Analyzing and Improving: Scott Pilgrim Vs The World
Having never read the comic I cannot in good faith improve the 'story' of Scott Pilgrim, so this review will focus on the film specifically. The movie version takes its own liberties with the plot to make for a more cinematic experience, but in my opinion even these could have been refined. Scott Pilgrim is by no means a bad film, but in some ways it fell short of the high degrees of potential that its quality earned for itself. Below are my thoughts of how with a few slight considerations that potential might have been fully reached…
1: Gorgeous Production
Scott Pilgrim is imaginatively and excitingly directed, edited and in many cases animated. The colors are primary and vibrant making it at all times even in mundane scenes look like a living comic book. Incorporating sound effects in words, captions, and video game related elements really lends a unique flavor to the proceedings and when they work they best they compliment a character's internal conflicts in an external visual way. There's also a lot of love poured into little elements (such as Scott spelling out 'Sux ∞' when talking about his life, the fictional movie posters, traffic signs and character's appearances directly reflecting their moods and thoughts) which make repeated viewing more enticing and fill each passing moment with not only the story but dramatic representations of emotions the taciturn cast rarely show if they can help it. The backdrop is a character itself and speaks for the other characters in turn, and the numerous fight sequences are more interesting with the weapons of characters being further projections of their psyches. All in all arresting from start to finish and brilliantly realized.
2: Fine Acting
There's not always a lot of nuance to the exaggerated characters of the movie, but what there is usually stems from the subtle but impressive performances of every character. Even characters with one gimmick or who don't speak generally leave some kind of idea as to who they are through body language or just little expressions. Scott himself is an odd lead because he is selfish, uncertain, lazy, foolish, and dorky but Michael Sera brings a command to his personality that makes him stand out and support the scenes he inhabits (even when the character himself is inert). The villains are having so much fun in their roles that its hard to see them go and even the silliest of dialogue is delivered straight faced by all which makes it all the more spontaneous and hilarious.
3: Generally An Intriguing Premise
Injecting video games, classic martial arts clichés and comic books into something as innocuous as a standard 'Boy meets girl' tale is inventive and rife with promise. To use the metaphor of fighting exes as the need to deal with a new girlfriend's old baggage is intriguing and when its serving the story it both allows suspension of disbelief for the more wacky aspects of Scott Pilgrim and at the same time makes what could have been dull moments of a bad relationship into a literal fight for survival and happiness.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK
1: Distracting and Confused Meta
Meta, like so many many things, is best when taken in moderation and with consideration. Scott Pilgrim binges on meta of every flavor and description, but since it doesn't know how to moderate or when to quit for me it became a little too confusing to fully enjoy at times.
2: Derailed Emotional Core
The weirdness and cleverness is acknowledged…but then paraded in front of the plot as the main attraction, and it comes across as gallingly pompous. I can appreciate when strangeness serves some kind of theme, but when fine acting and even endearing writing is cast aside in favor of a knowing wink for the sake of earning 'street cred' and no other discernable reason (such as the dream sequence which adds nothing) it seems a disservice to an otherwise tightly constructed film, wrecking momentum and investment.
THE RESULTS OF THESE PROBLEMS
1: Its one thing to have things make physical sound effects (drums and doorbells produce floating sound effect words and punches seem to manifest physical versions of 'SMACK' and 'WHAP!' that interact with the world and characters) to parody a comic book and of course there's the life 'one up' and 'pee bar' to lampoon video games, but in some scenes like the random sit-com conversation which has a laugh track and the counter clerk whose swearing is censored begins to muddle the established sources of spoof, especially when characters comment on the jokes as if they were actually happening. Scott asks the clerk what she does to make herself censored. That indicates that this is no longer a spoof, it's a real occurrence that even characters can't explain. Generally in parody the characters don't acknowledge that they know they're in a parody: the point is the humor that comes from silly actions and events being taken straight faced as if they were all logical happenstance. Scott oversteps the line by having characters being confused by their own odd occurrences (sometimes, which makes things even more muddied) and for me at least it led me to ask the same questions that were never answered. Why does being a vegan make you super powerful? Its somewhat explained, but then the explanation is ignored when a sip of half and half apparently degrades the powers associated, when this would do nothing to the condition of the mind (which a character claimed was the source of vegan psychic powers).
