By Bob Clark
I often find myself somewhat at odds with myself as a game-designer and cineaste, especially whenever critics disparage works in the latter medium with comparisons to the former. Whether it’s due to over-reliance on artificially generated imagery or character so thinly portrayed they seem to be nothing but ciphers for audience projection, hearing a movie being called “video game-like” bristles me personally, saddened to hear the language of one passion being used to disparage an object from another. At the same time, as a designer I often find myself comparing games to cinema unfavorably whenever they spend too much devoted to non-interactive cut-scenes rather than actual playthrough time. When you spend more time watching a video-game than actually engaging with it, calling out its movie-qualities can be a legitimate criticism, just as early silent-cinema could be overly reliant on theatrical or textual qualities in less than capable hands. Yet there’s always an amount of cross-pollination between cultural artifacts of different creative forms, and as new digital media have risen up in prominence and sophistication, it’s only been a matter of time before we started to see younger artists in the dominant expressive forum (cinema) begin to invoke the tropes and themes from the new kid on the block (video games) in earnest, beyond the empty criticism. Edgar Wright’s latest film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, is a prime example—a movie-musical pretending to be a comic-book pretending to be a video-game.
Based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s manga-like graphic novel series following the adventures of a young Canadian hipster on the indie-rock scene in his quest to woo the lovely Ramona Flowers and vanquish her seven ex-lovers, who stand in his way like boss-battles from old Super Nintendo games, it poses a mixture of cinematic technique and cross-media disciplines that makes old episodes of the Adam West Batman series and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City adaptation look positively quaint by comparison. Life-bars and combo-markers pop-up in the physical realm of the film like the Ikea-catalogue living-room sequence from Fight Club, offering a heads-up display of character stats during moments as ordinary as hitting the bathroom. Fight-sequences are presented along the mis-en-scene of anime and Street Fighter II-style fighting games, illustrating long strings of punches one by one in which beaten opponents literally explode into piles of quarters. The aspect-ratio shrinks from 1.85:1 to 2.35:1 at the drop of a hat, with split-screens galore that recall anime in style (or Western animation pretending to be anime, like Gendy Tartakovsky’s overrated Samurai Jack). Time itself expands and contracts on mere whims, telescoping long sequences into blink-and-you-miss-them scene transitions that evoke the feeling of the Wachowski Brothers’ Speed Racer in spirit, if not in appearance, creating a dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness editing style that at times appeals to the associative storytelling of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a movie evoked by more than the snowy swing-sets and distant love-interests with amazing Technicolor hairdos. Even the music recalls classic melodies from the NES era, with recognizable themes from The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy games needledropped onto the soundtrack and game-reference band names like Sex Bob-ombs and Clash at Demonhead mentioned throughout.
As such, in structure and technique, it represents one of the clearest and most potent combinations of both cinematic and gaming cultures at a key generational crossroad with an audience full of both kids and young adults all young enough to be in on the joke, a demographic to which I easily belong. Why, then, do I hate it so much? Maybe it’s thanks to Edgar Wright’s superficial treatment of the material, a continuance of his similarly popular, but shallow collaborations with Simon Pegg on the Romero-esque Shaun of the Dead and the cop-thriller-in-a-small-town comedy Hot Fuzz. Like those films, Scott Pilgrim doesn’t so much mine all the pop-cultural artifacts of comics and gaming for meaningful generational insight so much as it provides a baseline of promptings for canned laughter in the audience (one imagines he probably would’ve been on the short-list of directors for a parody-movie of Miami Vice if Michael Mann hadn’t beaten everyone to the punchline). His ironic, self-conscious direction often wastes great opportunities during action sequences that might’ve made for great fights if they weren’t covered solely for shots that looked cool, without necessarily being coherent in-scene, or choreographed mainly to provide humorously awkward moments rather than actually impressive stuntwork. It helps turn most of the movie’s fights into an awkward mix of music-video editing and choppy coverage focused less on the internal logic of each fight and more on its isolated money-shots or joke-moments, which is especially disappointing during potentially cool moments like a showdown with a Hollywood star’s team of stunt-fighters (which happens off-screen), a battle with a literal Vegan superman (which ends with a lamely predictable coffee gag) and a climactic pixilated-lightsaber duel (which is so sloppily executed it makes the laser-ring face-off from Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs look like the Duel of the Fates by comparison).
It also doesn’t help that most of the film’s characters are intentionally presented as too-cool-for-school douches all but drowning in their own hyper self-awareness (the dialogue is so jam-packed with redundant pop-cultural references, it sounds as though it were mid-wived by Kevin Smith, Joss Whedon and Quentin Tarantino in their script-doctor phases). Michael Cera has treaded this hipster-rich territory before in the Diablo Cody penned travesty Juno and Nick and Norah’s Ultimate Playlist (which might’ve been acceptable had it been the murder-mystery it might sound like to viewers of TCM), and he fares about as well as might be expected as the narcissistic lovelorn twit with an 8-bit chiptune on his shoulder. Mary Elizabeth Winstead does about as much as her one-note tough cookie-cutter role as Ramona Flowers allows, but neither she nor Cera manage to divest enough genuine spark into their characters to make either of them believable as lonely souls who’d manage to be attractive to anyone, let alone one another or the baker’s dozen of broken-hearted men and women between the two. Supporting performers like Kieran Culkin and Jason Schwartzman (who plays big-bad Gideon Graves like his Rushmore geek grown up to become a Bond villain) manage to at least play their unlikable roles with a winning, shit-eating grin panache. The only cast-member who actually creates a compassionate figure in the whole sorry mess is Ellen Wong as the impressionable Knives Chau (though perhaps her sympathetic nature is mostly earned by her being in love with Cera’s heel of a protagonist).
