By Haley Moore, July 31st, 2010

I got the chance to see this film during a screening at San Diego Comic Con.  It struck a chord with me, and so I wrote it up for Culture Hacker’s first film review.

From the moment the Universal splash screen comes up for Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, you know that this movie is going to have a very special relationship with the 8-bit culture that inspired most of the film’s schlocky, fast-hitting action.  The logo and the accompanying music have been translated into video game terms – pixel graphics with a chirpy electronic interpretation of the usual fanfare.  The world of Pilgrim is like this to the core – the real world envisioned through the mind of a game player.

There is much constant and legitimate griping about the representation of games in film – everything from outdated game choices, to overacted controller-waving, to video games as a motivation for violent crime.

A while ago, CH contributor Nick Braccia proposed that the best representations of games use relatable game experiences to establish and develop characters in a meaningful way.  We all know what it feels like to apply ourselves to solve a puzzle, beat a boss or earn an extra life.  The term “level up” is bleeding out of gaming.  It almost refers to something in real life – the turning point in which it becomes clear that we are better at something than we were before.

Pilgrim is the first major feature film I’ve seen that embodies this synthesis of game terms and reality.  Where many shows use geek culture as a bucket of references, to be used to making a quick audience connection – I’m looking at you, Big Bang Theory – Pilgrim makes proper allusions to the culture.

In one instance, the eponymous Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) wanders through a dream world set to the tune of the Fairy Fountain song from The Legend of Zelda.  It’s a great moment of geek recognition, but also full of meaning for those in the know – this place is renewing, ephemeral, strange.  Another pivotal scene near the end of the film will resonate deeply with everyone who has ever played a console role playing game, but I’d rather not spoil it.

The music plays a principal role in the film, with a condensed plot revolving around Scott’s band, Sex Bob-omb, competing in a battle of the bands.  The film features three musical acts, all of whom are voiced by separate talent and have distinct sounds.  And although fans at creator Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Comic Con panel expressed sadness that they can no longer imagine these bands from the comic as their own favorite musicians, the creative choices in the film are sound.   Metric’s performance as The Clash at Demonhead stands out as a crowning moment in the film.

The soundtrack, as well as the sound engineering in general, is overwhelmingly crisp and immersive.  One character, Julie Powers (Aubrey Plaza), speaks in a string of profanities that are hidden behind a censor bar.  Instead of the standard bleep, her words are translated into a varying digital babble.  I found myself wishing for more scenes with Julie, because I liked hearing the sound.

I must admit I was convinced, early on, that Scott Pilgrim Vs The World was not going to work.  Screenshots early on in the production cycle showed giant, Batman-esque sound effect words worked into the frame, something I thought was a sure sign of failure.  In practice, the effect words are very fast-paced and integrated into the action.  Again, they feel like a video game experience writ large, and for the most part supplement the experience rather than distract from it.

The film is extremely true to its comic roots, with most scenes scripted directly from the comic, and panels reproduced in minute live action detail.  A few scenes are even translated into animated comics.  The story is slightly contorted, especially near the end.  The 240-page final issue of the comic covers about the last 15 minutes of the movie, but most of the elements are intact.  The film’s villain, Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), gets perhaps a more thorough treatment in the film – the books propose him as a mysterious and elusive figure, while the movie Gideon is nastier.

However, calling the film a faithful reproduction would misrepresent the creative process that went into the three pillars of the Scott Pilgrim world.  The comics, the film and an upcoming video game were created in tandem over the past few years, and the final volume of the series was only released on July 20 of this year, just before Comic Con and the film’s premiere.  Its easier to think of the Scott Pilgrim franchise as a larger project undertaken by O’Malley and a large pool of collaborators.

And that may be the reason Scott Pilgrim works so well.  It hasn’t been finished and passed on to a secondary creative team to expand the world – the process has only just ended.  All of the products are fresh and integrated, three retellings of the same story.

All of this means that older audiences may have a hard time connecting with the film.  It speaks the language of people under 40, but for someone who has never beaten a mini-boss, the video game references may come across as obtusely wacky at best, and confusing at worst.  The film’s MTV-inspired rock and roll credits sequence alone may induce sensory overload for some viewers.  The film’s plot also proceeds at a fast pace – if your friends have a tendency to lean over and ask, “what just happened?” during a show, you may not want to take them to see this particular movie.  You’ll want to keep your eyes, ears and brain free to take in the spectacle.

Based on what I saw at Comic Con, I’m giving Pilgrim a solid A for the young, and a B- for the older crowd.  It hits theaters August 13.

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Haley Moore is a newspaper reporter, artist, and playwright based in north Texas. She has worked on several indie, fan and commercial Alternate Reality Games.


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