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Life, sometimes, can feel like one big video game. This is the approach taken by Scott Pilgrim, the protagonist of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, as he attempts to weave his way through friendships, relationships, ambitions, and society’s push for him to become an adult. All the troubles of the average modern-day twenty-two year old. This vision for the world is taken literally in the film, as Scott finds himself in a very real Toronto where very surreal game rules exist, and director Edgar Wright uses all the visual tools at his disposal to show the world as Scott sees it and, in turn, how many of us wish we could.
Based on a series of graphic novels, Scott Pilgrim follows the adventures of the title character as he must fight the seven evil-exes of his love before he can have her. At first the idea brings a chuckle, and the story is very comedic, but it also carries a message relevant to anyone growing up today. It is a message of fighting for what you love, both externally and internally. As critic AO Scott of the New York Times puts it, it is a “willingness to acknowledge ambivalence, self-doubt, hurt feelings and all the other complications of youth.” Pilgrim has a lot on his plate and feels the only way he can handle it is by resorting to what he knows best: video games. “As a result,” Scott writes, “the line between fantasy and reality is not so much blurred as erased.” Through this fantasy, Pilgrim both escapes from the real world and comes to accept it, and himself; shown most fittingly in the limbo death scene amidst the film’s climatic battle.
From the second the film starts, you know this is a different kind of real. The opening studio title card of Universal Pictures is rendered in pixelated graphics with the fanfare playing in the 8-bit audio style common to Super Mario Bros. Throughout the film, the homages to the joys of youth only add up. The pace of the film is very fast, with shots sliding into new ones as dialogue and character blocking transition between settings. The frame is split-screened between characters or superimposed with text providing background information, all invoking the memories of playing games and reading comics as a kid.
While such a roller coaster of a ride could be jarring for some, this is a world more than understandable to the youth it targets. The style is never more relevant than in the very set up behind the plot: Scott must defeat six bosses until he reaches the final boss, Gideon Graves, who controls his love Ramona Flowers. The battles are exactly what one would expect, with countdowns, combo movies, and health bars — each boss bursts into coins when defeated. This world is a video game straight from Scott’s imagination. AO Scott agains puts it best in talking of how the film collapses “the distance between gamer and avatar not by throwing the player into the world of the game, but rather by bringing it to him.” Kathleen Stock says that “fantasy is a response to a desire for some situation S, where the fantasy represents S as being the case,” and this is just what Scott does as he fights for Ramona’s affection.
The question arises whether this arcade world is just how the universe works or if it is his imagination at work. Fantasy, at its heart, is an escape from reality. As fantastical as the battle scenes seem, though, the Toronto on screen is not unrealistic. The verisimilitude is very high. Shot in Toronto, they walk streets natives would recognize and visit locations natives frequent. Yet is the audience to think the characters who inhabit this world don’t freak out when people burst into battle or that it is “normal” to see graphic text of whoosh and hear the air spin as a character is flung hundreds of feet away into a castle, falling to the ground without a scratch? Stock further classifies two types of fantasy: occurrent and non-occurrent, the former of which involves imagination, and we are led to believe that Scott is actually going through the process of trying to win the affection of Ramona. Stock speaks on how fitting an art form film is to portray surrealist fantasy because of how a fantasist will view their scenario as if a third party, film literally makes its players characters on a screen. Scott is, in a sense, playing a video game of his life.
This world is little different from the one we walk in, with all the same struggles and triumphs, just seen through the imaginative eye of a gamer. Andre Breton defined surrealism as “psychic automation in its purest state, by which one proposes to express the actual functioning of thought” and Stock says “imaginative experience functions as a substitute for what one desires but is prohibited from obtaining.” This is very true for Scott Pilgrim. The narrative structure, sounds, and computer-generated visuals of his story all add up to a mise-en-scene straight from the mind of someone who grew up in a world of Nintendo and Spider-Man. Likewise, as is common for the youth of society in any period, Pilgrim wants nothing more than to retreat from the stress of juggling relationships with two girls (one of which is psychotically needy), a struggling garage band, and the average woes of a young, single independent guy into a world where he controls the boundaries and can just hit restart.
