Let’s get this out of the way upfront: The World’s End is the greatest movie ever made about drinking, and its depiction of people getting drunk over the course of a night is so perfect and real that you almost don’t even notice it happening. Which, not coincidentally, is exactly what getting drunk is like. For a movie that grapples with issues of sobriety and responsibility, The World’s End is probably the best advertisement for beer that I have ever seen. Make time for a pint after watching this film.
While you’re having that pint you can chew over what is, without a doubt, the most complex and mature movie that Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright have written. While The World’s End contains the usual air-tight scripting - everything that happens in the film is beautifully and elegantly set up - they have focused that tightness on some of the messiest, most difficult human behaviors. This is a movie about being a fuck up, and it’s a movie smart enough to understand what that means completely.
It’s about more than being a fuck up, to be fair. As the concluding chapter in the thematic “Cornetto Trilogy,” The World’s End is interested in many of the things that Pegg and Wright have examined in the past, including the concepts of being a man and the meaning - and ultimate redemptive power - of friendship. If Shaun of the Dead was about growing up and becoming a man, and if Hot Fuzz was about becoming the best man and friend you can be, The World’s End is about realizing you’ve totally blown it and figuring out how to live in the ashes of the world you’ve created.
As different from Nicholas Angel as Angel was from Shaun, Gary King is the center of The World’s End. In 1990 he was the coolest kid in the small town of Newton Haven, but he never quite grew out of it. Twenty years later he’s wearing the same jacket and listening to the same mix tape (an actual tape), and the carefree excesses of youth have become desperate poses in middle age. There’s one night that looms large in Gary’s mind, a night when he and his four best friends attempted to get a pint at each of the 12 pubs on Newton Haven’s fabled Golden Mile. They never made it all the way, but the night seemed like the beginning of something great. Now, looking back, Gary sees that it was when he peaked.
He manages to round up the old gang - against their own better judgment - and together they make another assault on the Golden Mile. But that maxim about going home again (you can’t) turns out to be true, as Newton Haven no longer feels like the same place they once knew. And for good reason: it’s been taken over by blue-blooded robots that operate in a hive mind. The pub crawl continues as the five friends try to figure out how to get out of Newton Haven without being assimilated, or worse.
The quartet surrounding Gary is great, and it has to be, since Gary is the most unlikable character in the Wright oeuvre. Gary is in equal measures pathetic and irritating, and I think that on his own he would be essentially unwatchable (that’s not a complaint. Pegg kills it in the role, delivering the best and most nuanced performance of his career. There’s real, dripping pain underneath every single joke that comes from Gary’s mouth). But bouncing off the others Gary becomes a much more dynamic character, and we get to discover him through their eyes and memories. Eddie Marsan is straight up adorable as Peter, the dorkiest and meekest of the group. Martin Freeman is Oliver, who grew to be the yuppie he always wanted to be. Paddy Considine is Steven, Gary’s old rival who finds himself slowly being drawn down to Gary’s level. And then there’s Nick Frost as Andy, once Gary’s best friend until a mysterious accident drove them apart and set him onto 17 years of sobriety.
Creating an unlikable character for Pegg was risky enough, but setting up his onscreen partner as the guy who hates him the most? That’s really taking a chance, and it pays off. As Andy says at one point in the film the reason he’s so angry at Gary is because he has loved him so much; by pitting the two cinematic chums in this way The World’s End lets us immediately feel the weight of Gary’s past. The Cornetto Trilogy may not have a narrative throughline, but we still carry in the baggage from those previous two films.
It’s possible that I’m making The World’s End sound like a grim drama - it’s not. It’s incredibly funny, and it features some kick-ass action choreography (just a word in advance: if you’re the kind of person who’s going to have a problem with these five normal British guys being expert fighters, perhaps this isn’t the film for you. Also, I feel bad for you because you won’t enjoy watching Nick Frost become an unexpected action star, destroying robots with bar stools held like brass knuckles). The film’s transition to drunken antics is wonderful, and by the time act two rolls around you feel like you’re out for a night with these guys as well. There’s a boozy familiarity and camaraderie that cannot be faked.
The transition into genre is potentially bumpier here than in the previous two Cornetto films, at least partially because it would be very enjoyable to watch The World’s End played very straight, with just the five friends going on the epic bender. But Wright makes it work, paying off small moments of unease with an ending that goes big in ways you won’t see coming. The science fiction elements are taken seriously - more seriously than almost any movie dealing with similar themes ever has. I understand why some people take exception with the film’s finale, but for me it’s perfect, not only as a character thing for Gary King but also as a wonderful deconstruction of the old scifi staple of humans standing up to robots or aliens and proclaiming that it’s our imperfections that make us special.
That ending might be what you talk about the most over that post-movie pint. Like the rest of the film it’s not easy and it’s not safe, but like the rest of the film it’s brilliant and unusual and, when it’s all said and done, quite funny.
Wright is coming off of Scott Pilgrim with this film, and you can see the influence in the fight scenes. He shoots most of the fights in long takes, with the actors seemingly fully participating in the action. The brawls are varied, and he’s aware that there’s only so many robot heads he can smash before we get bored. But the fights are also fun and thrilling and each character fights in a way that speaks to who they are. And there’s no joy like watching Nick Frost drop The People’s Elbow on a robot cranium. Beyond that he's toned it down a bit from the video game pace of that film - rightfully so. This isn't the same movie, and while there's plenty of great visual momentum coming in quick montages and terrific transitions, Wright modulates his editing to fit the story he's telling.
Shaun of the Dead is always going to be my favorite of these movies. It’s a perfect film, and even so many years (and so many viewings) later it has the ability to surprise you with its depth and emotion. But there’s no question that The World’s End is the best film these three have made together, and it’s so good because they’re not just trying to recreate what we liked in the past. Unlike Gary King the Frost/Pegg/Wright trio have grown and changed, and their movie reflects that. Yes, The World’s End is funny and fun, and yes it will make you want to go get blasted at a traditional pub. But, like all the best science fiction, it also has a lot to say about humanity and who we are and how we screw up. Most importantly, it has a lot to say about how to deal with screwing up, and it says it in a way that’s smart and subtle and quite complex.