Not a big fan of video games. The last game I took even halfway serious was Missile Command back in the '80s-- something somehow addictive about keeping all those relentlessly approaching nuclear missiles from wiping out everything you know and love, something somehow traumatic about the big flashing THE END that flashed your failure That, plus the cool trackball spinning in one hand, sending the crosshairs skittering across the screen--what's not to like?
That was it between video games and me-- unless you count a brief infatuation with Myst and its otherwordly music, beautifully alien settings (especially liked Channelwood, a forest world spiderwebbed with rope-and-plank bridges) and sense of unknowability (got as far as the Selenitic Age where I got lost in an underground maze before giving up), plus a purely mindless affair with Fallout (the lust to acquire objects from stimpaks to plasma rifles to the Holy Hand Grenade proved both irrational and irresistible). Never had a healthy relationship with video games-- felt I was investing too much time trying to master them with results less than impressive, the satisfaction rather anemic. It was too much like devouring a pounder bag of tater chips fried in lard-- you feel good at first, then the salts and cholesterol start backing up and blocking the blood flow to your brain.
But if I have a love-hate relationship with video games that's nothing to my dismay watching video game movies. The Resident Evil series case in point: basically chop-socky flicks with guns and zombies that like the undead seem to last forever (though those directed by Paul Anderson are more stylish). Love Milla Jovovich, know she can both act and kick ass, but one Evil movie was one too much, let alone three. Cinematographer-turned-director Andrzej Bartkowiak's Doom at one point successfully replicated the one-corridor-after-another-of-demonic-monsters feel of the game, and as with the game I felt a similar urge to walk away.
Which is why Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is such a surprise. Here I am, a less-than-ardent fan of video games, sitting down, getting ready to hate this picture; the first few minutes confirmed my worst fears-- voiceover narration, swish-pans, pop music samples, snarky dialogue, cute sound effects (thought I was looking at a louder, more obnoxious, big-screen version of Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide).
But it just went on and on and on. Some of the digital effects are funny-- Scott (Michael Cera) going to the men's room and a pee bar on upper right emptying; corny little pink hearts floating away from Scott and dream girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) first kiss; the lighting bolts that hurtle out when Scott's band the Sex Bob-ombs play. But what won me over (besides digital effects that actually showed a trace of wit) was the sense that stripped of its effects this was a funny little tale of a geeky boy trying to come to terms with his too-popular girl's past-- her 'seven evil exes.' Hot girl; hostile exes; unhappy ambivalent relationship-- you can actually relate to his dilemma.
Figures that accomplished comic filmmaker Edgar Wright would make the first-- and for all I know only-- successfully entertaining videogame movie. Hot Fuzz may have been disappointing, don't know what failed-- either British law enforcement is so inherently unfunny no parody is passable or British law enforcement is so inherently funny no parody is possible-- but Shaun of the Dead took the idea of the zombie apocalypse and demonstrated that things wouldn't be all that different, not for the first few days (when everyone has yet to wake up to the idea of running from the walking dead) and not after a year (when everyone has settled down to the idea of living with the walking dead). Brilliant conceit.
Scott Pilgrim requires a different mindset, not satiric observation but absolute conviction-- that Scott's a hero, that Ramona's worth fighting for, that all seven evil exes are rotten to the core and need taking down. God-- or entertainment, at least-- is in the details, and Wright largely gets it right: just enough technogeek to give us the flavor of gamer enthusiasm, just enough realspeak to give us recognizably human characters to care for (thanks Cera, Winstead, Kieran Culkin (as Scott's unflappably gay roommate), Jason Schwartzmann as a game-show host slash dance club lord slash archvillain). Scott Pilgrim is ultimately disposable, but you can say that of ninety-nine percent of what's showing in the multiplexes; difference is, Wright manages to make the ephemeral quality part of the movie's charm. You may not remember much of the movie once you leave the theater, but you may remember the glow you felt watching it.
First published in Businessworld, 11.18.10