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Film Review: The World’s End

The World’s End (2013; Directed by Edgar Wright)

The third feature film collaboration between director Edgar Wright and rangy comic actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (fourth if you count The Adventures of Tintin, in which they all played minor roles) continues in the vein of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, synthesizing and extending the themes of those efforts as well as approximating their geeky wit and genre-lampooning satirical energy. But The World’s End‘s generic focal point is too laser-precise to match those superior efforts, and the wider ideological points about soul-sucking capitalism and traditional, ordered social conformity that Wright was aiming at with his earlier films rage out of control by the film’s flailing conclusion, consuming all trace of its better qualities like a wildfire.

The World’s End is the closing chapter of what Wright, Pegg, and Frost have dubbed the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, named for the recognizable three colours of the popular British ice cream treat: the red for Shaun of the Dead‘s gory zombies, the blue for the coppers of Hot Fuzz, the green for the space invaders of The World‘s End. This trilogy concept itself neatly encapsulates Wright’s particular comic sensibility: an over-elaborate conceit based in a cultural reference dripping with juvenile nostalgia, edifying the sugary guilty pleasures of modern life. This intention is almost directly expressed in the film itself. Perhaps as The World’s End is the final installment in this loosely-related three-film cycle, Wright felt extra pressure to shoehorn in a more complete elucidation of his perspective and sensibility, to make it clear what these films were meant to accomplish beyond laughs and entertainment.

Wright’s case is not helped by the milieu into which The World’s End drops, mind you. This third Cornetto film follows its predecessor Hot Fuzz by twice the amount of time that Hot Fuzz followed Shaun of the Dead (six years to three). In the interim, Wright squandered some of his creative buzz on an under-attended boutique hipster geek piece (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) while Pegg became a J.J. Abrams favourite in Mission Impossible 3 and Star Trek. It does not help this “green” film distinguish itself, either, that its long-promised subject matter of aliens was covered recently by the Pegg/Frost vehicle Paul as well as Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block (from the same production stable as Wright’s film and co-starring Frost), nor that its release follows hard on the heels of that of the similarly-titled apocalyptic buddy comedy This Is The End. Despite its considerable pedigree, The World’s End is hobbled by these pre-existing associations for popular audiences as much as it is by its insistent batch of ideological messaging.

This is a damned shame, because there’s enough to like about it, too. Its storyline follows the efforts of Gary King (Pegg), a mouthy, volatile 30-something party animal with related addiction issues who seeks to rekindle the faded youth that he never really relinquished by completing a mythical but unfinished pub crawl in his sleepy English hometown with his four best high school buddies (Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan).

Unfortunately for Gary, they’ve all moved on to comfortably upper-middle-class jobs and lives in London, and need considerable (and sometimes dishonest) cajoling to agree to join him on this mythical (in his mind) “Golden Mile” odyssey. Most reluctant is Andy (Frost), Gary’s former right-hand man, now a teetotaling, high-powered City lawyer who fell out with his freewheeling former partner-in-crime over a betrayal involving a drunk driving incident. Some continuity in the trilogy is achieved by Pegg and Frost playing bosom buddies once again, although the inversion of roles (casting Pegg as the man-child screw-up and Frost as the more sensible and mature party, a mirror image of their relationship in the previous films) is welcome and cleverly executed.

Gary and his troupe return to their hometown of Newton Haven for this second crack at the Golden Mile, but find it very much changed. None of the locals recognize Gary, despite his expectation (or his fervent hope) that they will; a refurbished town square includes a futuristic modern-art figure as its public art centerpiece; and the first two pubs on the crawl are precisely identical, having been converted to the same franchise. But as the crawl progresses, it becomes clear that something much odder than simple encroaching corporatization is going on. It bursts into the open when Gary gets into a bathroom argument and then a tussle with a local youth, whom he wants to conceive of as a proxy for the younger version of himself that he is desperately chasing after and attempting to recapture (Wright himself sometimes seems to be doing the same through his films, in particular with this plot built out of early-’90s reminiscences and given a period soundtrack).

