A more disciplined viewer than I could probably watch Scott Pilgrim vs. the World all the way through without constantly thinking about the six-volume comic book series by Bryan Lee O'Malley upon which it's based; and that viewer would, I suppose, enjoy the film more than I did. And I enjoyed it plenty, given the almost constant voice in the back of my head pointing out all the problems with it.

Both the books and the movie concern a young man just out of college, a certain Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), who is a bit of a fumbling idiot at life. He's unemployed, playing bass in a shitty band called Sex Bob-omb, with an ex-girlfriend named Kim Pine (Alison Pill), and a frazzled lead guitarist given the auspicious name Stephen Stills (Mark Webber). He is dating a 17-year-old high school student, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) - "she's Chinese", he keeps pointing out, to the stony indifference of everyone around him - and sharing a bed with the beatifically cynical Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), who is gay and takes extreme delight in making Scott aware of that fact. One night, Scott sees a beautiful girl in his dreams; the next day, he sees her in real life, and finds that she is an ex-pat American, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He also finds out - more to the point - that she has seven evil exes, and Scott has to beat them all in combat before he can start dating her.

In either medium, this is an obvious but nonetheless effective metaphor for the difficulty an insecure new lover has in facing down the fact of his new paramour's dating history, material that has served as grist in romantic comedies for decades: lightly touched upon at the edges of Annie Hall, brought front-and-center in Chasing Amy, and I'm sure you can come up with plenty of other examples. What makes Scott Pilgrim unique is the way it explores this common dynamic using a framework peculiar to the Millennial generation, the all-consuming obsession with pop culture, embodied by Scott Pilgrim himself, whose ability to make sense of the world is bounded by his appreciation for video games - specifically, fourth generation video games, the era of the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. The book series was revolutionary for its marriage of standard comic narrative schemes (panels, speech bubbles) with gaming iconography and story structure; the movie is perhaps a touch less revolutionary, but arguably more effect - video games and cinema already share much of the same visual language, but for that exact reason, it's easier to depict video games (a motion-based medium) in movies (a motion-based medium) than comics (a pictorial medium).

And that brings us to Edgar Wright, co-writer (with Michael Bacall) and director of the Scott Pilgrim movie. His entire career to this point has been one pop-culture riff after another: his feature debut, Shaun of the Dead, was an effortless hybridisation of romantic comedy with zombie films, and his follow-up, Hot Fuzz, was simultaneously a savage parody of, and loving tribute to, the crap action films of the '80s and '90s. But Scott Pilgrim's greater debt is to the sitcom Spaced, which Wright only directed, never wrote, but which shares with the movie a catch-all adoration of geek culture iconography, and a similar refusal to follow along a cohesive narrative line when there's room for plenty of tangents that inherently have no value whatsoever, but are in and of themselves creative and funny.

Scott Pilgrim is possibly Wright's greatest achievement as a film director, which is not at all the same thing as his greatest film (in fact, I'd not hesitate to rank it behind both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and even behind his glorious parody trailer Don't from Grindhouse). But whereas his earlier films were fairly straightforward examples of mimicry - we shall frame this shot this way, because that is how George A. Romero would have framed it - Scott Pilgrim finds him simultaneously solving two problems that have been approached a great many times, with invariable failure. For this is, in a single package, the first motion picture to successfully translate video game logic to cinema, and the first to do the same for the altogether different beast of the comic book - though I think that the film's comic book elements aren't quite as effective as its video game elements.

Still and all, the manner in which shots are combined, contrasted, and eased into one another in scene transitions that raised all the little hairs on the back of my neck, suggests the experience of reading a comic like no other movie I can name. After the director, editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss deserve the biggest share of credit for making Scott Pilgrim what it is: their work, necessarily unintuitive, is never about defining and controlling space (the customary role of editing), but about defining and controlling actions. If Ozu Yasujiro had ever set himself to making a movie about fighting, I imagine it would have been cut rather like this one.

