This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.
I am 33 years old. I grew up on the NES, and yes, I remember Clash and Demonhead and Crash and the Boys Street Challenge. Those were my games; that was my generation, and I walked out of Scott Pilgrim unimpressed. I feel it's important to explain why, since the gamer community seems to be going hysterical about the film, even as it's failing at the box office, putting it on the fast-track to cult status before it even hits DVD.
There doesn't seem to be much room to be down with gaming but not down with the film. It's almost as if you have some cultural duty as a gamer to like the film, since it is one of the first films by a director who "gets" gaming culture. The problem for me is that Edgar Wright's SPACED, which he made with his Shaun of the Dead co-writer Simon Pegg and actress Jessica Hynes, and which he made over a decade ago, was a thousand times better than Scott Pilgrim as a look at gamer culture. A kind of dream-like mediation on what it meant to be a 20-something Londoner in the late 90s (during the height of the Playstation 1), it was more real, more clever, more complex, and far more intelligent. By comparison Scott Pilgrim is a pantomime cartoon that confuses caricature with character in ways that seem below Wright's directorial talents.
Sometimes I wonder if Sin City "ruined" comic book movies, since nowadays people seem to have this idea that the proper way to adapt a comic is to simply mimick it on-screen in a grotesque combination of special effects and slavish, puppet-like acting. Although certain actors in Scott Pilgrim handle this better than others (notably Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jason Schwartzman, who aren't "real" but seem to find the right note for their stylized performances) it largely results in a kind of wacky, sustained phoniness, as if you're watching a sketch comedy stretched out to the tedious length of a feature film. I am not against stylized craziness, but content of this sort needs a strong undercurrent of emotional and psychological reality to ground it, to make all its flights of fancy feel like poetic expressions of something real, and not just empty exercises in pop-cultural chic. One way to achieve this is for the actors to behave naturalistically, to provide a counter-balance to the unreal style. Suspension of disbelief works when we believe actors believe what's happening to them, and by and large the performances in Scott Pilgrim are way too telegraphed, way too controlled, to achieve that.
If you compare Scott Pilgrim to Wright's previous work, you'll see this is a big difference. SPACED, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz all are about the mundane reality of real people colliding with fantastic genre worlds, and in each case the acting and dialog provides a clear counterpoint to the highly stylized world of the genre. The thing that makes Hot Fuzz not a Michael Bay movie is its deliberately down-to-Earth (though still comedic) acting and dialog, and the reason Shaun of the Dead is, in a lot of ways, superior to the George Romero films that inspired it is because the level of dialog and acting is far above Romero's ever was, making the characters frankly a lot more believable. SPACED, which is more about the imagined worlds of genres (including those of movies, science fiction, and videogames) colliding with the everyday life of Londoners, has a similarly dialectic approach to fantasy vs. reality. The fantasy largely comes from Wright's direction, in his stylistic references to Quentin Tarantino, Sam Raimi, and various Playstation games. The reality comes from Pegg and Hynes, who wrote the dialog and play the two leads. Though Hynes wasn't a writer on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Pegg was still a co-writer. Scott Pilgrim marks the first time Wright has worked without Pegg as a grounding influence, and one has to wonder if the monotonous fantasy overload of Pilgrim isn't the direct result.
I don't mind if other people like Scott Pilgrim. I'll admit the film is clever in certain ways, and I am not above feeling a small thrill at some of the references. Still, I must stress the thrill is rather small, and I would never confuse this kind of thrill for nuanced writing, acting, or storytelling. Gamers are still, in certain ways, a marginalized culture, largely misunderstood by the mainstream, which is why we often embrace whatever meager representation comes down the Hollywood pipeline. But a movie isn't good just because it validates your culture, and I personally find my aesthetic sense of film is too strong to accept a movie like Scott Pilgrim based purely on such criteria.
You know what would be better than seeing a Clash and Demonhead reference in a movie? Seeing one in a good movie, the sort which I know Wright is capable of, and which I hope he'll do again if given the opportunity. Until then I'll still be recommending SPACED to anyone who wants to know what being a gamer is like.