I remember posters and trailers for Scott Pilgrim vs The World back in 2010. Also at the time, I was in a strong indie music phase. I grew my hair long and listened to more Blur and Radiohead than can be considered healthy. Regrettably, I snubbed this film because from what I knew I thought the plot was ludicrous. No one in my circles suggested going to see it. Eventually the film left cinemas and then left my memory, returning just as suddenly to the ether whence it came.
Then it was 2021. I was keen to watch films rooted in the "alternative" culture. This one was listed in the IMDB top films of 2010 and I immediately remembered when I saw those posters. I soon picked up the Blu Ray. What I found surpassed my expectations from the opening credits until the final scene. I came away forlorn because this film would've been one to define that phase of my life, but I didn't despair for long as I reflected and gradually realised the messages in the film.
The film was directed by Edgar Wright of Cornetto Trilogy fame. It was filmed in Toronto, giving a welcome break from the usual US-centric settings. It stars Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as well as one of Macaulay Culkin's brothers. Beck contributed to the soundtrack. With all these elements in place, there was no way it could fail.
THE PLOT, BRIEFLY
The film is set in the early 2000s. It tells the story of Scott Pilgrim, a 22 year old layabout who plays bass for an unrecognised garage band. He lives with his friend and flatmate Wallace. Scott is initially dating a girl named Knives, but becomes lovestruck by another girl named Ramona Flowers. He meets this girl in his dreams before finding her in real life.
As he becomes more involved with Ramona, her seven former love interests return to her life and challenge him to musical duels. He must win these to gain her love. This culminates with a grand final battle with one named Gideon.
There are a certain sort who are drawn to anything alternative. These renegades never found their place in the mainstream, or more accurately they were never accepted by those who follow it. Certain tastes and preferences are more prevalent among the crowd, and this film was evidently made to tap into them. It long predates Geek Chic and thankfully has been overlooked by its adherents.
What first struck me was that each of the main characters possess superhuman fighting abilities. Yet the film never reveals how these abilities were acquired. While one could dismiss this as unrealistic, it actually plays into the video game theme of the film. Anyone who grew up playing video games has daydreamed how he would overcome real-life problems if only life was like a game and could lend him a power-up. Or the wish that we could hit the reset button and try playing life with a different character.
Thus, while unexplained superhuman abilities normally sully my enjoyment of films, here it is forgiven. In this film it has a reasonable purpose. Later it will become evident that these abilities are actually visualisations of an internal struggle. They serve as an aesthetic storytelling device.
Wisely, the film avoids 'gamer geek' tropes. I can think of other films that have attempted to launch into the stratosphere of Internet and gaming culture, but only achieved woeful cringe. In Scott Pilgrim, the references are instead subtle and used only to reflect immediate experiences of the characters. Music from the original Legend of Zelda game is used when Scott begins his quest and when he hits a low point. 'CONTINUE?' prompts from old arcade games reflect his doubt and eventual breakup with Knives. Classic Mac OS system sounds appear when useful information appears on the screen.
I imagine temptation to plaster the film with these must've come, but it was quickly batted aside and the film continues to focus on what matters.
PSYCHOLOGY AND RELATIONSHIPS
I expected the film to be a straightforward 'boy is besotted with girl' film, where the boy would spend the entire film fighting to gain her affection. Yet, we see Scott and Ramona become an item very fast. The film isn't here to retread that path; it has better things to teach us. Also, some artistic licence must be granted because there is a limited running time for the film; I would wager that their relationship actually develops gradually in the source material that inspired the film.
Scott first meets Ramona in a dream, then when he meets her in the world. He initially falters with nerves but pulls himself up. Ramona forgives this, because Scott shows an ability to improve and picks himself up for the second time they meet. Scott doesn't spend the whole film mumbling and becomes more confident as he spends more time with her. This shows personal strength and growth, which she values. Scott and her connect personally after long conversations in the park.
The personal growth of the characters is in moments like these, which is how this film reaches the soul. While Scott, Ramona and Knives have immense physical abilities, their vulnerabilities and challenges are where they hinder us the most: the soul. By that we mean wrestling with the inner self. This means fighting lies we believe about ourselves that hold us back from what we want, even if what we want is moral. And that battle is fought inside both Scott and Ramona.
At first glance it isn't obvious, but Scott and Ramona are like each other. They've been damaged by previous relationships and they aren't certain what they want now. They are just 'going with it'. However they gradually come to realise what they want is each other. Both of them are bound to go on separate personal journeys to get there.
The film's main moral is how hard it is to outgrow a bad past. Arguably that makes it more Ramona's story. Though Scott is the protagonist it is figures from her past who attack him. Yet she is very reactive throughout the film, mostly observing and responding to others, never taking the lead. This certainly fits with her character, but perhaps this is where the film could've been stronger.
There is a practical reason why they may have downplayed her prominence - cramming too much into the film's running time would've spoiled the pacing in an already intense film. Besides, I believe she is given a better lead role in the original source material.
Ramona is cautiously curious and quite self-erasive. Scott uses two words in the film to describe her that show he realises this: He says she is aloof and spontaneous. Anyone on the run from a bad past has learnt to run just to survive. She's spontaneous because of her naturally curious personality, but due to her past she can't settle, she is still running and this is why she jumps from one thing to the next.
