Twelve Thoughts on The World’s End
28/07/2013 3 Comments
The World’s End is a movie I have been looking forward to for a long time. The third instalment in Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost’s so-called Cornetto Trilogy (or, if you prefer, Blood-and-Ice-Cream Trilogy), The World’s End represents the mint (or alien) green to Shaun of the Dead’s blood-red strawberry flavour in 2004 and Hot Fuzz’s classic police blue in 2007. It’s a movie I approached with high expectations given that Hot Fuzz is one of my favourite films. I often describe that to people as “the movie I watch when I’m sad”. And yes, I know a great many of you prefer Shaun, but for my money Hot Fuzz is a masterpiece. I’ve rarely seen a film with such a depth of (hilarious) visual detail. For that matter, I’ve rarely seen such a perfect screenplay where every small detail has a point and a purpose integral to the ending of the film. Man, I want to teach that screenplay!
Now, while The World’s End hasn’t yet usurped Hot Fuzz’s place as my favourite of the Trilogy, it has immediately snuck into second place. And who knows, it may yet give HF a run for its money once I see it again (and, no doubt, again, and again…). The repeat-viewing effect is something that’s true of all Wright’s work. He’s a phenomenal director whose films and screenplays are layered with multiple jokes, meanings, and references. Even though I have watched Hot Fuzz literally dozens of time, it’s a movie which I’m still finding new things in. Meanwhile, his adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) is a triumph of visual storytelling. Seriously, you could turn off the sound while watching that film and, though you would lose a tremendous amount, you could still follow the plot and character development perfectly. It’s one of the few movies of the last decade which acknowledges that film is a visual medium. And of course, like most works of genius, it’s horribly divisive.
What about The World’s End then? The story of five friends reuniting after twenty years to tackle a legendary pub-crawl which they failed at as teenagers. Twelve pubs, twelve pints. From The First Post to The World’s End. Only once they return to their hometown they find that it feels… different. Everybody seems to have changed. Is this an effect of being away too long or (there really is no middle-ground here) a result of a covert alien invasion? Short review: go see it! Long version…
Please note the SPOILER WARNING in effect from here…
- This is Nick Frost’s movie, pure and simple. Landing punches both emotional and physical, Frost steals the show. Can he please be in every movie?
- This is also a dark, dark picture. Like, surprisingly dark. In many ways it’s the bleakest of the Cornetto Trilogy and, from the mulchings to that epilogue, I was not expecting it to go so far; but I respect the film for following through with the consequences of everything that happens. Sidebar: The Cornetto appeared just seconds after I said to myself, “Hey, I haven’t seen a Cornetto yet…” Now that’s pacing!
- There seems to be an interesting critical response to this film in Ireland, where some reviewers are patting themselves on the back for not enjoying it in a really uncool way. But whatever. Film reviewers in this country often privilege aesthetics over entertainment. If a film isn’t a low-budget picture about the suicidal loneliness of rural Ireland then they never seem that interested in it (a generalization, sure, but an oddly fair one!).
- Of course, I kind of see why they didn’t take to it. This is a film with a subtext that speaks to a very English national myth: A (Gary) King leads his (Andrew) Knight(ley), his (Stephen) Prince, his (Oliver) Chamberlin, and his (Peter) Page on an Arthurian quest from drinking vessel to drinking vessel in search of the ultimate grail with the power to make them (symbolically) young again and to cure the malaise (Starbuckization) afflicting the land. And no, I’m not reading too much into it (!); King Arthur gets referenced by name here (and I’ll need to check when I see it again, but the characters might even be gathered at a round table when he gets mentioned).
- I also see how, as Wright and Pegg promised, Gary is something of a “drunken Doctor Who” throughout the film: He never gives up, he endures the loss of companion after companion, and, at the film’s climax, he delivers a big, grandstanding speech about the merits of Humanity. Of course, like Doctor Who, it’s a very English brand of Humanity which gets praised here. Again, no wonder the Irish critics didn’t go in for it.
- That said, it was terrific to see so many Irish actors in The World’s End: Pierce Brosnan (totally unexpected), Michael Smiley… I know Paddy Considine isn’t Irish but after In America (2002) he might as well be, right? England, we’ll swap you Bono for him. Or you know, feel free to just take Bono anyway.
