I had a pretty good time at The World’s End (2013), the third film in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s loosely connected “Cornetto” trilogy. My long-suffering partner laughed her ass off at the film, and this soothes my conscience, given that I’ve dragged her to movies that have traumatized her in the past and given that she sat through Edgar Wright’s last film, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, in a resentful, stony silence. (Her remarks afterward: “Well, that was stupid.”). I can’t ignore this part of the filmgoing experience because having a companion who is having a visibly bad time can poison the well and having the opposite can likewise sweeten the pot. The movie itself isn’t bad, but it has its problems and even though the experience of watching it was good, that doesn’t necessarily I’m ignoring those problems. At another time, at another showing, I might have had an equally bad time. This is why you should take all film writing with a grain of salt—especially mine—because it all exists in the liminal spaces of value judgments and emotional responses. It’s all unreliable. For myself, I don’t even trust myself over time. But I digress.
The World’s End follows the fortunes of five friends, reluctantly reunited to finish an epic pub crawl they failed to finish when they were teens. The instigator of this mission is Gary King, an aging, no-account ex-Goth kid whose adult life has been a disaster. He looks back on the pub crawl through the so-called golden mile of Newon Haven as the high point of his life. There are twelve pubs in all, ending at The World’s End. Gary’s companions are less nostalgic. They’ve all moved on into prosperous, successful lives. They don’t fancy going back, but Gary convinces them with guile and guilt. So they return to Newton Haven and begin to dredge up recriminations as the crawl commences. The pubs of their youth have vanished, though. Bland, corporate, chain pubs that look more or less identical to one another have replaced the first couple of pubs. They soon discover that the pubs aren’t the only things that have been replaced. The town is ground zero for an alien invasion that replaces the townspeople with robots. With each passing pub, our heroes get closer to the mystery and horror that waits at The World’s End.
Edgar Wright’s movies are all heavily meta-cinematic, and this one is no different. The plot of The World’s End is a reenactment of the basic plot of Shaun of the Dead, in which an intrepid group of friends must brave the apocalypse to make it to their favorite pub. It’s also a reenactment of the plot of Hot Fuzz, in which a small English town conceals a horrifying secret. Each of the pubs in the film comments on what happens there: The First Post is the start of the journey. The Two Headed Dog features lethal twins. The Mermaid features tempting women. At The King’s Head, Gary King bashes his head. And so on. The naming of each of the characters codes them, too: King, Chamberlain, Prince, Page, Knightley. This is a heroes’ quest, the movie is suggesting. It’s almost Arthurian. Decoding the film is half the fun.
The main problem with The World’s End is that it seems like two films stitched together. The first half of the film is a wry coming of age comedy, with closely observed characters and comedy that derives from disappointment and the quotidian mundanity of an average life. The second half is a gonzo genre picture. The seam between them shows a bit. I’m also not convinced that this isn’t a vanity project. This movie has too much Simon Pegg and not enough of its other characters. Gary King isn’t a fun character with whom to spend time, and the movie focuses on him at the expense of the others. This is a film that squanders a really good supporting cast. This isn’t a flaw it shares with either Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. After a while, I was tired of Pegg, something I never would have thought possible. Mind you, the supporting cast shines when given the chance, especially Nick Frost, playing against type. They just aren’t given enough of a chance.
I say that this is a film that’s in two parts, but I can’t help but wonder if I’m being trolled by the filmmakers, because in some respects, the first half depicts the same thing as the second: a world in which the dreams of youth, of individuality, are overtaken by the ruthless imperatives of an adult life. None of Gary’s friends really seems happy—certainly, they wouldn’t come on the pub crawl if they were. There’s a subtle anti-corporatism smuggled into the subtext here: with lives as car salesmen and lawyers and real estate brokers seeming as empty as the life of a robot. In both halves of the film, you can see the outlines of The Invasion of The Body Snatchers and They Live.
This is another of director Wright’s rapid-fire assemblages. Wright’s foot is always on the gas, though he’s a filmmaker who manages the tricky feat of combining narrative forward motion with clarity. The exposition at the beginning of the film is downright elegant in its economy. There’s always a sense of play in Wright’s framing and editorial choices. This is a film full of visual puns, many so fast that you may miss them. While this may not be as gonzo as Scott Pilgrim, it’s clearly the product of the same visual sensibility. Nothing is too small to escape this treatment. One of the funniest running gags in the film is the pouring of four beers and a water, filmed from the bottom of the glasses. This approach is exhilarating, but it can be exhausting, too, because there’s nowhere to take a breather.
Where the film succeeds best is in taking its narrative into terra incognito. This is a film that starts like an introspective indie comedy, complete with midlife crises and restless anomie. Where it winds up is light years away from where it started. The epilogue—I won’t spoil it—is the drollest joke in the movie.