Scott Pilgrim vs. the World turns seven this year, and while normally that would seem like an odd anniversary to celebrate, for Scott Pilgrim it’s perfect: one year for each member in the League of Evil Exes. That, coupled with the upcoming release of Edgar Wright’s newest movie Baby Driver, make it the perfect time to look back at one of the most underrated films of the last decade.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is like a vegan shepherd’s pie (read the book sometime) made up of several delicious pop-culture morsels – Comics! (yum) Anime! (mmmm), Indie music! (slurp) – but it’s the video games that really give the dish its flavor. From the moment that the movie starts and a pixelated rendition of the Universal logo appears on screen accompanied by a chiptune version of the studio theme, it’s apparent that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the work of a director that would feel just as at home discussing the works of Shigeru Miyamoto as he would Martin Scorsese.
Despite all its references and homages however, Scott Pilgrim is not a movie about video games. In much the same way that Alex Cox gave Repo Man a very punk rock vibe despite punk rock not featuring into the plot whatsoever, Edgar Wright borrows from the electronic gaming culture in which he spent his formative years, and conjures up an atmosphere that evokes video games without directly involving them in the narrative.
If Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino represent the first generation of directors to educate themselves at the local video store rather than a traditional film school, then Edgar Wright represents a slightly younger generation with a penchant for supplementing their VHS tutelage with the occasional field trip to the arcade. Wright – born a mere three years before the release of the Atari VCS – has never lived in a world without video games, and it’s easy to see the influence that they’ve had on his work. Starting with Spaced (Wright’s 1999 slacker sitcom featuring future collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) and its Resident Evil 2 inspired zombie killathon, the director has always worn his love of video games on his sleeve.
Edgar Wright isn’t the first filmmaker to put references to video games in his work, but he is the first to make it feel genuine. Having Janine mention Super Mario in Ghostbusters II just reeks of “I know the kids nowadays like their Nintendo,” whereas when Shaun and Pete reminisce about staying up all night drinking Apple Schnapps and playing Tekken 2 in Shaun of the Dead, it feels like a line written by, well, someone who has probably at some point stayed up with friends all night drinking and playing Tekken 2. One is pandering, while the other comes from a place of genuine affection. If you’re not sure which is which, go ask your grandmother if she’s ever heard of Mario, then ask her if she’s ever heard of ‘Tekken,’ and see what her answer is.
It’s that sincere affection for the games of his youth that made Edgar Wright the perfect person to adapt the Scott Pilgrim series for the big screen. For any other director the movie would have been a mere job, but for Wright it was a labor of love. That’s not to say that someone else couldn’t have made a competent movie out of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s millennial slacker masterpiece (slacksterpiece?), but only Wright would go through the trouble of personally writing a letter to Nintendo and begging for permission to use a five second music cue from The Legend of Zelda because – as he put it – it was “the nursery rhyme of this generation.”
To be fair, many of the video game references in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World come from the source material. The band names like Crash and the Boys and The Clash at Demonhead (both based on the titles of NES games), the enemies that explode into coins a la River City Ransom, and even Scott’s “extra life” were all present in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s original graphic novel. However, while O’Malley can draw Scott proudly declaring to his band mates that he “learned the bassline to Final Fantasy II,” he can’t create that palpable feeling of nostalgia that people of a certain age experience when Michael Cera actually starts playing the music. Indeed, there are many things in the film that Wright does that just wouldn’t work as well on the page – things like having the swears coming out of Julie’s mouth sound like a dying Atari, and the way Gideon glows red and his head pixelates and changes sizes once he’s taken enough damage.
Speaking of damage, any look back at Scott Pilgrim would be remiss if it didn’t mention the fight scenes, and that’s where Wright really shines. The centerpieces of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World are the battles between Scott and the League of Evil Exes, and Wright makes them feel like they are ripped straight out of Street Fighter, complete with a big “VS” on the screen between combatants, and a disembodied voice that announces combos before shouting “KO!” at the end of each brawl. The end battle at the Chaos Theater even feels like the last level of a Capcom beat’em up, complete with a gauntlet of henchmen and a final boss.
In the end, Edgar Wright manages to distill his 8-bit memories into an essence that imbues Scott Pilgrim vs. the World with a sense of retro-game nostalgia that a pandering dumpster fire like Pixels could never achieve in its wildest dreams. It might not be Edgar Wright’s best film (just kidding, it definitely is), but it’s certainly his most visually striking, and the one that best shows the level of influence a childhood spent blowing on cartridges can have one one’s art.