But perhaps the main reason I dislike this movie so much, despite of its debt to the video-game culture I live and breath outside of cinema, is because like Inception before it (another recent dreamtrip of the video-game generation), this ground has already been covered in far more compelling fashion as a video-game itself, in Goichi Suda’s underrated Wii title No More Heroes. Like Scott Pilgrim, it balanced an odd blender-mix of punk rock, intentionally abrasive characters and an El Topo-esque story of a lightsaber-wielding, pop-culture obsessed moron’s quest to defeat a series of comically outlandish supervillains in order to win the affections of an off-putting chick playing hard to get, complete with the same addictive nostalgia for retro gaming (enemies even explode into coins when defeated). The primary difference is that Suda’s work takes full advantage of the indigenous media upon which it seeks to examine—it’s a video-game about the video-game generation, instead of a movie based on a comic book about the same thing, and as such is able to make his commentary an interactive part of the experience. Just as Cervantes put the romantic longing for adventurous chivalry in literature under the microscope with Don Quixote and Godard swung the CinemaScope camera around upon itself in the filmmaking odyssey of Contempt, Suda’s game works primarily as both a love-letter and indictment of its own medium, while Wright’s film (and to an extent, O’Malley’s comics series) merely acts to co-opt the language of that new form.
While there’s a genuine form of generational sincerity at work in Scott Pilgrim, it’s impossible to recommend as anything other than an anthropological artifact, a cinematic time-capsule as revealing in its own way as Zack Snyder’s take on the Crusader-mythos mentality of Frank Miller’s 300, and nearly as instantly outdated as Meet the Spartans, the garbage-movie parody based on it. It invites the same sense of agency in its audience that games provide without allowing for the same kind of interactivity, making it feel less like a movie and more like a movie-length cut-scene, where the moviegoer spends the whole time waiting for a turn to play that never comes. The fatal artificiality in this movie doesn’t come from computer-generated imagery or blank-slate avatar characters, but from an inherent misunderstanding of what makes people tick, especially in a new multimedia-saturated generation. As a major movie-release targeted towards game-savvy filmgoers, it was released into theaters with a downloadable game for the Playstation 3, a multiplayer arcade-style beat-em-up with animation from pixel-sprite master Paul Robertson, and I can’t help but wonder if they couldn’t have skipped the step of making a motion picture in the first place. Scott Pilgrim was already a video-game to begin with, so why bother trying to downgrade it into a movie at all?
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: * ½ out of *****
If Scott Pilgrim and Inception represent the face of a new generation of action-directors, still stuck in a broken, pubertal voice, then Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables and Phillip Noyce’s Salt represent the mature and dulcet tones of explosive high-concept filmmaking from several decades past. The bad-guys and methods of taking them out are all resolutely old-fashioned—whole armies of South American military cannon-fodder and their gringo conspirators are taken out with nothing more complicated than wrestling moves, throwing knives and pyrotechnic fireballs so explosive they could open for a heavy-metal heavy-hitter on tour, and scheming Russian sleeper-agents capable of acrobatic stunts of close-quarter combat so superhuman they ought to be put on speed-dial for any future Wonder Woman movie. The mis-en-scene on display from Stallone and Noyce remain steadfastly in the past, as well, and refreshingly so—fights and chases are all imagined at great scale, scope and spectacle-reaching histrionics, and captured on film with an eye that favors clarity and coverage rather than Bourne-style helter-skelter. What’s even more interesting is how the two films reflect a paradigm-shift in the gender politics of the genre with their contrasting casts of an Ocean’s Eleven-full house of aging action-heroes as a mercenary army taking on an entire island nation in the former, and a lone-wolf Angelina Jolie running through one cat-and-mouse set-piece after another as a burned CIA operative caught in the crossfire an antique Soviet spy-game in the latter. If they make an odd-couple double feature of macho-men-on-a-mission war-mongering on one hand and femme-fatale turned rogue-spy adventurism on the other, they’re both easily two of the most pleasant surprises to come out in this summer’s worth of blockbusters.