Contradictions, conflicts in genre and general logic all made me more irritated and bewildered by the array of satires, no longer amused by them too soon in.
2: Scott Pilgrim is a combination of a love story and a distortion of the grandiose emotions people feel when in love. Even the titles of the comic like 'The Infinite Sadness' demonstrates this extremeness of passions and poke fun at their sheer enormity. For the most part it works well, painting a metaphorical and humorous tapestry, which exaggerates the experience of a relationship and presents otherwise invisible elements (such as trying to gain the affections of someone who is infatuated with someone else) and plays them up into epic and colorful combat set pieces. It's akin at its best to the best of American McGee's Alice, which uses Wonderland as an on going play to show Alice's inner psyche through visual simile.
But at its worst, in the case of Alice as well, the premise of Scott Pilgrim overtakes characterization and any semblance of drama.
Scott Pilgrim is a terrible character quite frankly. He's not very smart, he's manipulative, cheats on his friend without much consideration. Despite his endless whiny self-deprecation he's self centered and boastful. He's also an amazing fighter and guitarist without effort or reason so he never has to work for anything. He's not put-upon by anyone he doesn't get back at, he's shallow, clumsy, neglectful, and has no compunction with essentially killing people he doesn't know for no other purpose then to get a free-be from a new girlfriend he half fooled half guilt tripped into an affair.
And at the end of the movie what he learns is self-respect? He had plenty of that.
The following is what he didn't have and could have really used…
Commitment, compassion, consideration for others, peripheral vision, morals, intelligence, ambition, courage, honesty, tact, responsibility, maturity, and prudence.
I didn't like Scott at the beginning and throughout the film bizarrely I found myself liking him less and less. In the middle I started to feel a little sorry as he struggled with his feelings…until I realized that the only reason he had any problems was because he had lied to save his neck. Then the feeling went away.
Generally you're supposed to have a main character you can in some kind of fashion understand, sympathize with, or even like as a person even if its because they're flawed but trying to overcome their foibles.
Scott however is a callous, shrimpy, jerk throughout the entire movie and his big lesson is that that's okay to be without any effort needed to change.
If it wasn't for the actor playing him I'd have hated everything about Scott.
HOW TO FIX THESE PROBLEMS
1: If there are going to be some major changes to the comic in the film for the purpose of being cinematic, some of those changes should have been reworking to make the meta humor make sense. Decide what sort of parody is being done out of the gate. If its video games, stick with those. Comics and video games have the tie of 'geek' culture and fit well into the references to bands and obscure movie trivia, so if that's the case center the fourth wall breaking spoofs on that general area of interest. Sit-coms have nothing to do with geek culture so they are jarring when elements of them are introduced.
Also there should have been more consideration paid to making the jokes some kind of figurative cosmology on Scott's personal universe of his love affair, which dominates his thinking and the story in general. Distractions from this (like his gay friend's conquests which don't really have much to do in the film) feel like detours and pit stops, causing the narrative to hiccup. This could be fixed with a smidge more attention to telling a story over making a cult film.
With this attention to context the other problem I had with this film might also have been repaired.
2: Allow parts of Scott Pilgrim to be semi serious, or at the least bit taken seriously by the characters. This was a major strength of movies like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Attack the Block, but also in those film I had the similar regret of seeing great set ups for character investigations and moral drama being sidelined in favor of japery that had no grounding in anything except cheap laughs. I will obstinately not take the death of a character seriously if earlier you had some kind of goofy scene that wouldn't work in real life. If the characters are cartoons I can laugh at them and enjoy their antics, but I'll never quite care about them unless they try very hard.
