Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is frenetic, funny, flashy, and overall just a really solid bundle of entertainment. But I kind of wish I hadn’t read the books before I saw it.
Non-spoiler review: Mainly, I was expecting more gravity from the characters than what ultimately appeared. When the Scott Pilgrim series kicks off, its characters are concerned with toys and surface luxuries and define their lives by those accoutrements. Scott’s identity is so tied to outside culture, in fact, that video game tropes show up impossibly in his actual life. The books begin to cast this off about halfway through the series and both Scott and Ramona are forced to take their relationship seriously while dealing with the momentum of their past. (Basically, the duels.) This growing sense of maturity is a big part of why the series functions as a whole and engaging story.
The movie has a hard time weaving this into the story, although it knows this and does the best that it can. However, this leads to an odd turn in the final act that plays into, or seems informed by, this deficiency. This turn isn’t present in the books but the thing is…I’m not sure I’d consider it odd if I didn’t already know how the books end.
Tor.com’s own Megan Messinger will have a newcomer perspective for us on Monday, but for now, I’ll be elaborating on the movie (with BIG SPOILERS for both movie and book!) below the cut.
I’ll come back to the issue above, but first I want to heap praises on this movie, its pacing, its set pieces, and its amazing cast. There are a plethora of scene stealers in this film, the foremost of whom is Ellen Wong, who takes the second-tier role of Knives Chau and makes it enormous. She plays the hyperactive 17-year-old Knives to an absolute hilt and her performance is both unsettling and mesmerizing without going overboard into camp or parody.
Broadway veteran Alison Pill disappears into the role of Kim Pine completely that I have a hard time believing that Kim isn’t a real person playing herself. Kieran Culkin is top notch as Scott’s gay bedmate/big brother figure Wallace Wells. Anna Kendrick is surprisingly engaging as the two-note Stacey Pilgrim, managing to be both touching and terrible to Scott at every opportunity. Most everyone else only gets to play a broad character type, but they’re still fun to watch. In fact, think I liked the characters of Envy Adams and Julie Powers more after seeing this movie.
The bands in this movie sound just as you might have imagined them in the comic, which is no small feat to accomplish. Envy is a golden-voiced sex idol dripping with indie glamour (think Jenny Lewis on her way to becoming Lady Gaga). Sex Bob-Omb is a distortion-fueled pop mess, fueled by amateur lyrics and a lot of tight, manic energy. Scott’s “Ramona” song is achingly sweet and touches a character note that Michael Cera doesn’t often get to play as Scott, but which still comes off as perfectly natural. The soundtrack choices themselves are excellent, as well. (Sharp ears will pick out “Ramona” off of Frank Black’s first solo record, an album that I have just now realized is as old as the character of Knives.)
The fights in the movie are very larger-than-life and engaging, although there’s a confusing disconnect between the powers that the Evil Exes possess and Scott’s inherent ability to outfight them. No one ever seems surprised that Scott can win, as if it should be obvious that this poor, skinny slacker can take a tremendous beating then execute flawless swordplay. I realize the fights are half-metaphorical, but you still don’t really get the sense that Scott could lose, or that he is actually fighting for something. He just seems annoyed.
The filmmakers use the Evil Ex confrontations as an opportunity to flesh out Ramona’s history, but this is what serves as character development for her, and it’s where the story starts to wane. To be fair, the books have this problem, too, and the filmmakers seem aware that this is a shortcoming, but the histories come off as a patch-up effort after the fact.
This problem culminates in the fake-out ending, which is where the movie unsettles me the most. During their final battle, Scott and Gideon fight over the possession of Ramona, with her sitting on the sidelines. Knives Chau then shows up, be-scarved and wielding her sai, to fight Ramona for hurting Scott. Ramona and Knives fight. Scott dies and Ramona reveals to him the extent of Gideon’s control over her. Then eventually Knives and Scott team-up to take out Gideon, with Scott paying service to the fact that he was a jerk to both women, but without having to actually apologize or experience the consequences of his actions. When the fight is over, it is Knives and Scott who have done most of the gruntwork.
How did Ramona get shoved out of her own story? Here, she is reduced to the status of a prize for two men to fight over, rather than an individual with her own past and her own shortcomings. In the book series and for most of the movie, Ramona is visibly trying to become a better person and needs Scott to remind her of what that ideal is like. Scott’s character arc is the very same, although he takes a good deal longer to realize it. The movie seems to chuck this out for its ending, pairing a wet-behind-the-ears Scott back up with Knives and running with that to the point where I was genuinely afraid that this was how the movie was going to end. In fact, the only reason it doesn’t is because the filmmakers have Knives tell Scott to run after Ramona. (The theater started bringing its lights up at this point, too, just to scare me.)
Reportedly, the books contain an ending that is changed from the outline Bryan Lee O’Malley gave the filmmakers and I wonder if this is because O’Malley came to the above realization. In the books, Gideon is only beaten when Ramona and Scott are working together.
But, would I be so unsettled by this if I hadn’t read the books? The movie’s ending and Scott bonding further with Knives makes more sense if you see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World as the beginning of his maturation, and not a culmination of a long process. But I’m not able to fully immerse myself in that perspective, so I came away from the film entertained but a bit confused.
Chris Greenland thinks his League of Evil Exes wouldn’t be Evil so much as they would be Leading Stable and Happy Lives.