight for me is a Battle of the Bands that sees a Yeti made out of music battle two music-based Dragons. Being able to see, hear, and borderline feel the heat of these two different pieces of music interacting violently, aggressively, kinetically with each other is pure cinematic synaesthesia.
Personally I’m right on the fringe of generations X and Y. I’ve never before felt like the younger generation has been missing out when it comes to being rep’d on the big Hollywood screen. And yet to have such a “young” story and see it told in such “youthful” terms I realise now how long we’ve been getting gypped for. This movie comes along and it feels like a beginning, creating a massive precedent for mainstream culture to be able to explore the young ones in all our disgusting complexity.
Far out, I loved this movie.
And that’s everything I think about Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. I thought I had another thing there, but it’s gone.