This is even illustrated when she is introduced to us: she skates because she is accustomed to moving fast. She's not tethering herself for anyone because she is still on the run. Yet, because she made the choice to move away she has a very clear intention to better herself. She is not persuaded that she is worthless.
She is less open with her feelings than Knives, but she clearly cares for Scott. They enjoy each other's company. She smiles at him when she really means it. She is worried when she sees any threat to Scott. This conveys that she isn't selfish; she has empathy for other people but is very guarded when showing it.
The name given to the antagonists is The League of the Seven, this means they united and directly aligned against her. They have a clear and agreed purpose: her demise.
Yet though Ramona moved to a new location, her soul is still tormented. The seven exes still are present with her. They manifest and try to take something good from her, that is a potential relationship with a better man. This gives her great personal conflict: are they truly right? Does Scott deserve better than her? Is she trapped on this downward spiral forever?
The Seven Exes are a personification of the struggles faced by a trauma survivor who is escaping her past. Those who hurt her want her to remain that way. Even long after we leave abusive people, the marks they leave on our soul run deeply. This is because the detractors want us to fail to get anything better; if we succeed this will prove them wrong. Unexamined, we will become a little more like them every day. This way the battle is internal to Ramona and Scott must prove in her soul that he is better than them.
Not only that, but other people besmirch her when Scott asks others to describe her. No one speaks to her at the party until Scott does. Other people's treatment of her seem to confirm her worst wishes: that her evil exes are right, she is worthless and deserves what she had in life.
Thus, this is why Scott initially fails the final battle by saying 'I love you'. He only wins after he gains self-respect. This is when he becomes what Ramona actually admires in a man. He's fighting not simply for her, he's fighting the man who took something from him. This is whom she will love. This means he can provide the security she seeks. He now values himself because he has become stronger, he understands he needs no external validation and therefore can topple his foes. He now stands above them.
He isn't afraid to demonstrate this: he will now respond even more appropriately to threats against his interests. His self-actualisation is complete and he prevails in a grand final battle, but the real battle he won was against his doubts and detractors. This self-worth is what Ramona wants for herself and thus strongly admires in Scott. And his growth proves to her that it is possible to find a way out.
THE CLOSING SCENE
Ramona thinks Scott will choose Knives over her. This is even after all Scott has just overcome in pursuit of her. This is because Ramona was used to passing from boyfriend to boyfriend, never connecting emotionally, which has levelled her self-worth. She doesn't fight for him, or even try to argue. She's internalised this worthlessness and just wishes him well and walks away, demonstrating that she has a burrowed soul. Even in this crucial moment she doesn't show her true feelings for Scott.
The very last scene shows Scott calling her name and running to her. When he expresses his true feelings, she is delighted, perhaps even surprised with his choice. They walk off together through a mysterious door that's just appeared in front of them. This symbolises their heading into an unknown future, uncertain of what it may bring, but now certain of each other and their combined ability to face it together. What a journey indeed.
During the closing scene, Scott has a choice. Knives is very evidently enamoured with him. Ramona is resigned to fate and leaves him with what she believes is a done deal. But he chose Ramona. Why?
While warm and friendly, she's simply an imitator of the alternative culture Ramona represents. She copies Ramona's hair. She is very emotionally upfront, which charms the surface for a while, but actually is a means of compensating for a shallow personality. She had an upbringing that is respectable on the surface but gave her little identity outside of academic success; this is unfulfilling. So she became an imitator. She has yet done the necessary self-reflection to gain a true sense of self.
This is no condemnation of her, for in the film she is only 17 and yet to experience the responsibilities of living alone and therefore gain that stronger sense of self. These reasons against her are not entirely her fault, but nonetheless they provide the reasons why she is passed over.
She is indeed aloof, but as Scott has found there is much of her to explore once her trust is won; she was not using distance as a tool of manipulation, but survival. She is not just a pretty face, she is someone Scott sees he can face life with. She is very real; well travelled and developed emotionally even though she has had a bad past. She has escaped that bad past now that she has found Scott and they've finally won the affection and admiration of each other.
While she is not perfect, her hardship has produced virtue and depth, such qualities will grow as she makes better choices now she has found stability. She sees how Scott has grown and self-actualised, and now knows he is what she was seeking. Thus, this is why Scott and Ramona choose each other in the final scene.
AN ADDENDUM - Is Scott bad?
I have read this idea in various places, that 'Scott and Ramona are as bad as each other.' This isn't true.
It is true that Scott cheats on Knives and moves for Ramona before making it obvious that he was ending the relationship. Ramon was unimpressed to learn this - she believed his promise of commitment and expected better of him. Perhaps Scott was just like the others?
What sets him apart is his growth in virtue through the film; he has a conscience. By the end it eventually breaks through and then he says what needs to be said to everyone he wronged in the past. He has learnt to own his actions, both good and bad. This is illustrated as his 'second life'. Instead of wavering with what he wants and trying so hard to do what he thinks will please others, he instead speaks a truth that might make him uncomfortable in the moment. And the result is everyone including Knives and Kim is unburdened.
