Please note that this review contains spoilers. Proceed with the requisite caution.
Hard though it is to believe, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s latest movie, The World’s End surprised me. Though it helps to come into this movie having seen the previous two self-contained movies of the “Cornetto Trilogy” (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), it really does achieve something the other two movies don’t. Erin and I went into this film thinking we were in for a sly comedy about ne’er-do-wells in small town England facing up against the tropes of science fiction and horror. What I didn’t expect was a film aimed directly at me and my high school years.
At least, my high school years had I been a lot wilder and less under control.
Let me explain.
The film starts with Simon Pegg as Gary King, relating a story from the year he graduated high school (1990 — coincidentally, I graduated Harbord C.I. in 1991). On graduation day, he and four of his friends embarked on “The Golden Mile”, an epic pub crawl of the twelve drinking establishments in the small, sleepy village of Newton Haven. They don’t make it. Some pass out drunk early, and Gary King himself with his two closest friends Andy and Steven can only complete nine before they give up. For Gary, this is a halcyon day. As he watches the sun rise on a hill over Newton Haven (and with Andy and Steven puking their guts out behind him), the future is laid out before him, full of opportunity, hope and freedom.
Flash forward about twenty-three years and we find that Gary King is relating this story to a therapy group.
Quitting the group, Gary King decides to gather up his friends from that night — all of whom have jobs on serious career paths. Using more than a little deception and trickery, he convinces them to join him on an attempt to complete the Golden Mile, twenty-three years later. Against their better judgement, they decide to go along, and start to suspect that there may be more behind Gary’s attempt to recapture past glory. But before they can figure that puzzle out, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers kicks in. The town of Newton Haven is just a little too picturesque to be true. People are there from the drinkers’ youth who haven’t aged much in the intervening years. And these people are starting to stare at the friends rather creepily when the friends figure out something is amiss.
There are many brilliant things about The World’s End. Let’s start with the writing. The dialogue is top notch, but the themes are what is most impressive here. You’d think that a story about an aging hooligan trying desperately to recapture the sense of hope and freedom of his youth would clash terribly with a story about aliens replacing humans in a small town to try and build a perfect society (and, truth to tell, the action scenes felt like they belonged in a completely different movie; I had a hard time believing Simon Pegg could take out robotic replicants. Actor Nick Frost, on the other hand, he sold me on his action moves playing the stout Andy), but they don’t. In fact, in many ways, the two stories complement each other, as what Gary wants with his own life meshes with the demands he puts before the aliens on behalf of the human race during the final confrontation. The aliens are very much the stereotypical teachers and parents who say to wayward teens “what do you want to do with your life”.
And then there’s Gary King himself, a master work from Simon Pegg. He represents that charismatic anarchic desire of our teenage years that I think we all sensed would be dangerous to embrace, and yet spoke so seductively. It makes no sense that the four highly successful friends of Gary King should want to follow him on this mission to recapture their lost youth but, on the other hand, it does: because youth is precisely what they’ve lost. At the same time, Gary King looks awful. He’s driving the same car he bought back in 1989, his clothes are ratty, his cheeks are sunken in, you get the distinct impression that he’s a few puffs short of a full-blown intervention. He’s dangerous, and he’s damanged, and yet he’s sympathetic, because he speaks to the fact that, ultimately, we humans have a right to screw things up. We shouldn’t screw things up, but that right should not be taken away by aliens.
These factors combine into a story that’s at once funny and heartbreaking, mysterious and cathartic, and wholly enjoyable. I would say that of the three movies in the sort-of trilogy that Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright have created, The World’s End is the best, because it’s not trying to ape something else (like zombie flicks or cop buddy movies), it stands on its own two feet and lets its themes come to the fore. You’ll enjoy The World’s End a bit more if you see Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but even if you don’t, The World’s End is a film well worth seeing in a first-run theatre, right now.
- About the action fight scenes, yes, they don’t really fit the movie. They feel far more like Simon Pegg, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan and Paddy Considine should have said at some point “what luck that we signed up for those Jackie Chan exercises before we came out here. It’s Nick Frost, playing Andy, that really makes these scenes work, since he works with the incongruity of a large lawyer manning up and going hell bent for leather on the aliens. I don’t know what it is that Frost did, but I can believe that Frost himself might fight this way if confronted with robot replicants in real life.
- The scene where a fight breaks out and Gary King tries to get through it while, at the same time, drinking yet another pint, is totally hilarious. Note the Buster Keaton move he pulls on this one. One wonders how many takes he had to do before he got this right. And since Buster Keaton did this move before, we can be pretty sure that Simon Pegg didn’t cheat and use special effects to get this stunt right.