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Old 07-30-2010, 05:00 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Film Review: Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World Does Retrogaming Right

A movie review on the Retronauts blog? Well, yes, because I can think of no better home for this one. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is the best comics-to-film adaptation since Ghost World, and that's no mean feat. But even more to the point, it's best movie about videogames since... well, ever.

Maybe that's not entirely accurate. Scott Pilgrim isn't really about videogames per se; it's actually a coming-of-age movie, a story about romance and growing up and coming to terms with your own flaws and your loved one's baggage. Yet it's steeped in videogame references and concepts on every level, and both the rapid-fire editing and the over-the-top action are blatantly inspired by games. The connection goes deeper, though: The characters play videogames, discuss videogames, even use videogame trivia as (admittedly ill-advised) icebreakers at parties. Dream sequences and segues are accompanied by ethereal tunes taken straight from the The Legend of Zelda. And the plot itself -- the eponymous hero winning the right to woo his literal dream girl Ramona Flowers by defeating her seven evil exes in single combat -- is the plot of half the NES library writ large.

Scott Pilgrim isn't a movie about videogames, but it speaks their language fluently and with more authenticity than any other movie besides The King of Kong (in which gaming was the entire point). The trick, I think, is that the movie (like the comics it's based on) simply treats videogames as another facet of its characters' lives, the same as the garage rock their bands play. Rather than be content to simply make fleeting references to standards like Pac-Man, Scott Pilgrim's creators took the time to get them right. So yeah, Pac-Man gets a mention, but it's in the context of an etymological treatise -- and an accurate one at that. The film's rock bands take their names from second-tier NES games like Clash at Demonhead and Crash 'N the Boys: Street Challenge. At one point, Scott tries to duck out of an uncomfortable conversation by mentioning how he taught himself the bass line to Final Fantasy II's battle theme... at which point actor Michael Cera proceeds to play the actual melody in question.

That three-bar riff is a sterling example of what makes Scott Pilgrim so impressive from the gamer's perspective. While the bass riff exchange was taken practically verbatim from Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novels, it was simple a fleeting reference in print. In adapting the comics to the screen, director Edgar Wright went to the trouble of making sure he substantiated O'Malley's serial name-dropping with the appropriate audio and visual cues. There are references to other mediums, too; the main character's name came from a Plumtree song, and he wears the band's T-shirt at his debut concert. Yet it's the nods to games that are most eye-catching, because they've never really been done right by Hollywood before.

Wright plays up Scott Pilgrim's game-obsessed nature in creative ways that make for a visually arresting film. Sound effects frequently appear on-screen during action sequences, not so much in a campy Batman sort of way but rather as part of a patina of stylization that helps mask the seams of special effects. The series frequently dabbles in the realm of magical realism, and Wright has indicated the movie plays out from the unreliable, media-addled perspective of the hero himself, and the game effects play off of this. The film even adds its own thoughtful embellishments beyond the audio/visual effects. At one point in the books, Scott loses a fight and is forced to redeem the 1UP he collected in an earlier battle; in the movie, this sequence is cleverly reworked in a way that will be painfully familiar to anyone who's ever lost a battle in an RPG.

That being said, all the spot-on allusions in the world would be worth nothing if the movie itself couldn't stand alone; just look at the Internet's glut of absolutely wretched gaming webcomics. Fortunately, Scott Pilgrim's source material is strong, and at times becomes stronger in the move to the screen. The dialogue, largely taken verbatim from the books, goes from being amusing in print to head-spinningly snappy in motion. The dialogue consists mostly of quips and snark, it's true, but they're delivered in a rapid-fire style with just enough breathing room to avoid leaving the viewer reeling from the sensation that they're suffocating in cleverness. Wright frequently plays with time, preserving the comics' ambiguous use of dialogue and panel layouts with overlapping cuts and transitions. The effect this has on the flow of conversations -- allowing them to bleed from one scene to another -- is, like so much of the rest of the film, engagingly stylized, and it helps compensate for the film's deficiencies.

No, Scott Pilgrim isn't perfect; the act of compressing six books into two hours of screen time -- and, concordantly, six months of story time into about two weeks -- squeezed out a lot of books' character-building. Fan-favorite supporting cast members like Kim Pine are less characters than presences here, with the more prominent Ramona and Knives picking up a lot of their slack. That's understandable, because adaptation demands change, but fans of the books will find certain edits off-putting. The brisk pacing keeps the characters from being properly fleshed-out. You'll like them because they say witty things and perform amusingly ridiculous actions, but it's difficult to genuinely sympathize with them.

Despite these shortcomings, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World works. It's a faithful rendition of the books, despite the necessary edits, and it manages to channel an entire generation's shared nostalgia for games, television, and music without feeling shallow or forced. In other words, it's the sort of movie you can enjoy on a number of different levels -- as an adaptation of great graphic novels, as a romp through familiar media references, or just as an entertaining summer movie. People who hit puberty before the NES launched may not necessarily get the videogame-saturated presentation, but the movie does a pretty good job of explaining the broad game themes that end up being key to the plot by sprinkling exposition throughout the script. That means the really juicy references (the obscure ones that fans of this blog are most likely to appreciate) end up being Easter eggs for the game fans in the audience -- Wright and O'Malley's way of rewarding us for sharing their nerdy adolescent memories.
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