The other celebrated "comic book" touch in the film is a bit less effective, to my mind: the use of sound-words, like "RIIING" and "WHUMP" and such, and the use of titles (something that was one of the most stylistically aggressive aspects of the books) as on-screen elements. It finds Wright and company carrying the comic book aspect of the film a bit too far, perhaps; at least, it hit me as being more oppressive than imaginative, as though Wright's chief concern was exactly recreating the books, rather than re-imagining them cinematically. Thankfully, Scott Pilgrim spends little time precisely copying specific frames from the books - something that went from intriguing but limiting in Robert Rodriguez's Sin City to pointlessly ossified in Zack Snyder's Watchmen. How could it, when so much of the time it's recasting the book's events in precise video game form? Not that it's precisely "shot" like a video game, but that the way action plays out follows exactly the "sense" of a video game fight (almost always a Street Fighter type of fight, in contrast to the books, which found a new video game style every time, from fighting game to skating game to Guitar Hero).

Scott Pilgrim is, in short, a tremendously gratifying exercise in playing around - which is incredibly valuable, given how few filmmakers seem interested in using cinema as nothing but a sandbox. This comes at a sacrifice, and that's where the little voice that kept bringing up the books comes in.

At 112 minutes, Scott Pilgrim goes from a lot of character-based humor intercut with video game imagery and sound effects in the first half-hour, to almost nothing but one video game fight after another for the rest, with some character-based humor dotted in to keep things entertaining. And that works, for what it is: the broad cast (almost all of Ramona's evil exes are played by exquisitely-cast semi-famous names, from Chris Evans as a lunk action star to Jason Schwartzman as a grossly insincere hipster jerk) is at top form, even Cera, whose appeal has taken a tremendous hit every time he plays yet another damn indie quipster. He plays that basic type once again; but far from being the smartest person in the room, and aware of it, Cera's Scott is kind of a dumb jerk, who is only made sympathetic because of his unfathomable naΓ―vetΓ©. The best-in-show awards would have to go to Culkin's brilliantly controlled sarcastic chorus, and especially Wong's bottomless enthusiasm and zealous innocence, a performance that in a just world should bring her to the attention of every casting director everywhere. Only Winstead's Ramona doesn't quite rise to the standards of the rest of the cast; the character calls for aloof, but she plays her as sullen and a tad shitty. This could be a tremendous weakness for another version of the story, but in this film, the characters are ultimately subordinate to mood and humor and energy.

But you see, that other version of the story is right there, in O'Malley's six-volume series, which began in 2004 and concluded only a couple of weeks before the movie began. With a great deal more space to work in, he didn't just tell a video-game addled story of love overcoming the odds; he populated a closely-observed dream version of Toronto with characters that deepened with every new subplot in every book, in which the action setpieces that become the movie's single operating phase were the punctuation marks in a wide-ranging exploration of how young people exist in the world. In comparison, the movie's characters, other than Scott, are all less interesting, and even Scott is made shallower for living in a world that doesn't seem to have any concrete existence. It's also not hard to notice how difficult things get for the movie once the books stop providing it a roadmap; when it entered production, the fifth book had barely been published, and certainly most of the particular details taken from the books come from the first four - the first two are condensed faithfully (the second provides the movie's title), the third is pillaged for details scattered all throughout the whole film, the fourth largely provides the details of one specific battle.

No mere fanboyish quibbling is this (I'd rather have a condensed Scott Pilgrim movie than a five-hour Scott Pilgrim movie, every day of the week); it causes real structural problems for the movie's story. With less and less time to digest each new book (the screenwriting process began before the second volume came out), there was consequently less time to incorporate the material, and what didn't exist at the time of production seems to have been mostly jerry-rigged. The last half-hour of the film, perhaps even the last 45 minutes, is desperately aimless, carried along only on the strength of its style. Why Wright and Bacall didn't just invent the hell out of a new conclusion, I can't say, but their attempts to stay true to O'Malley when they didn't know what O'Malley was planning leaves the film's conclusion muddled (it's painfully obvious that the screenwriters' original ending was changed, forcibly, to follow O'Malley's ending).

And yet: that still leaves the cinematic exuberance, which makes up for the narrative shortcomings (it's not like you can't read the books if you wanted a more coherent emotional arc - and I would absolutely recommend that you do, they're all great, especially the fourth and fifth). The film is unabashedly fun, though perhaps limited in scope, for how many people out there would enjoy a film just because it's a top-notch recreation of video game norms in the context of a movie? But we exist, even in small numbers, and for us Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an exuberant piece of brain candy.