Yesterday afternoon I made my way to the back of the multiplex to the smallest theater in the building for one of the four showings of Scott Pilgrim vs The World scheduled for the day. You know a movie is in trouble when it's been dumped to the wasteland on its fourth day of release. I took a center seat in the middle row for what started as a private screening, but by the end of the first act, a few more people had trickled in. The film opened to a disappointing $10.5 million in fifth place at the box office behind more marketable and mainstream movies such as The Expendables and repeat business for Inception, but Internet buzz had predicted a strong future for Pilgrim. So what happened? What went wrong?
The real crime here is that Pilgrim is a fun escape into video game tropes and conventions that everyone who grew up as part of the original Nintendo generation needs to see, yet most people I know who are primed to enjoy it have no interest in it at all. I'd never heard of the Pilgrim property until the trailers for the movie began to appear online (it started as a graphic novel and has now also inspired a video game of its own), but the premise was enough to lure me into the theater. In short, Scott Pilgrim is an underwhelming twenty-something who falls instantly in love with the aloof and mysterious Ramona Flowers, but before they can date, he must defeat her seven evil exes in game-inspired combat. Throwdowns revolve around gee-that's-familiar battles inspired by Street Fighter, Guitar Hero, co-op smackdowns, RPG level-ups, and the recurring "save the princess" motif. Check out this interactive trailer packed with clips to get a taste of the concept:
References to beloved games not only move the action along, but are also the reason to see it in the first place. Defeated enemies explode into stray coins (the first evil ex leaves $2.40 behind which is "not even enough for bus fare home", but as the challenges increase, so do the monetary rewards). Characters play in bands called Sex Bob-omb and Clash at Demonhead. The soundtrack is especially loaded with familiar sound effects and musical cues. The movie starts with the opening tones of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past setting the stage, while other Zelda music (both classic and arranged) dips into the soundtrack at key moments to allude to Nintendo's famous franchise. The sound of Sonic the Hedgehog collecting a ring is heard often. The announcer from Street Fighter Alpha 3 shouts "K.O.!" at the end of a fight. While some may see these inclusions as pandering to the audience, I found that a key sound effect at the proper moment clued me in to everything I needed to know about a given scene based on my familiarity with the sound in question.
Ultimately, I think that's the problem here. The mainstream audience just will not get these references. They won't understand the meta-jokes and use of iconic music. To the mainstream, Scott Pilgrim vs The World is just another of those off-putting films about twenty-somethings slacking their way through life. It's unappealing to them and not something they would willingly pursue. This is a movie that people without gaming in their blood will not appreciate. I've heard some people remark that it seemed that the movie was talking down to gamers, but that's not the case at all. I loved the film and had a great time laughing at the outrageous circumstances and fun use of gaming tropes. I bet the movie will find its audience later on DVD, but if you want to get in on the action early, I suggest you make the trek to the back of the multiplex now and see the movie before it's pulled from theaters all too soon. It's worth your time, it's worth your money, and it'll make you smile. Let the haters hate. They'll never understand or appreciate what they're missing.