In the case of The Expendables, we have perhaps the climax of an escalating series of action-dramas fueled by cinematic nostalgia, preceded by the latter-day sequels to his Rocky and Rambo series. Those movies were stupid, but had a fun quality to them in the way that he recycled his over-the-hill punchdrunk boxer and world-weary warrior, taking great advantage of refined special-effects technology in the case of the latter to create one of the most explosively gory, yet surprisingly down-to-earth pieces of one-man army moviemaking ever put on the screen. Facing off against Burmese militants with a rag-tag squad of mercenary commandoes, the John Rambo of a couple of years ago was a very different figure from the superhero figure who singlehandedly took down Soviet helicopters to free Vietnam POW’s or fought side-by-side with Mujahideen soldiers in Afghanistan—even though the circumstances and mission were just as ridiculous, Stallone kept the action grounded in that final Rambo picture in a way that none of the previous films ever quite did, perhaps not remotely resembling reality, but at least some sort of distant relative. The Expendables continues that line, though filtered through an increasingly bizarre brand of off-beat, character based humor throughout, that shows off the quirkier side of the testosterone-fueled auteur in ways that might’ve been unpredictable were it not for the flamboyant nature of his directorial debut with the “John Travolta meets A Chorus Line” story of Staying Alive. Most of the characters are one or two dimensional at best, but are given plenty of scars both seen and unseen and amusing personality traits with which to cover them up. We’re given cause to care about the men off the battlefield, even if the only real way to tell them apart during combat is by the weapon they carry.
Stallone’s coverage of the action isn’t quite as sure-footed as it was in his last film, and occasionally gives in to some Greengrassian excess shakes, but that’s primarily thanks to the sheer size and scale of the explosions onscreen—when you’re shooting a mere fistfight there’s no excuse for the herky-jerky syndrome, but when you’re fist-pumpingly blowing up half the acreage of an entire island dictatorship, it’s not so bad. Noyce’s command of action in Salt, on the other hand, is so resolutely committed to by-the-book standards of clarity and spectacle that it’s not just a breath of fresh air, but a whole Scuba-tank full of it. From chases on the tops of trucks across Washington highways to showstopping assassination attempts that literally bring down the house (or in this case church), the film is filled with sequences and set-pieces whose imaginative flavor are often only matched by the tightly-wound, precision oriented way in which they’re shot and edited. As a director who rose to prominence marshalling Harrison Ford’s impressive outings in the Jack Ryan movies, one would do well to wonder where the hell Noyce was during the Brosnan years of the Bond franchise (wasting his time on that crummy Val Kilmer version of The Saint is the sad answer), and as such he makes his return to mainstream blockbusting from almost a decade spent in indie-drama seclusion with impressive results. Even those Tom Clancy movies were mostly dedicated to the academic side of espionage, with well-honed suspense sequences crafted not so much through fights as they were through behind-the-scenes CIA analysis—here, he shows off his pure Hollywood action-instincts, resulting in a sense of scale and scope that could give Martin Campbell a run for his money.
If there’s been one thing that has set the movie apart from the rest of its action-brethren at this time, however, it’s the choice of casting Angelina Jolie as the titular CIA agent at the center of all the running around. Originally written as a male character, and presumably intended for the overdone likes of Tom Cruise (who’s already outstayed his welcome as the replacement for Jon Voight’s turncoat Jim Phelps in the movie version of Mission: Impossible), the part was rewritten as Evelyn Salt with seemingly minimal conversion from one gender to the other. Jolie gets to kick ass and take names just as much as any male action-star counterpart, and with the exception of quickly covering up a security-camera with her panties (chastely shot with her skirt still on for minimal titillation) and her own ubiquitous physical attractiveness, isn’t forced to couple those super-spy heroics with any kind of the trampy, exploitational antics that usually come with the turf of a female action-hero. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Milla Johovich in pretty much every movie she’s ever been in and Jolie herself as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider—all of them were strong women, for certain, but at the same time were also largely objects of male fantasy, equally known as the wet-dreams of their creators as they were rock’em sock’em superheroines. Evelyn Salt is more Jason Bourne or James Bond than a mere Bond-girl, sexy without being sexually provocative, allowed to express herself and impress the audience more by the mad-skills she shows off or the crazy-kills she ranks up during the course of the film.
The closest things we’ve had to a full-on female action-hero onscreen until now were Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ellen Ripley from the Alien films and Uma Thurman as “The Bride” in Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, and while those movies were all thrilling, their R-Rated violence kept them cut out from the key audience demographic that the PG-13 Salt finds its greatest success in—little girls. After I walked out of the movie a couple of weeks ago, still reeling from Inception-fatigue and grateful to have seen a good old-fashioned spy-thriller outdated enough to feature the Soviet Union as the enemy and a middle-aged white guy as the U.S. President, I noticed a mother exiting the same theater as me with a couple of young daughters in her tow, the youngest of whom couldn’t have been more than six. Both of them were in love with Salt, and excitedly described all their favorite parts as they walked out of the lobby and onto the sidewalk, the littlest girl karate-chopping the air while her older sister posed her fingers into a gun and pointed at passers-by in the street. Maybe they would’ve been just as happy to watch Daniel Craig fight bad-guys in another globetrotting 007 adventure, but the fact that they could look up to Angelina Jolie instead as an age-appropriate action-movie role model made it that much better to see. If she doesn’t quite break the glass ceiling, at least she can leave a few bullet holes in it.
The Expendables and Salt: *** out of *****