This is going to get deep into Spoilers, friends. See the movie, then read this post. If you’ve generally agreed with my reviews, than just go see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and come back to read this post after.
The film adaptation of Bryan O’Malley’s geek-tastic Scott Pilgrim comic series hit the big screens last week…to unimpressive monetary results, bringing in just over $10 million, 5th place behind 1) The Expendables 2) Eat, Pray, Love 3) The Other Guys and 4) Inception.
Its rating is in the high 80%s, higher than all of the movies which beat it monetarily (except Inception). It has tons of geek appeal. So why did it “bomb”?
Here’s the thing — it’s very particular geek appeal.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is for people who (preferably) share several or more of the following traits:
Played a lot of video games as a kid
But they have to be games of the NES to SNES era with MIDI music
And should include a lot of 2-d fighting games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, as well as Legend of Zelda.
Have been in a band.
Follow their town/city’s underground music scene.
Enjoy hyper-kinetic narratives.
Understand what a Bob-Omb is.
Know what a 1UP does.
Have had several painful breakups and carry around romantic baggage.
Enjoy expressionistic and highly stylized storytelling.
Moreso than possibly any movie in recent memory, the very celluloid upon which the Scott Pilgrim movie is filmed is comprised of Geekdom. Geekiness was like oxygen. The film is densely coded with visual and auditory references to geek culture, from comics to video games, but also to sitcoms and with commentary on the romantic comedy genre. It starts with a chiptune version of the Universal theme as the screen shows a slowly turning old-school video game graphics rendering of the Universal globe. The opening credit sequence is rife with visual allusions to video games and comics.
If these references go over your head, Scott Pilgrim may not be for you. It’s easy to position as a representative narrative for Generation Y (or Generation X, depending on who you ask), which also leads into another point that some have raised. Why, though, do some reviewers find it necessary to rag on the target demographic of a film that they (the reviewer) ostensibly didn’t understand or enjoy?
So what we have here is a movie that is really most effective for a narrow demographic, and somehow that makes it a bad movie. Do reviewers pan a romantic comedy when it doesn’t try to appeal to people outside the ‘chick flick’ audience? Or rag on an action movie when it fails to transcend its genre and compete for an Best Picture Oscar?
But I don’t know if I think those reasons quite add up.
Some may call Scott Pilgrim’s “failure” a referendum on geek culture, heralding the end of the Age of the Geek. I’m more inclined to point at the fact that the film uses a great deal of medium and genre emulation in its cinematography, as the film at turns replicates comic books, video games, the fighter genre of games, sitcoms and the indie drama/comedy. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World leaps nimbly between those styles and referents, and for a viewer conversant with the Recommended Reading/Viewing/Playing, it works. I’ve never laughed so continually or so un-selfconsciously at a film in quite a long time.
This wasn’t a film where geek culture was being re-packaged for the majority, like the X-Men films or Iron Man or Spider-Man films. In these cases, a character and/or story well-known in the geek community is re-told and re-purposed for a general audience, adapting it to be more understandable, with a smoothed-out backstory less laden with decades of continuity. While Scott Pilgrim was adapted and streamlined for the screen, it was still (for me) very much a geeky movie for geeks, and never apologized for it.
It’s also important to discuss the Hipster aspect of the film. Pilgrim of the movie is less actively a geek than he is in the comics, and instead comes off as in no small part a slacker hipster kid — he has little life ambition, plays in a band, but isn’t any good at it, and only shows agency and energy when it comes to Ramona and then his fight scenes. There are a number of places where Hipster culture and Geek culture overlap, which I find amusing since for me, at their hearts, Geekiness and Hipsterness are antithetical.
In my evaluation, Geekdom is at its core a culture of geniune enthusiasm. You “geek out” about something when your enthusiasm shows to a degree which may be seen as excessive to some.
By contrast, Hipsterness for me is about irony — it’s about taking an attitude/position towards something. Hipsters associate with cultural materials or behaviors, but they do so to comment on them in a kind of Bertold Brecht way — Hipsters drink PBR because of its blue-collar associations, made ironic by the fact that most Hipsters come from decidely white-collar backgrounds — Hipsters listen to music and then take a ‘been there done that’ attitude to it.
Not being engaged in Hipster culture, my ideas about it are nowhere as developed as my thoughts on geek culture — but it’s worth the time to talk a bit about Hipsters for Scott Pilgrim, due to the associations on the part of both the film and the source comic (which delves deeply into the Toronto scenester world).
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World combines Romantic Comedy, Battle of the Bands, Fighting Game and Coming-of-Age tropes and tale-types, positing a world where young men and women have troubled romantic and personal histories as they fumble around trying to learn how to be themselves, but despite that complication, the world can be made simple by the application of the video game logic — Scott Pilgrim can bring his video game experience to bear and literalize the metaphor of “dealing with baggage from your S.O.’s exes” by fighting them in sequence. Scott Pilgrim literalizes several more metaphors of romance/baggage, from the ex who can still “Get into your head” (the chip) to being your own worst enemy (Nega-Scott!).
Some have discussed Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as a musical, but instead of singing, the characters fight — they still have soundtracks that convey the emotions of the scene, but express themselves and resolve conflicts via juggles and 64-hit combos and leveling up rather than in singing.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World will likely even out or turn a profit, given the chance that it will develop a strong record of DVD sales and home-release viewing.
If you read this blog, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is probably for you. I enjoyed the hell out of it, and plan to see it at least once more in theatres, delving deeper into the thickly-laid references.