A few years ago Edgar Wright created one of the most brilliant movies I’ve ever seen, combining horror, humor, social commentary, and surprising character depth in Shaun of the Dead. It’s one of my very favorite movies, and I sat through most of it with my jaw on the floor, waiting for him to step wrong and being joyfully surprised over and over when every step was not only right, but better than I expected. Shaun’s morning walk to the local store; Shaun fighting off zombies with his record collection; the absolutely wrenching scene with Shaun and his mother. Here was a movie that was not afraid to do it all, to be horrifying one moment and hilarious the next, or–why not?–do both at the same time, while simultaneously saying something profound about the way people rely on each other, for better and for worse. It’s a great movie, and you should go out and rent it…tomorrow. Tonight, you need to go see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
I was expecting Scott Pilgrim to be wacky and fun, and it was, but I wasn’t expecting much else: it stars Michael Cera, who’s been playing the same character since Arrested Development, and the trailers made it seem far more concerned with flashy weirdness than any kind of coherent story. It’s about a guy who meets a girl and has to defeat her seven evil exes, complete with rampant video game imagery, so I figured it would be an over-the-top adventure movie with some bright colors and cool effects and an excuse to look at Mary Elizabeth Winstead for a couple of hours. What more does a movie need? What I didn’t realize going in is that this movie was also made by Edgar Wright, and he’s still not content to do one, two, or even just three things at once. When an underground rock concert turned into a fight scene, and then the fight scene turned into a Bollywood musical, I was hooked; when the rock and the fights and the craziness started actually affecting people in real, personal ways, I was in love. This is not a just a movie about a guy fighting ridiculous bad guys to win the love of a girl, though there’s plenty of that; this is a movie about a guy who has to change himself, and grow up, and become the kind of person who deserves the girl’s love. It’s a movie about flawed people becoming better, told with manic energy through the lens of rock as a lifestyle and video games as a metaphor. It’s the most audacious, crazy, wonderful movie I’ve seen in ages, and twenty years ago–even ten years ago–the creators would have been burned as witches. Today, for an audience raised on rock and Nintendo and laugh tracks and a devastating social disconnect, it’s a revolution.
In my church I teach a class of young adult men–most of them between the ages of 21 and 30, most of them still in school, many of them blindsided by adulthood and drifting a little more aimlessly than they’d like to be. They’ve grown up being told what to do and when to do it, with parents and teachers and school counselors always at their backs, pointing them in the right direction and pushing them forward. It’s easy to do things in high school because what you’re supposed to do is always obvious: go to school, study this book, take this test, get this job, flip this burger. When you’re 16 you can drive; when you’re 18 you graduate. Then you move out on your own and suddenly you’re out of benchmarks–you don’t know what comes next because the next goal is up to you. Trying to teach some of these guys how to make their own decisions and stand on their own two feet is a lot harder than you’d think. So one day I was teaching the class, talking about why we have trials–the age-old question of why a loving god would make life so dang hard all the time–and I couldn’t find a simple way to explain it until suddenly I remembered World of Warcraft. I looked at the group.
“You guys play play video games, right?”
They nodded and mumbled and sat up straighter; now I was talking their language.
“So if you’re playing a game like Warcraft or Diablo or Final Fantasy or something, how do you get stronger? How do you get better and learn new things?”
“Experience points,” said one.
“Exactly,” I said, “and how do you earn experience points?”
“By fighting monsters.”
And then everything clicked. This group that wasn’t interested, and didn’t get it, suddenly understood exactly what I was talking about, in a way that made perfect sense to all of them: you don’t get experience points by sitting on your butt, you get experience points by going out in the world and doing things and fighting monsters and overcoming obstacles and challenging yourself. You become bigger and better and stronger and smarter by making choices and stretching your limits and putting yourself at risk. Scott Pilgrim is a great movie not just because it understands this, but because it presents it in precisely the terms that speak to its audience. The real challenges in life, and the real victories, are not the flying punches and the whirlwind kicks but the choices that get you there in the first place, and the friends you make along the way, and the things you learn about them and about yourself. Scott Pilgrim doesn’t level up when he beats that final bad guy, he levels up when he chooses to face that bad guy, and thus becomes the kind of man he needs to be in order to “win.” The thrill of the movie is in the kung fu, but the heart of the movie is in the characters who do it, and the reasons they do it, and ways they grow.
Just like Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a movie that isn’t afraid to do it all–to show you superpowered ninjas and bollywood hipster demon chicks and surprisingly frail, human characters, all at the same time.
I loved it.