Would You Like to Know More? – Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
The geeks may have inherited the Earth, but with great power comes great responsibility. With so much great, new nerd-friendly content at the front of the mainstream, it’d be easy to forget there’s plenty of related material out there that might be equally enjoyable. Would You Like to Know More? hopes to encourage people to dig just a little beneath the surface — baby steps, not quantum leaps — to see the things that influenced and were influenced by your current favorite films, television, comics, and books.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
Based on the 6-part graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley, and helmed by Shaun of the Dead‘s Edgar Wright, Scott Pilgrim was the talk of the online film community for a year rolling up to its release. A stylish explosion of cartoon action, 8-bit in-jokes and nostalgia, and a super cool rock-and-roll soundtrack, the film gained a devoted audience despite a disappointing turn at the box office. The movie’s rapid-fire editing and dazzling blend of live action and visual effects certainly set it apart from most films and television, but the movie has some entertainment cousins from before, during, and after its theatrical release. (It goes without saying that fans should also read the book, but it seems safe to assume most people have done that already.)
“Spaced”There’s pretty significant crossover between the audience for Wright’s collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and the audience that would be interested in Scott Pilgrim. Yet, while the trio’s first effort together is the most similar, it’s probably still the least-known of their works in the US (thanks to lengthy rights issues that prevented a DVD release Stateside until 2008). The series, which Pegg co-wrote with Jessica Hynes (formerly Stevenson), follows aspiring graphic artist Tim Bisley (Pegg) and aspiring respectable journalist Daisy Steiner (Hynes), who pretend to be an item in order to land a flat with “professional couple only” in the listing. Each have a best friend, Mike (Frost) and Twist (Katy Carmichael), as well as landlord Marsha (Julia Deakin) living above them, and creepy artist Brian (Mark Heap) in the basement below. Their adventures, together and apart, are frequently interrupted by flights of fancy inspired by pop culture, from Pulp Fiction to Platoon.
Fantasy and reality are indistinguishable in Scott Pilgrim, and “Spaced” has a similar stylistic flourish, the difference being that its imaginative tangents (mostly) cut back to the real world afterward. It’s the kind of show that will have two people express their frustrations by taking on the characteristics of Tekken characters, or celebrate a character rediscovering their passion for art with a quote from “The A-Team.” Some of the references have dated (Episode I may be less of a wound in 2014 than it was in 2001, for some people, anyway), but the jokes are frequently physical and visual as well as sentimental, and always rooted in a foundation of character.
That foundation is the key to “Spaced”, which has a genuine interest in each character’s ups and downs, their good and bad sides, their professional and personal lives. It’s easy for television and movies to reflect our favorite pop culture back at us, but “Spaced” also tells a story worth emotionally investing in, about people navigating the treacherous journey from their 20s into their 30s, still chasing an idea of adulthood. Scott Pilgrim‘s big challenge (regardless of whether or not one considers the film a success) was condensing 6 books (or 3 books and an outline) of the graphic novels’ character beats and story into a single 100-minute movie. “Spaced” is arguably more successful than Scott Pilgrim at landing its emotional punches, but it has more time to explore Tim and Daisy’s friendship, even in the all-too-short British sitcom space of 14 episodes. It’s also nicely balanced: on top of splitting its time between comedy and drama, Pegg and Hynes’ writing partnership creates a creative equilibrium that explores the story from both a male and female perspective, something all too rare in modern entertainment. The show’s strength lies as much in its warmth as it does in its wit. It’s “The Big Bang Theory” with a soul.
Speed Racer (2008)
Okay, so, the Wachowskis’ adaptation of the classic Japanese cartoon may not have much in common with Scott Pilgrim on a story level, but both are eye-searing, expertly paced adaptations bursting at the seams with stylistic flair, and both suffered a near-criminal fate at the US box office. Expectations were high for Andy and Lana’s first directorial effort after The Matrix trilogy (they only co-wrote and produced V For Vendetta), and a film based on the cartoon had languished in development for decades (potential cast members included everyone from Henry Rollins to Vince Vaughn), but almost nobody turned up to see it when it opened near the beginning of summer 2008. It scraped together a measly $43m worldwide in comparison to its $120m production budget (plus however many millions of marketing dollars), and The Wachowskis retreated into the shadows again for four years. It’s a real shame, too, because Speed Racer is an incredible movie.
The first thing that stands out about the film are the visuals, which are nothing short of exhilarating. Speed Racer takes place in a hyper-stylized reality where racetracks can include a 100-foot near-vertical drop or a loop-de-loop, give way to massive gaps in the course that open into deep chasms, or twist up to the top of an icy mountain before descending into a frozen cave. Each one is doused in a brilliant color palette, bursting with luminous reds, blues, and greens, all punctuated by the pristine white of the Mach 5 barreling through. The Wachowskis feel no obligation to stick to a realistic interpretation of three-dimensional space, capturing frames that look as if they were taken right out of a comic book. Characters are often seen swaying back and forth in the foreground while the road twists and spins wildly off into the distance behind them. The cars defy gravity, each equipped with spring-loaded legs that allow them to bounce and jump over the competition (long shots of jumping cars often feel like The Wachowskis playing with Hot Wheels), and the villains’ vehicles often come armed with illegal weapons to knock out their competition. Speed (Emile Hirsch) is given defense mechanisms such as a bulletproof windshield and an instantly-inflating spare to protect himself, each activated with the push of a button. Despite the possibility of sensory overload, each of these sequences is made exciting through directorial clarity, with the duo exhibiting an impressive control over visual geography amid all the flashiness. There are also some fun fight sequences, including a ninja attack, and a mountaintop sequence that features the speed lines of a Japanese anime. The film is a visual feast from beginning to end; you’ll want to make every frame into a desktop background.
