Edgar Wright is better known as the director of parodies, namely the indie hit Shaun of the Dead (taking on the apocalyptic zombie genre) and the acclaimed Hot Fuzz (a buddy-cop film set in a quaint English countryside). Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is better known as one of most exclusive of all inside jokes: a comic book riffing on memes and cliches from comic books, video games, and the world of geekdom. When brought together, the product is shown to be one of the best movies of the year and certainly one of the most inventive movies of the decade.
The plot is hardly worth mentioning. Michael Cera recaps his stock character -- the charmingly awkward adolescent, this time stuck in the body and life of a young adult -- who is jolted out of his banal existence by the discovery of his One True Love, namely Ramona. This love motivates him out of his stupor, and he discovers his own self-worth while overcoming the obstacles to win her hand and her heart. This is, in short, Every Romantic Comedy Ever Made.
It is the setting that defines this movie. Scott Pilgrim lives in a very much otherworldly version of Toronto, Ontario. It is a city in which telephones project their "RIIIIIIIIIIIIING"s across the room, in which hitting your head on a lamp-pole causes the word "Thunk" to appear in the twilight mist, and in which a twitterpated (look it up) teenage girl coming to terms with her emotions breaths the word "LOVE" as a lavender mist around the object of her affection. It is also a city in which 20-plus jobless yet still endearing losers in a failing rock band can suddenly develop superpowers and best in mortal combat Indian mystics (dancing with demons in Bollywood style), lesbian ninjas with metallic whips, and cocky actor-jocks on skateboards.
If this description makes the movie sound like something that could have easily been a trainwreck... you have no idea. This movie could have been so bad, it could have made the script of Battlefield Earth look like Holy Writ. Anthropologists from future millennia would have looked upon the ruins of America, and analyzed this movie in scholarly papers as a disaster comparable to the eruption of Vesuvius. It could have been the nuclear weapon of theatrical bombs.
Yet, miraculously, it was not. It doesn't always stay on the straight and narrow, but it is consistently brilliant enough that even those occasional missteps don't seem so bad. It is the sheer quantity and frequency of invention that preserves this movie. On the rare occasion that an image is repeated (the "RIIIIIIING" of the telephones comes to mind), it is almost grimace-worthy. But repeated images are rare. By limiting every image, every hilarious reference to another source of geek revelry, to a single laugh-out-loud use, it preserves the magic of the city and the cinema.
From the first moment -- a MIDI rendition of the Universal theme -- to the climactic battle between Scott Pilgrim and his Bizarro twin, this movie never ceases to dazzle and surprise. In the rare moments when I felt I had some idea of what was around the corner, my expectations were consistently upended. This is not a movie I could spoil, nor a movie where spoilers are necessary.
The quantity of imagination on display, the sheer number of images paraded across the screen, the outlandish pace that makes hours feel brief... these are enough to confirm Scott Pilgrim, to my mind, as one of the most inventive movies I have ever seen. There really isn't much more to say beyond that. I was familiar enough with the references -- from the name of Scott's band, to the tendency of defeated villains to burst into coins-- to find virtually everything about this movie funny. Perhaps the humor is limited to my generation, but even so this is a movie that knows its audience very, very well.
Most stories are built and sustained on one or perhaps a handful of images -- a girl carrying her soul in her hands, or a faun carrying packages beneath a lamppost in a snowy wood, to use two examples I recently cited. This movie doubles, trebles, quadruples that expected yield, harvesting images like grain then tossing them away like chaff. It was an experience I wish more people could enjoy, and an experience I would hope to repeat many times.