Contrast this with the Exes who never show any capacity for remorse or self-reflection, but instead wallowed in bitterness and wished to inflict their inner malaise upon Ramona. Good people aren't perfect but they have a conscience, and a lack of empathy is definitional of evil. This is what sets Scott apart from the Evil Exes.
These aren't just stock imagery mashed out of After Effects, these are as thoughtful and artistic as the rest of the film.
Consider the opening: The film immediately introduces itself with a long opening sequence. This hearkens back to classical films or anything by Tarantino. We see band practice in the centre of the shot and the room gradually expands. Hand drawn bolts fly from the amplifiers as they play. This gives the viewer a foretaste of the film's tone; I wish more films did this as well.
The visuals speak from the characters' personal emotional triumphs and struggles. The opening credits drive home the grandiosity of being in the presence of live music. The computer dialog boxes in Scott's share apartment show that his small part of the world isn't really his. The score multipliers that appear after each attacking move. These are intentionally included and give the movie tone, they compliment the character's emotional journey. They weren't loosely thrown in because someone's mate owns an animation studio and you owe him a favour.
You could say like every year's Marvel film this is a 'comic book film' but here the visuals are much more metaphors than 'super powers'. They illustrate the euphoria of being on stage, getting into a fight, skateboarding dangerously, confronting your greatest foe. They convey Scott's experiences to us visually, they aren't just there to dazzle and dissociate the audience.
The visuals during battle scenes
The battle scenes combine the visual forms of video games and lo-fi rock bands. The inclusion of video game styled battles are because Scott's battles are virtual and not physically against the Seven Exes. They are inside Ramona's head, so are more like a video game than a real fist fight. He must defeat foes in this realm that is "imaginary" but quite real to her.
The bombastic visuals that accompany the musical battle scenes are a metaphor for how music brings us to face something beyond, something bigger than ourselves. By being a musician one reaches this realm and then projects what he has seen down below. This is the work of the artist: to make the unconscious speak. To learn the truth and communicate it in his art. This is what Scott is doing as he battles with music.
There are exaggerated visuals accompanying battle scenes. The battles represent conflict between two sides' imagination of the world, they both strive to impress their view upon Ramona. The Evil Exes wish their vengeance and her diminishment, while Scott's is an effort to put a message into the art that shifts Ramona's perspective of herself, to raise her self-worth to a place where she can admire herself and then Scott. In her way are the lies her Evil Exes would have her believe, while Scott is trying to reach her with the truth.
Because they are overtly evil, by opposing them Scott aligns himself with the good. Yet he doesn't fully understand the conflict he is entering initially. As the end of the film reveals, Scott's message has as much of an effect on himself as it does Ramona.
He reaches into something bigger than himself, that is music. He fights for something bigger than his life: love, justice in righting wrongs, together these bring healing and strength.
There are a number of scenes with slight touches I liked.
- The girlfriends sitting on sofas just watching the band practice. Simple, down to earth believable moments like that in a film that has characters smash through walls without breaking a bone. Or perhaps I liked this scene because after a year of Covid Lockdowns I miss these simple things.
- When his erstwhile lover calls, we see Scott jumping through a window, then returning for his coat, then dashing hastily away. It was a cold day!
- The outrageous and ever-escalating bed share.
- Scott spends over an hour preparing dinner for Ramona. It happens to be Garlic bread, which was still appreciated for effort.
- Ramona's vast flavoured tea collection. If you know anyone like her, you know such a person is guaranteed to have one.
- The choice to set the film in Toronto. We see some very ordinary looking neighbourhoods, contrasted with the lively and varied music venues.
- The choice of a snowy evening for their first date. "Breaking the ice" - haha, very good.
Ten years ago I was in, or at least interested in that offbeat, alternative culture. Ten years later I am much more inquisitive of the deep motives that form character and behaviour.
Since the film is a message of the human struggle to heal from our past, I believe that is why it speaks so strongly to me. Watching it now and thinking of when it was originally shown, it bridges what have been two very formative times in my life. I'm waiting for that same mysterious door to appear so I can hand the DVD to my past self.
I expected this film to have a simple premise: Boy sees pretty girl, due to some curse he must defeat her seven erstwhile lovers, and finally at the end she falls for him. Yet the film gave so much more and resonated long after the ending credits. It speaks of the struggle to get to a better place and stay there, the struggle to believe that good people really want you. One could enjoy the visuals, the humour and the basic story at the surface, but the film has much to say for those who will listen.
Yes, its message isn't upfront. But all great works of art strike us deeply with their messages and we only gain the message after pondering. It requires self awareness and comparison with our own lives. This is why fiction isn't a waste of time. This is why Scott Pilgrim vs The World is a great film.
- IMDB Page
- Official Website a 2011 snapshot.
- OST on Spotify
- Trailer on YouTube
- Game on MobyGames. You can buy it for Nintendo Switch, PS4 or Xbox One. It is also on the Epic store but I staunchly refuse to link to them.
Originally written on the 7th of March 2021. Expanded and edited on the 30th July 2022.