The visual complexity also provides a strong counterpoint to the story’s moral simplicity. At a glance, Speed Racer might look like a darker story aimed at more adult fans, but the film follows the classic “sports movie” template. Although the visuals suggest the offspring of a kaleidoscope and the lights of the Las Vegas strip, and the editing utilizes a complex series of flashbacks and flash-forwards to fill in necessary exposition, underneath that style is the same structure as Rocky. Speed Racer‘s core messages, about believing in yourself and refusing to give up, are simple and familiar, a clarity that plays a huge part in making the film so satisfying. The simplicity of Speed’s belief in the power and purity of racing is a perfect contrast to the film’s villain, billionaire E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam, savoring every delicious bite of the scenery), whose schemes and cynicism are so elaborate and convoluted they could fill an encyclopedia. The Wachowskis have always been believers in bold emotional beats (the power of Trinity’s love, the entirety of Cloud Atlas), and Speed Racer narrows those ideas even further, bringing the spirit of classic action and adventure movies, with their clear heroes and villains, to a contemporary story. On the page, a live-action version of “Speed Racer” doesn’t scream “great idea!”, but in the hands of the Wachowskis, it’s wonderful, thrilling, and even moving.
The challenge of turning the Scott Pilgrim series into a single movie led Edgar Wright to push his already energetic style even further, cutting connective fat that the audience is able to fill in intuitively. It’s not something many viewers consciously consider, but there’s an art to non-verbal exposition, and Scott Pilgrim (not to mention Edgar Wright’s other films) uses every trick in the book to get ideas across that work fine in comic panels but take a bit more effort in live-action. Detention, by director Joseph Kahn, could be considered the next step down that road, matching and then exceeding Pilgrim‘s pace, as well as furthering its comic and directorial style. Kahn isn’t aping Wright’s moves, he’s building on them (spiritually, if not consciously), aiming to craft a film that meets a text-messaging, ADD-addled, YouTube-era teenager on their terms. More importantly, anyone else who can keep up will be rewarded with a surprisingly cohesive, witty, and surprisingly sweet collision of high school romance and slasher movie (among many other genres and tropes).
The story follows Riley (Shanley Caswell, the film’s heart and soul), a typical teenager struggling to balance her rebellious and outspoken side (feminist vegan) with common teenage desires (a date to the prom). Specifically, she’s interested in Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson), one of the most popular kids at Grizzly Lake High, but he’s more attracted to Riley’s former best friend Ione (Spencer Locke), who seems to know an unusual amount about late-’80s / early-’90s pop culture. Within the story, Kahn and co-writer Mark Palermo have condensed and streamlined a hundred teen movie cliches (the jock wanting to pound Clapton, the nerd vying for romantic attention, the principal demanding an A, the prom, and of course, Saturday detention, plus several too specific to spoil here) into a single dizzying narrative, which also includes a serial killer stalking Grizzly Lake students, dressed like movie killer Cinderhella (Detention‘s version of Jigsaw from the Saw movies).
Without so much as a studio logo to slow it down (the film was funded independently, with Kahn putting up much of the money himself), Detention speeds through pop culture at a pace designed for a generation of kids who express their personality by tapping “like” on a touchscreen. The references and witticisms pile up so swiftly and slickly that it’d be easy to mistake the film’s endless references as empty hipster irony, but Kahn’s just telling a story about 21st century teenagers in their own language: media-saturated and too hip is the way they are. Furthermore, while the characters’ unwavering dedication to the trends of the 1990s (regardless of whether or not their memory of what came out when is strictly accurate) is a sly dig at Hollywood’s current ’80s nostalgia kick, subbing the ’90s for the ’80s also recognizes that filtering personality through entertainment is something teenagers do. Underneath (but not aside from) its references, Detention is a sentimental movie, a fairly straightforward high school comedy about an outsider wanting to be noticed, and on that level, it achieves a sweetness befitting the best of the genre. Most of that can be attributed to Caswell’s performance, as she steamrolls through complex, witty one-liners while also crafting a compelling portrait of modern teen angst, but the film’s collage of influences do that too, conveying Riley’s loneliness through an echo of Better Off Dead, or basking in the simple pop music pleasures of Hanson’s “Mmmbop”. The film also predicted the rise of MRA-type jerks in the form of her Nice Guy friend Sander (Aaron David Johnson), and grasps social media (and uses it more carefully) than anything about teenagers in a decade. Every teen movie (and teen trend) recycles its predecessors, Detention just does so more literally. In terms of filmmaking technique, it’s a quantum leap forward, but its story and jokes point to a simple truth: trends may come and go, but teenagers stay the same.
Should Scott Pilgrim have led you to or from some other piece of pop culture, or if you’re interested in sounding off about these picks, have at it in the comments.