The single best joke in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz is perfectly underplayed. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and a strike team of rural policemen storm the front of a supermarket. You hear the cocking of shotguns. But then thirty seconds have passed, and you hear, on the second or third viewing, that the shotguns are still being cocked. The sound cue hangs in the periphery, sending comedy messages straight to your lizard brain, and the joke never stops landing, ever. This kind of ingenious filmmaking saturates Mr Wright’s output, from Spaced to Shaun of the Dead, and takes a quantum leap with new release Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. If you hear the click as an 8-bit Universal theme plays, you’ll know you’re in safe hands.
Based on the comic book series by Brian Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim charts the arc of deadbeat Scott (Michael Cera), who falls for hipster goddess Ramona Flowers (Mary Elisabeth Winstead) and ‘woos’ her in the idiom of our decade (which is, of course, 2010 by way of the 1990’s). This involves, naturally, a series of escalating battles with Ramona’s “Seven Evil Exes” and a few battles of the bands. This structure (and the source comic) informs Pilgrim’s visual style, which creates expressionistic overtures out of videogame archetypes. To the uninitiated (whoever you are), we’re talking health bars, level-ups, 1-ups, and stat increases, augmented by psychedelic anime stylings and fast-paced editing. Nobody’s surprised that Scott Pilgrim is “the best fighter in the province” when he throws down with Ex #1 (Satya Bahba), except the unsuspecting viewer, who until this point has been watching a quick-paced rom-com. But of course, this is the manner in which Scott Pilgrim versus The World.
The film’s visuals are built, and hit you, like a tonne of brick shithouses. The pacing of both violent and non-violent scenes is complementary, moving from a live-action anime film (think Speed Racer or 2004’s Casshern) to a Spaced-esque character piece with ease. Every game reference is played dead straight – this is the world that the characters, and we, claim without irony as a birthright. But their execution is such that even vigorous outspoken anti-nerds (who, let’s face it, simply don’t exist anymore) will be rolling with these jokes, winks and nods.
And then there’s the soundtrack. Indie heavyweights such as Beck, Metric and Broken Social Scene provide the tunes for the film’s ever-battling bands, including Scott Pilgrim’s Sex Bob-Omb. But the real highlight is the orchestral work of Nigel Godrich (contemporary of Radiohead and Beck), which fuses winsome Canadian strings, digitised spurts of 8-bit energy and hyper-kinetic basslines to create the perfect action score for the modern age. These pieces are equally at home in sparse indie bedrooms, furious action sequences and your average Goldeneye replay. The Godrich score cannot be more highly recommended.
The visuals and score are a product of Scott Pilgrim’s time, and the time is defined by the characters therein. Even within the hyperactive imagination of your average Nintendo/Sega child, the film’s characters shine in a series of smart casting choices. Michael Cera smartly rebrands his image as “that nervous kid from Arrested Development”, playing a character much more at home in his own skin, and proudly wearing the mantle of action hero throughout. As Ramona, Winstead is less utilised, but manages to balance aloofness and vulnerability as the plot’s motivator. The supporting cast includes Scott’s last girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a beautifully understated teen with a penchant for stalking, gay roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), a sardonic voice from the sidelines, and the less-exploited band mates Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and Kim Pine (Alison Pill). And you can’t forget the band’s roommate Young Neil (Johnny Simmons), a soft-spoken force for good. Just listen to his delivery when asked what he plays.
The seven evil exes themselves deserve discussion, each a vignette of scene-chewing emotional baggage. In addition to Bahba’s Matthew Patel, whose key role is establishing the film’s action dynamic, the septet is rounded by comic-book heavyweights Chris Evans and Brandon Routh, awfully familiar Mae Whitman (her?) and electronic dual duellists the Katayanagis (Shota and Ken Saito). Their hammy performances illuminate a series of absurd battles, and prove delightful foils to Scott Pilgrim’s heroic antics. This league is headed by smarmy record executive Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), who never misses a beat as the Final Boss, adept with a pixelated beam-sword and industry doubletalk. Each adds to the film’s dynamic, and you get the feeling that nothing is repeated (a blessing in this kind of action film). By the time the third-act/ seventh-level clusterfight takes place, you’re too involved in the proceedings to notice when the action briefly loses focus. But anyone who’s struggled with hideously-overpowered final bosses knows the right time to let go and let the hands do the talking.
In this case, the hands are Edgar Wright’s, and they are more than capable of crafting a new cult hit. With a filmic knowledge to rival Tarantino, and unparalleled comedic skills, Wright’s latest venture puts him three for three in terms of feature-length hits. Though some may double-take on the rapid transitions and tonal shifts, this is a film that cannot help but reward unlimited re-viewings. What’s more, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World captures a modern aesthetic in a way unlike anything we’ve seen before. This is sure to be a favourite of mine and many for years to come.