This desire is manifested strongest in Pilgrim’s limbo scene. Having battle his way to Gideon, he dies, stabbed literally and metaphorically through the heart on his T-shirt. Like any challenging video game, the player never recognizes the truth the first time through. Breton believed that art and life “could renew themselves by contracting forbidden areas of the mind–the Unconscious,” and this is what Scott does in limbo. The world presented to us is immediately different from the neo-realistic Toronto. Scott finds himself in a vast desert, the sky clear and lighting so high key it nearly white washes the frame. Director Edgar Wright even shifts aspect ratio of the frame, adjusting the size of the letterbox bars as a means of creating an atmosphere common to the entertainment world so large a part of our lives. Dialogue echoes across the terrain and Scott’s edged are softened, adding to the dreamlike quality of his mind.
This place, though, Scott’s subconscious, is one world he can’t escape from. He’s alone with nothing but the issues he’s been trying to avoid: his feelings of failure in relationships, hobbies, and life as a whole. These troubles are embodied in his defeat by Gideon, who represents a society where the only thing that matters is sales figures. Gideon is the mid-thirties “old guy,” the business man in a suit who works five days a week, takes calls on the weekends, and has to worry about paying bills. This isn’t what Scott wants. He wants to hang out with friends, play bass, be unemployed and wear T-shirts and blue jeans.
It is a stark distinction between young and old, the joys of childhood and the pains of adulthood, and Scott has pushed the inevitable off too long. Even if the real world equivalent isn’t quite so black and white, this struggle between wanting to be one or the other is common to us all, and the rise of video games and modern entertainment in recent decades have expanded our imagination with how we blend the two. Surrealism, Linden argues, is about wanting to escape “from the tyranny of the laws of the sensible world” and achieve “the total liberty of man.” Scott wants exactly this, and personifies it through a fantasy of gaming. Ramona appears as his spiritual guide to help him through his troubles, but Scott must reach the realization on his own. Slowly, as is his personality, he does, even saying, “I feel like I learned something…” as the frame closes in around him. Like a good gamer, he has died and must now come to turns with why. He must learn from his mistakes and correct them, and when he does an “Extra Life!” icon pops up next to him, giving Scott a second chance.
Of course, in the real world one cannot cheat death. Gideon makes this clear when he kills Scott, saying, “You can cheat on whoever you want, but you can’t cheat death.” Scott does cheat death, but only in the surrealist fantasy he was acting out. That’s the point of a fantasy; to play through scenarios so you can make the right decisions. In many ways, Scott’s escape into a video game world makes him more prepared and wise in the real one (even if he is a bit slow in doing so).
Are the differences between the way Scott’s world plays out and the real world that large, though? Kathleen Stock draws another similarity between why film is so fit for surrealist fantasy in pointing that “one is generally not free, as one is between reading sentences, to break off from engaging with a film and reflect upon it.” We as viewers can pause a Blu-Ray or Playstation game, but for Scott there is a little time for thought as we have going through our days. The quick, sharp editing creates a fast pace that pushes Scott from situation to situation, giving him barely enough time to recover from one boss battle before the next evil-ex pounces. The limbo scene is the one break from this, but even reality involves moments of reflection where one thinks through everything that is life and ponders, even imagines, different outcomes.
Scott Pilgrim is meant to be fun and entertaining, with all the references that inhabit Scott’s life designed as a way of making us as viewers, or readers of the graphic novels, to smile when thinking back to the glory days of childhood. In doing these things, though, it carries a deeper message, because at heart our lives aren’t all that different from Scott’s. Our world looks increasingly like one big interactive multiplayer game. Linden summarizes his portrayal of surrealism in saying, “The greatest legacy of surrealism may be the world we now inhabit. The secure Cartesian world against which the surrealists raged is no more.” The 21st century is filled with non-Euclidean geometry, multiverses, quarks and sub-sub-atomic particles that only exist at a time when all physics break down. This message is not necessarily a negative one, although some could read it that way. In fact, Wright makes the world Scott lives in look pretty exciting, but this is not to distract from the need to at least come to terms with changing realities and not let oneself get left behind. Both public and private sphere are filled with rumors, gossip, advertisements, boss battles, and the struggle of not wanting to grow up. Everything that makes up a good comic book. Scott Pilgrim is just like us. He represents the changing mindsets of the new generation and all its struggles and achievements. The only thing missing is a reset button, and wouldn’t we love to have one of those.
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