In Edgar Wright’s new film, Scott Pilgrim, as played by Michael Cera, initially comes across like a Romeo for the Playstation generation, and not in a good way; he’s whiney, self-pitying, fickle in his shifting affections and overall a rather unsympathetic character. Added to this Hot Fuzz director Wright front-loads the film with visual gimmicks and whizz-bang effects that cleverly set up the video-game reality of Scott’s world but don’t hold much promise of depth. But stick with it, and slowly a human heart emerges from beneath both Scott’s detached exterior and the film’s flashy digital surfaces.
The plot is simple. Scott, bass player in struggling indie band Sex Bob-omb, meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead; cool as a whole crate of cucumbers) at a party, and is immediately consumed with desire for her. He soon learns that if he wants to date her he will have to defeat her seven evil exes in a series of duels. Fighting ensues.
As in Wright’s debut feature Shaun of the Dead, the central conceit of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World – fights between humans presented in video game ‘vs.’ styles - is one that he previously used in one very funny scene of his brilliant TV show Spaced. Unlike Spaced though (or Shaun and Hot Fuzz), which was grounded in recognisably mundane - and very English - real-world contexts, it’s interesting that his first Hollywood feature is presented in a completely fantastical style throughout; perhaps a comment by Wright on the American film industry’s detachment from the real world?
His more probable motivation for the hyper-stylized setting (apart from Pilgrim’s graphic novel origins) is that here Wright is focusing on considerably younger characters than in his previous films; this is a generation that is increasingly distanced from reality, looking at the world through more and more filters. Scott’s world is a video game, and he is completely detached from real humanity – even “getting a life” isn’t as transformative as it sounds – and while Wright loves that world and plays with its aesthetics to tremendously entertaining effect, he ultimately recognises that it needs to be invaded by something real, otherwise it’s not worth living in.
So while the film is difficult to warm to in its earlier stages, it’s understandable why Wright chose to make it so. He should also be commended for taking a Hollywood budget and doing something that visually justifies it. Wright places the emphasis on images here - a bold move, considering his previous films’ strengths were arguably in performance and dialogue - but his visuals are inspired and unique (and often funny) enough to take the weight. Whether Scott Pilgrim will hold up to repeat viewings as well as Shaun and Hot Fuzz remains to be seen, but after one sitting it confirms Wright as a director continuing to challenge himself, and rewarding his audience in the process.