So my parents asked if Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was any good, and I said, "Oh yeah, it's one of the best movies I've seen in years ... possibly ever." And they said, "So should we go see it?" and I was like, "Oh, I don't know. I predict you'll find it fairly inexplicable." I say this based on them not getting or liking various off-kilter films such as Donnie Darko or Napolean Dynamite that inspire rabid followings among young audiences, and the fact that Scott Pilgrim in particular will be enjoyed more depending on how much affection you have for video games, graphic novels, alternative rock bands, and 20-something slackers. (When I saw it, I swear there wasn't a solid minute that passed in which the audience wasn't laughing/cheering/orgasming, but that's a pretty young hip crowd on Friday night in Manhattan.)
But my parents still want to see it, because they want to go see something and there just haven't been many good movies this summer, so they asked if I could post some sort of "Geezer's Guide to Scott Pilgrim." They were also talking about maybe taking my grandma.
Okay, this is going to take a while.
The first thing you have to understand is that Scott Pilgrim fights people, and this makes no literal sense. There's no logical explanation for why this scrawny kid is a martial arts master -- no, I doubt he spends all day at the dojo. It's sort of like in a musical when everyone just starts singing for no reason, and you just have to accept that a bunch of gang kids can all carry a tune and execute a perfectly choreographed dance number. It's a storytelling tool that creates a heightened emotional effect. And the fighting in Scott Pilgrim feels
right because it has metaphorical resonance. When you're dating someone, something you have to grapple with and overcome are your feelings about the fact that the person you're dating dated other people before you -- people you may not think much of (in which case it makes you insecure about the person you're with) or people you're afraid you'll never measure up to (in which case it makes you insecure about yourself). You wonder if the person you're dating still has feelings for any of these exes, and whether they'll get back together if given half a chance. Even if you never even meet any of these exes, they're kind of like ghosts who haunt every relationship. Scott Pilgrim
takes this universal emotional experience and literalizes it, with Scott having to literally battle all of the exes. If it helps, conceptualize the movie as being how Scott pictures his life in his over-active imagination -- an imagination colored by his obsession with music, graphic novels, and video games. Of course
the confrontations are epic -- that's exactly how it feels. Of course
he's a hero -- we're all the hero of our own lives. And of course
he's a martial arts master -- in emotional terms he possesses all the tools he needs to prevail. (I think it's better not
to view the movie as something that Scott's just imagining, but rather to just accept that the movie takes place in a world that's completely real and that functions according to its own skewed logic, but that's an imaginative leap a lot of people seem unwilling/unable to make.)
Once you get that the fights are literal events laden with metaphorical resonance, the next thing you have to understand is that they're conveyed using the visual vocabulary of video games and graphic novels, most obviously "fighting games" like Street Fighter
, Mortal Kombat
, or Soul Calibur
, in which two players stand at the same arcade machine, each control one character, and attempt to beat the snot out of each other:
A key component of such games is "combos." You only need to press one or two buttons in order to execute the basic punches and kicks, but to prevail against tougher opponents you have to start memorizing long combinations of buttons. Stringing together such sequences can enable you to strike your opponent over and over without interruption, quickly draining away their health and eventually causing them to be knocked out (KO'd).
When Scott strikes a death blow against an opponent, that person explodes in a shower of coins:
When you're playing a video game, it's fun to get constant rewards, and usually the only assets in the game are health, wealth, and points, and game designers want to provide a steady stream of all three to keep players hooked. This leads to the nonsensical but extremely common convention of the player acquiring coins from killing just about any monster, even ones you wouldn't necessarily expect to be keeping much money on their persons, such as rats or skeletons. Especially in older games with simpler graphics, often an enemy you killed would simply blink out of existence, leaving behind a coin, which is what the movie is riffing on here.
There are other types of video games in which you don't literally fight your opponent, but you compete at some virtual task, such as dancing or playing the guitar. There's a popular game called Guitar Hero
where the game plays a song and then two players compete to see who can play the notes more accurately. In a real world "battle of the bands," one act would play and then the other. In Scott Pilgrim
, it's more like in a video game, with the musicians both playing at the same time:
There are also games where players control a virtual skateboarder. In the world of skateboarding, one common trick is "grinding" -- jumping the board up onto a curb or railing and sliding along it:
In skateboarding video games, you would press some buttons to make your character execute a grind, and then you would have to keep hitting particular buttons in sequence to maintain the grind, and the longer you kept up the proper button-pushing rhythm, the longer you would keep doing the trick and collecting points. Video games often feature gigantic, exaggerated skateboard parks and death-defying tricks far beyond what would be possible in real life, and the Scott Pilgrim
movie plays off of this.
One of the ex-boyfriends in the movie is a vegan. Strict vegans don't eat meat or consume any animal products. There are also less strict vegans, such as "lacto-ovo" vegans, who make exceptions and eat milk and eggs. Keeping vegan requires enormous discipline, and some vegans can have a smug, morally superior attitude. The Scott Pilgrim
movie pokes fun at this. In this universe, keeping vegan gives one incredible superpowers, so that the attributes match the attitude:
In many video games, the player has multiple "lives." That is, if the character in the game dies, their number of "lives" is reduced by one and the character starts over from a point in the game shortly before they died. When Scott collects a "1UP," the audience is expected to understand that he's now got an extra life, and will not die permanently if he's killed.
(A funny novelty T-shirt I saw at Venice Beach once reads, "Video games ruined my life. Fortunately I have two extra lives.")
In many video games, your character becomes more powerful throughout the game, both because you collect more powerful inventory items and also because your character's attributes -- such as "strength," "magic," and "health" -- increase with experience. Often the character must earn a certain number of "experience points" in order to reach the next level, and when the character "levels up" (e.g. goes from Level 5 to Level 6), their attributes increase accordingly. This also happens in the Scott Pilgrim
movie, and again it has metaphorical resonance -- when Scott grows as a person and learns important life lessons, he simultaneously "levels up" and becomes a more formidable fighter:
In many video games, your ultimate challenge is to battle some dark, twisted version of yourself. One well-known example is from the second Legend of Zelda
game, in which your shadow suddenly leaps out from behind you and attacks:
In the Scott Pilgrim
movie, when Scott is confronted by the sinister-looking "Nega Scott," it's playing off this common trope.
Now go see the movie.