WARNING: This article contains spoilers for The World’s End (as well as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) and is meant to be read after having seen it. If you desire a small capsule review: The World’s End is the most entertaining movie of the year, go see it immediately!
This past weekend saw the release of the final chapter in one of the most creatively satisfying trilogies in recent memory. I’m speaking of course of The World’s End, from the creative team of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The grand finale of their Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy (so named after a tasty British ice cream treat featured in each film, whose nearest corollary in the US would be a Drumstick, I suppose), the film is a piece of awe-inspiring entertainment that also serves as a brilliant summation of the work these men have done together up to this point (including their classic television series Spaced). They manage to take the thematic meat of each previous film (it’s a trilogy of tone and theme, not narrative) and combine them all in one giant hilarious and heartfelt pot. As Carl Weathers might say: “Baby, you’ve got a stew goin’.”
The Wright/Pegg/Frost collaboration has been defined by a handful of traits: seamless editing, immaculate structure (each movie operates like something of a cinematic palindrome, where each line of dialogue and visual cue set up in the first act is called back to or paid off by the third) and a deft blending of genres often mistaken for spoof or parody. Shaun of the Dead is a zombie film much like Dawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are a buddy cop film the way Lethal Weapon or Bad Boys II are. And the work they’ve accomplished is much more An American Werewolf in London than Airplane! Their latest, a hybrid night-out-with-the-boys/alien invasion picture, is in many respects their best work yet. The film combines mature character work, brilliant action choreography and some genuinely heartfelt messages while maintaining a consistent level of hilarity that all other comedies should aspire to. It’s the story of a pub crawl slowly taking on cosmic import as the men involved realize their town has been replaced by blue-liquid filled doppelgangers of those they used to know all in the service of an alien invasion. And while the method of delivery remains much the same (pay attention to the opening prologue that basically lays out the structure of the entire film as well as a discussion over one character’s teetotal status slightly later on that forms the basis of the film’s epilogue), there’s a depth of feeling and whole series of complicated emotions at the core of this picture that make it feel like something new.
You can tell Edgar Wright is in fine form from the get-go, with an early overhead shot of a morose support group meeting framed like a Busby Berkeley musical, firmly placing us in the headspace of The World’s End’s main character Gary King (played by Simon Pegg) and his perpetual reluctance to stop the party. Gary is the most lost of any Wright/Pegg protagonist, completely obsessed with the halcyon days of his youth, specifically a failed pub crawl with his four best mates (Andy, Peter, Steven and Oliver played by Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine and Martin Freeman respectively) that he considers the pinnacle of his life. Staring down a shamble of an existence at the precipice of middle-age, he corrals the gang back together (against their better judgment) to return to their sleepy hometown of Newton Haven (home of Britain’s first roundabout, yet another in a clever cavalcade of circular imagery that harken to the trilogies completion as well as our characters finding themselves right back where they started) and finally complete The Golden Mile, a stretch of 12 pints over 12 pubs that proved so elusive in the past. From the way he’s dressed (impeccably ’90s goth, replete with Sisters of Mercy T-shirt and chest tattoo) to the mix tape he’s held on to in the intervening years, Gary has dug in his feet and gone full Gatsby, happily being borne back ceaselessly into his past.
And to further complicate what Wright/Pegg/Frost are saying here, it kind of works. Although his childhood friends attempt to stage something of an intervention early on in the pub crawl, their trip works as regression therapy with Gary as their sublimely unbalanced therapist, lapsing into their old roles and routines with each subsequent pint. They’ve nailed the slippery slope of a long night of drinking here, with our protagonists (and by proxy their plans, reactions and discussions) becoming slowly more slurred and incoherent as the night goes on. It also helps that the cast has absurdly strong chemistry: Marsan is adorable, Freeman is charmingly uptight, Considine manages to be stalwart and sad-sack often in the same scene, and Rosamund Pike helps bring out many of these traits when introduced into the plot as Oliver’s sister Sam. But the real gambit is having Andy hate Gary at the outset; their cinematic coupling is such a comfortable one. (One of Shaun of the Dead’s great subtle jokes is that the romantic aspect is much more about their Shaun and Ed characters than it is about Shaun winning Liz back.) Putting them at odds chafes against expectations. But it pays off brilliantly. As the film progresses, we slowly see how broken Gary has become in the past two decades, culminating in the revelation that he recently was admitted to hospital for attempting suicide, and just how much Andy’s life has been shaped by the havoc wrought by Gary in their youth. It allows for the slow reveal of how much these characters mean to one another (with both Pegg and Frost delivering the best performances of their careers) as the pints stack up and slowly chip away at their emotional defenses.
That gets us to the meat of what this trio has done with this film. There are some surface-level similarities that connect these three films (failed fence-jumping attempts here, furtive usage of a noisy arcade game there). But where they truly intersect is in their messages. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are both films about taking personal responsibility for what’s gone wrong in your life and taking the necessary, positive steps towards correcting it and the transformative power that friendship affords you in such situations. At every film’s center is this warm, gooey humanism even as their worlds slide into pure chaos around them. Despite his decision-making being rash and his lesson being learned in the wake of the death of nearly all those around him, we still love Shaun. Even though Nicholas Angel and Danny Butterman are basically embracing the fascistic overtones of the buddy cop formula (in as polite and British of a manner possible, mind you) in order to find happiness in their lives, we love them for it.
In The World’s End, as I mentioned earlier, Gary King’s friends try to stage an intervention and it doesn’t take. Then the galaxy itself attempts the same and is similarly rebuked. When the grand designer behind this alien invasion speaks from above (while our characters are stuck in yet another visual loop) and lays out their plan for bettering the human race, all of the thematic cards are out on the table. We’re dealing with a galactic version of Hot Fuzz’s Neighborhood Watch Alliance, willing to get their hands a bit dirty in the name of “The Greater Good” if it suits their notion of what humanity’s future should hold. Through a bit of clever wordplay (Gary King of the humans vs. Gary, King of the humans) reminiscent of Douglas Adams, we’re left with a trio of obstinate drunks arguing for the whole of humanity and eventually wearing out our alien overlords so thoroughly with their bull-headedness and complete lack of logic that they simply pack up and leave the Earth. If there’s a more perfect way to encapsulate this trilogy’s love of humanity at its messy best than having an incorrigible drunk put his fingers in his ears and yell “I’m not listening!” at an advanced alien race until it decides it no longer wishes to invade us, I don’t know what it would be.
As always has been the case with the previous films, there’s a definite cost: Shaun loses his immediate family and best friend in his efforts to make an effort; Nicholas and Danny have to give up their previous lives to begin their new one (Danny’s father goes to jail, Nicholas rebukes the London PD’s attempts to bring him back and their old police station is completely destroyed); and here, Gary has inadvertently triggered an apocalyptic event that has drawn the whole of humanity back into the dark ages. And it’s through that apocalypse that Gary King finally begins to take personal responsibility for his life, attempting to atone for his not being there for his best friends in the past. You can’t live in the past, these films suggest, but like the zombified Ed that lives in Shaun’s shed or the teenaged replicas that Gary King takes under his wing in this post-apocalyptic world, you can bring it along with you into the future. A useful message to keep in mind as the Wright/Pegg/Frost trio looks to the future with their collaborations, happy to have made this amazing contribution to cinema together, but focused on creating something new instead of endlessly recycling the past.