To fix this issue Scott Pilgrim needed to either try harder or let the story be at stretches. A scene of Scott's thoughts forming into doodles is cute, but it downplays his desire not to hurt the feelings of his friend while still proving himself to a woman he thinks he loves. Knives really needed a better progression of character to keep the love story intriguing. If she's going to be a buffoon in every case then her plight is no longer assumed to be cared about so much as mocked, and that's not a recipe for suspense, significance, or interest for me.
3: Scott Pilgrim needed to at the VERY least change.
Things that remain in a rut are NOT INTERESTING to me, and I imagine to many other people. What about Scott changes in this movie?
He gets a girlfriend. That's it.
He doesn't have to shape up, he doesn't have to learn anything. He barely even has to really fight as he takes amazing amounts of damage without a scratch on his body and seems to dispatch each Ex with the greatest of ease. He doesn't lose anything or anyone he cares about except for Knives and she lets his guilt off the hook by saying she forgives him for being a creep.
Maybe its not canon, but something about Scott should really have developed. He should have actually lost something or suffered or learned or put some kind of effort into something that, even if it didn't make him better, did make him a dissimilar person from who he is at the start of the film so the entire movie's journey doesn't feel pointless.
1: The major complaint I heard about this film was how unrelentingly it appealed to a certain type of person, specifically a hipster slacker demographic, while leaving most others completely in the dust. This wasn't necessary at all as Scott has a story of potentially universal concern: namely the trials and tribulations of love. No it didn't have to be an angst ridden melodrama, but that's why it would have worked so well with just a tighter focus, practically all the same jokes and witticisms returning but in the cause of the plot, not to its detriment. It would be adding to the lore and strengths of the source material and the film, not detracting from it I believe and into the bargain making the movie more accessible and appealing to others who would initially dismiss and ignore it for just being a series of pop culture gags.
The end result would be more coherent, more welcoming, and more timeless.
2: This improvement would extend to a little change up of the pace, managing the sublimely silly with the more down to Earth. Scott is billed by supporters of the film as being deeper then many suppose, but what if that depth of meaning and emotion didn't have to be so vigorously defended because it was readily apparent by a casual viewing?
What if Scott Pilgrim was simultaneously a humorous series of video game puns and imagery but also a seriously considered and unswerving story of young loves lost and found?
This would make the slower and sweeter scenes resonate all the more. At the moment they seem to drag the pace because the looming menace of another senseless caricature is always on the edge of each scene, promising to bring any deeper considerations to an abrupt end. But cut that away even for a few moments and you unlock further dimensions for the characters, the plot, and the film.
3: If Scott had sold me on trying to do something genuinely for someone else's sake or perhaps had to learn his fighting and earn his love through failures and testing then maybe I could grow beyond my initial poor impression of a person I really didn't like and seemed to be given no reason to like beyond that he was pathetic and funny sometimes.
However providing Pilgrim some kind of…pilgrimage? Some sort of actual visible ladder to climb beyond canned inevitable non-fights with the Exs, the movie would have moved at a better pace, the investment in his struggles would have allowed me to forgive other shortcomings much easier, and in the end I might have been able to ooze into the character piece and take pleasure in even its sillier moments with the knowledge that something was moving, improving, and building.
It would have given me a reason to care, and according to many reviews I've seen, I'm not alone in that desire.
Scott Pilgrim falls smack into the modus operandi of other productions like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Attack the Block as noted, for both good and bad reasons. For the good these movies weave intriguing premises that meld real concerns with fantasy elements in a way that could have heightened and investigated the real. All of these films have great acting, inventive staging, fine dialogue, and the directing is crisp.
But all of these films suffer in the same way, but allowing their gimmickry to stampede their hearts and souls. Also to me none of these movies is really ultimately about anything despite their glimmerings (and trumpeting at times) of richer underlying themes. In the end Scott Pilgrim is sound and fury with precious little significance, but very well produced and acted sound and fury.
I just wish that somewhere in the writing process someone sacrificed their personal visions for the sake of an enduring story, instead of the other way around.