The kid, and eventually most of the town, is revealed as not human at all. They are extraterrestrial human-replacements, their movements and speech stiff and robotic, their lusty human desires erased and replaced by a will to flat, conformist comforts of productivity and consumption. These “blanks”, as they are called (one of the movie’s funniest moments closes a riff of the drunken crawling crew devising a term for the beings), are slotted together like plastic action figures and are filled with blue gooey liquid (one would have thought they’d go for green, considering the film’s colour-coding in the trilogy concept), and these visceral elements are exhibited in great detail as Gary and his comrades resist attempts by the replacements to assert their power over them with physical violence as they progress from pub to pub. Wright stages fight scenes and breathless chases with an abandon that becomes overwhelming and repetitive, although memorable individual action and comedy beats crop up here and there (like the soon-to-be-iconic sequence where a booze-fortified Frost goes at a pub-full of the creepy blue-bloods with a barstool on each arm).

Wait a minute, this is apple juice! Confounded aliens!

As fun and as funny as The World’s End can often be, though, the aforementioned ideological underpinnings swamp its wit, its energetic activity, and its engaging character dynamics. The World’s End very quickly asserts itself as a fulfillment of the themes of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, namely the former’s equation of the mindless undead with the thoughtless consumer of capitalist product and the latter’s layered portrayal of the traditional conservative establishment’s quest for undifferentiated social conformity. These themes are filtered through the particular Invasion of the Body Snatchers aliens-replacing-humans genre that Wright is referencing in this film but only rarely satirizing, and are amplified to a level of strident pedantry.

At the movie’s climax, Pegg and Frost do offer a heartening defense of warts-and-all humanity and our sacred sovereign right to do what we want, even if that means repeated failure. But the post-apocalyptic epilogue that follows on this scene’s heels takes the knee-jerk countercultural beliefs that crop up elsewhere to incoherent excess. A post-technological, blasted social landscape of self-grown organic food, country shacks, and a crusading band resisting the general human discrimination against the leftover blanks, it’s a nightmarish dream of contemporary urban progressive wish-fulfillment that unwittingly exposes a deep-rooted, old-fashioned conservative streak at the heart of yupster subculture.

Wright used to punctuate the frenetic film-geek referential wit of his films with hints of cultural opinions, but something appears to have shifted. Perhaps, having marinated for a year or two in the juices of the self-regarding alternative echo-chamber for Scott Pilgrim, Wright has internalized its unwavering ideology and has taken to regurgitating its tenets with a lack of reflection that contradicts the knowing tone of his engagement with film genre elements. Maybe his co-writer Pegg contributed to this signification as well, having been more exposed to the pitfalls of corporate Hollywood in recent years, but Wright’s screen resume puts the onus more on him for the unbalanced focus.

I keep coming back to a feeling of profound disappointment at all of this, and that does lead to an undervaluing of the quality of The World’s End. Every onscreen performer is fantastic, especially the comic genius Freeman, Frost’s intelligent, eloquent, take-no-shit Andy, and Pegg’s bacchanalian motor-mouth Gary. Pierce Brosnan shows up as Gary’s former schoolmaster and snobbish advocate for the extraterrestrial agenda, Bill Nighy voices the disembodied overseer of the blanks (if only he and Brosnan had switched, but I digress), and Rosamund Pike is Considine’s love interest and a staunch ally in the resistance. But they can’t quite pull The World’s End out of the fire of smug hipster ideology that it is needlessly thrown into. If such knee-jerk themes continue to become trademarks of Edgar Wright’s films, his considerable skill and potential as a filmmaker may sadly be frittered away.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. September 19, 2013 at 8:03 pm

    Thought this movie was pretty good.

  1. March 11, 2016 at 6:10 pm

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