Blown-out details give “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” its staying power

Edgar Wright’s most frenetic film screens the night of August 14 at Memorial Union Terrace.
Scott Pilgrim throws a red Rickenbacker bass to the right side of the image. He's wearing a yellow-orange Plumtree t-shirt. Stage lights can be seen behind him, as well as his band's drummer.
Scott Pilgrim throws his bass offstage in preparation for a fight.

Edgar Wright’s most frenetic film screens the night of August 14 at Memorial Union Terrace.

Following the breakout success of Shaun Of The Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), filmmaker Edgar Wright carved out a comfortable niche, lending an adept touch to high-energy films driven by referential parody. And then in 2010, Wright tweaked the formula with what is, arguably, his most original film: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.

While Wright’s love for a rolodex of reference points came across in his prior “rom-zom-com” and buddy cop parodies, they were still cloaked in layers of irony. Scott Pilgrim strips away some of the bite evident in Wright’s prior works to communicate a genuine fondness that comes across as more unguarded. A love letter to punk music, video games, comic books, and the frequently hyperactive, eye-catching aesthetics that bridge those mediums, Scott Pilgrim is an unapologetically brash film. It’s also one that authentically celebrates a great deal of the things in my life that have become integral to not just my identity, but many of the people around me.

Scott Pilgrim focuses primarily on its titular character (portrayed with deadpan panache by Michael Cera), who plays bass in the blown-out indie-punk band Sex Bob-Omb. The film tracks Pilgrim’s romantic shortcomings and excursions in inquisitive detail, offering some pangs of harsh judgment along the way (as various characters in the film make explicitly clear: dating a high schooler as a 22-year-old is not cool). Ramona Flowers (an inimitably aloof Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is Pilgrim’s love interest, who ultimately upends his life and gives the film its central plot: Pilgrim must battle Ramona’s seven evil exes in order for the two of them to date. And while doing this, he must help Sex Bob-Omb navigate a high-profile and increasingly perilous Battle of the Bands contest.

It’s a patently absurd premise—one initially concocted by Bryan Lee O’Malley, who wrote the graphic novel series the film’s adapted from—that Wright memorably colors through his direction and an embarrassment of casting riches. Brie Larson, Jason Schwartzman, Kieran Culkin, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick, Mark Webber, Allison Pill, Brandon Routh, Mae Whitman, Ellen Wong, and Satya Bhabha all make the most of their respective screen time.

When people talk of their love for Scott Pilgrim, it’s rarely because of their interest in the plot. Instead, it’s their love of the small details: video game sound and visual effects being used as comedic punctuations, the distinct colorization, the manically quick cuts, or any number of the film’s other identifiable quirks. A film gaining its reputation and popularity through aesthetics is not a novel phenomenon—just look at the box office returns of the Avatar franchise—but something about the niche focus of Scott Pilgrim does make it stand out in that regard.

A small handful of films over the years have fallen short in their attempts at depiction or emulation of the particular brand of blown-out indie-punk that anchors Scott Pilgrim. Occasionally, a smaller independent film like Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton’s Brothers Of The Head (2005) will knock it out of the park. And the handling of that specific depiction is something that has become increasingly interesting to me over time.

Like Pilgrim, I also play bass in a blown-out indie-punk band. And the reason I was initially drawn to Madison was because of the bands operating here around the time of Scott Pilgrim‘s release who also fit that mold. Sex Bob-Omb would have fit in comfortably with those acts, so the film holds an element of nostalgic sentiment for a certain era of Madison music. There’s something ineffable about the lower-fi production aesthetic that I’ve been innately drawn to over time, possibly connected to the inherent urgency and scrappy self-determination it often points towards. Scott Pilgrim understands these qualities and how to represent them to a disorienting degree.

Whether that’s through the comic book-style action lines of the film’s invigorating intro credit sequence, the astigmatic lens flares shot through bigger concert moments, or the subtle camera lurches of later Sex Bob-Omb performances, the film taps into something oddly mesmeric. One of Scott Pilgrim‘s strongest selling points is one that isn’t often brought up: the film makes viewers feel like they’re in the band. The performance sequences, from that vantage point, are among the best I’ve ever seen from a narrative film. I’ve seen Scott Pilgrim more times than I can count at this point, and it’s still extraordinarily easy to feel and anticipate the minutiae of the music being performed in those scenes; how deafening a ride cymbal would be, sensing the ripple effect of the faint thrust of power surging from the amps at the back of the stage, feeling the low-end pulsating through the stomach, or sensing the vibrations of rickety wooden floor on the verge of caving in. It’s an astonishing achievement.

Scott Pilgrim is also somewhat of a love letter to the city of Toronto. When I visited Canada’s largest city in 2014, I made a point of visiting a lot of the film’s physical landmarks, anticipating that one day they’d be gone. A few of those locations have either been demolished, relocated, or are no longer accessible. There’s a transitory element ingrained in of-the-moment films like Scott Pilgrim, which can make them seem larger than life in the moment but archaic in retrospect; time capsules that tug at the edges of familiarity. In the case of Scott Pilgrim, much of what it celebrates is still present today, to varying degrees of popularity. Comic-book culture is more accessible and prevalent than ever, thanks to the inexplicably overwhelming popularity of superhero films. Punk’s subgenres are experiencing their usual ebbs and flows within the zeitgeist. And video games are firmly embedded into mainstream interests.

Maybe the film’s commitment to celebrating its creators’ interests has been what’s allowed it to stick in the collective consciousness. Maybe that staying power is a testament to Wright’s vision. Maybe it’s the film’s cast, which boasts a lot of names that are significantly more bankable now than they were when the film first premiered. I’d like to believe it’s a little bit of all of those things, inclusive of an extraordinarily deep understanding of the film’s aesthetic makeup. All I know is that, even though I’ve seen it tons of times, I’d happily see it again, knowing that to some degree, I’ll feel seen in return. See Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World again or for the first time when it screens on Monday, August 14, at 9 p.m., at the Memorial Union Terrace.

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