A nerd fantasia designed for an audience obsessed with comics and video games, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a crushing disappointment.
Adapted from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic series, it is the story of a Toronto bass playing geek (Michael Cera) who falls in love with a delivery girl named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), only to realise he must fight her ‘seven evil exes’.
What follows is an action-comedy hybrid in which director Edgar Wright throws a barrage of visual artillery at the screen in order to recreate the look of comics and computer games.
This means when characters ring a doorbell we actually see the sound visualised with a “Ding-Dong” and when characters are punched we see “Ka-Pows!” like the 1960s Batman series.
A bewildering array of techniques are employed throughout: split-screen, aspect-ratio shifts, zooms, CGI, animation, super-quick edits, Manga-styled transitions and laugh tracks are just some of the tools used in dramatising Pilgrim’s journey.
In some ways the ambition of the film is admirable. Like The Wachowski Bros’ Speed Racer (2008) it tries to do something genuinely different with the visual language of cinema.
But also like that film, it remains a hollow exercise in cinematic technique that contains little emotion or charm beneath the endless layers of visual distraction.
Compared to Wright’s previous work, the central characters are surprisingly hard to care for. The protagonist is a dull, self-obsessed narcissist, whilst the girl he is fighting for doesn’t seem to care all that much. As for the exes they are just levels to be completed.
Michael Cera now seems entombed in the nebbish screen persona audiences first saw in Superbad (2007). That splendid breakout performance has now become a depressing template for his subsequent career.
The exes he does battle with (including Chris Evans, Brandon Routh and Jason Schwartzman) are little more than one-note jokes and the whole narrative feels like TV episodes stitched together to resemble a feature.
Wright has previously managed to combine visual flair with genuine heart. With the TV series Spaced (1999-2001) and his last two films, Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), he managed a great balance of humour, brains and genuine emotion.
This film has many surface similarities with Spaced: twenty-something slackers, a frenetic editing and shooting style, numerous pop culture references and a slow-burning romance.
But in Scott Pilgrim the techniques are turned up to such a degree that they squeeze the life out of the core story and it is hard to care about anything on screen.
The one noticeable improvement over Wright’s previous films is the clarity and crispness of Bill Pope’s cinematography, but that only comes across in the more realistic scenes, which are frequently intercut with a barrage of hyperactive effects.
Certain sequences feel like a visual dirty bomb has gone off in the cinema. But for what? A romantic story with little romance and characters on screen who are almost literally cartoons?
Part of the wider problem is that the whole film is played as one long, fantastical joke, but there isn’t really much at stake when humans explode into coins and produce flaming swords from their chests.
All the gaming references are a little misleading. Although it certainly tries to co-opt the feel of them, games have rules and logic, two qualities which are mostly absent here.
Are the fights on which the film hinges meant to be extended fantasies? It isn’t really clear, although by the middle of the film I no longer cared as nothing is ever really at stake.
The notion that the ‘evil exes’ are some of metaphor for the baggage of previous relationships is never really developed amidst all the glib chaos going on.
The whole film has seemingly been designed to play like a trailer: fast paced to the point of blurry incoherence and packed with moments to excite an expectant fan base.
Mainstream Hollywood needs directors like Edgar Wright as he is a genuinely fresh and talented voice, but Scott Pilgrim vs The World is major misstep.
There are some who will lap up the deep layers of sarcasm, Nintendo-nostalgia and cooler-than-cool vibes in this film.
A loyal, cult-like audience may feel it was made for them – in many ways, it was – but for those who aren’t blinded by the aching hipness of it all, it is likely to prove a shallow exercise in geeky nonsense.