- Though I suppose the whole Trilogy is, to an extent, about resisting conformity (don’t become a zombie like everyone else in Shaun of the Dead; rage against the cult of the perfect village in Hot Fuzz), The World’s End expands this to a literally galactic level. Naturally this ties into Wright’s stated notion of the Trilogy being about “perpetual adolescence” and how his characters – notably the ones played by Pegg – are always in revolt against the powers that be. In this case, Humanity itself is the “least advanced planet” in the cosmos and still has a lot of growing up to do if it’s ever going to be accepted. Shame that their representative, “Gary King of the Humans” (or perhaps “Garry, King of the Humans”?), reacts to being told off in the way any teenager would.
- On that, I can see how Pegg’s Gary could be kind of problematic for some reviewers thinking they were heading into a traditional comedy. Sure the movie is marketed as such (with many of the straight-up jokes already flagged in the trailer), and, yes, while it’s often very funny, it’s not simply a comedy. Or, at least, it’s a comedy which is turned inside out. Like one of the alien robots masquerading as a real person, it’s really a cold tragedy in the clothes of a feel-good, hard-drinking, comedic paen to English pub culture. Pegg’s Gary thinks he’s far funnier than he is, and most of his dialogue in the first act is, deliberately, the kind of thing a teenager would think themselves very funny for saying but which, upon more mature reflection, is just embarrassing. He’s a sad and pathetic character; the kind of person we all could (“could”, he says!) have ended up as if we hadn’t gotten our lives together as regards jobs, relationships, and so on. Gary clings to Wright’s “perpetual adolescence” in a more obvious fashion than the characters of the previous films; he wears the same clothes as he did when he was 18, he drives the same car, and he maintains that the gang’s teenage effort to complete the pub-crawl was the highlight of his life. The revelation that he has recently tried to kill himself is quietly devastating, while Pegg’s portrayal of the character is multifaceted and game, ranging from genuine sorrow to smug success. It might actually be his best performance to date and, really, if some reviewers didn’t appreciate it then it’s their loss (I really don’t know why the Irish reviewers thing bothers me so much; I think it might be the self-satisfied manner in which the opinion was presented).
- The World’s End has a really brilliant soundtrack! It’s something used to tie the film together in expert fashion with the lyrics from the songs of the characters’ youth woven through their dialogue in an utterly organic manner (and how often can you say that about “Twist off his melon, man!”?). Subtle and wonderful and exactly the kind of pop-cultural obsession Wright has been exploring since he, Pegg, Frost, and Jessica Hynes (then Stephenson) delivered the modern classic Spaced in 1999 and 2001.
- Not as subtle, but still wonderful: the fight scenes. So well-choreographed; so inventively filmed! One in particular, the mass fight in the bar as Gary is trying to finish his pint might be one of the most ridiculous yet satisfying fight scenes since that sequence in John Carpenter’s They Live in 1988 (a movie fresh in my mind as I was lucky enough to catch a screening of it in the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago last month). Come to think of it, as another story of aliens secretly taking over the world by replacing some people and co-opting others with the promise of wealth and power, I reckon They Live is probably on the upper tier of movies which influenced Wright on this project.
- Speaking of influences, the third act of The World’s End feels like something straight out of Douglas Adams (which, needless to say, is a good thing!). The dialogue of Bill Nighy’s character, “The Network”, might as well have been written by Adams. I suppose it’s fitting then that many of the exteriors from the movie (eight of the twelve pubs, in fact) were filmed in Letchworth, a town mentioned by Ford Prefect in So Long and Thanks for all the Fish (1984) when discussing the difficulties of dealing with the British telephone system from the Pleiades star cluster and so, notionally at least, of thematic relevance to The Network’s attempts in The World’s End to advance Earth’s information technology to Galactic level (okay, here you can probably accuse me of reading too much into the production!). In any event, it’s probably impossible to do English sci-fi comedy and not reference the master of the genre somehow.
- The film’s ending is perfect, isn’t it? Despite the apocalyptic revelations of the epilogue, everybody gets what they want, Gary in particular. That final scene in the pub, a brilliant, post-apocalyptic spin on Andy’s earlier line about the bravery required to order a water in a room full of drunk rugby fans in warpaint, is both a joy and a very gratifying demonstration of the growth Gary’s character both has and has not gone through since we met him.
So yes, go see The World’s End. If you enjoyed it half as much as I did then it’s well worth your money!
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