Comic-Con Review: The World’s End
The problem with doing something right is that people get used to it. Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have teamed up for four acclaimed geek projects now – the cult TV series “Spaced” and the genre comedies Shawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End – but I keep hearing how the most recent film is the least of their works. That may be true; the film is less focused than the others, there is no doubt about that. But I refuse to complain about excellent storytellers telling excellent, entertaining stories just because they’ve done something similar, albeit slightly better, before.
In other words, Goodfellas may be a better film that Casino, but that doesn’t mean Casino isn’t great. The New World may be more mind-blowing than To the Wonder, but that doesn’t mean Terrence Malick didn’t continue to explore universal issues with unparalleled insight. So even though The World’s End doesn’t illustrate its themes of selfish nostalgia as cleanly through the veil of science fiction as Shaun of the Dead’s coming-of-age saga did through the pretense of zombie movie cliché, it’s still a remarkable, thoughtful comedy with memorable characters and striking action sequences.
Simon Pegg plays Gary King, an alcoholic (and probably drug addict) who peaked in high school and wants to relive his glory days 20 years later with his old mates, played by Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Martin Freeman and Nick Frost. Like Gary, they are all still dealing with unresolved issues from their youths, but unlike Gary they are now fully functional adults who can go five minutes in public without making an ass and/or a spectacle of themselves. When Gary convinces them to join him for “The Golden Mile,” a pub-crawl consisting of twelve alehouses across their hometown of Newton Haven – one that they failed to complete in high school – they embark on a journey of soul-searching, rekindled love affairs… and robot fights.
The opening, perfectly human aspect of The World’s End would have been enough for most comedies, and probably would have been enough for The World’s End, but Edgar Wright appears to have learned a curious trick from his last film, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Like Scott Pilgrim, The World’s End makes it all the way through the first act without anything wholly implausible going on, before suddenly exploding into highly choreographed fight sequences, fantastical storytelling conceits and none-too-subtle genre metaphors for the heroes’ collective emotional plight.
The shift is jarring, but it would seem it’s supposed to be. As their Golden Mile continues, and Gary & Co. get increasingly drunk, the surreal realities of coming home to find everything and everyone changed take a twisted turn for the worse. Gary’s overwhelming denial and subconscious need to believe that everyone has changed but him comes to horrifying life, forcing the five friends to relive through eerie parallels the so-called best night of their lives, this time literally fighting through their issues (and robots) rather than succumbing to them tragically.
There’s a reasonable interpretation of The World’s End that suggests that the last two-thirds of the movie are entirely in Gary’s mind, or at least contorted by his childlike psyche (which never got over high school, and never evolved past plucking the heads off of action figures) into a lunatic psychosis. The World’s End provides Gary & Co. with a host of elaborate, memorably conceived sci-fi set-ups that simultaneously justify their every life decision and force them to grow up. Gary’s storyline in particular is so pathetic and yet (somehow) self-adulating that the notion that we are merely privy to the inner workings of his deeply troubled mind seems just as plausible – if not moreso – than the dramatization of five drunks getting over their childhood baggage and in the process saving, or potentially dooming, the entire world.
The World’s End never quite clicks into place the way the other so-called “Three Flavors Cornetto” comedies do. It uses genre clichés as a mere starting point rather than a basis for deeper character development, allowing the characters to overpower the rest of the film until the external plot seems largely irrelevant. Whether the world will actually be saved comes secondary to the fate of Gary King and his friends’ complex responses to their memories of high school. That’s potent enough material to make for a great movie on its own, and potentially genius when infused with glossy genre parallels, but the two concepts appear to be fighting each other for dominance over The World’s End rather than working consistently as a single unit. (Assuming that the sci-fi half of the movie is even happening at all.)
And while Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s screenplay offers no shortage of fully realized and intriguing characters, the sci-fi storyline offers several allusions to offhanded real-world paranoia that get the short shrift. The concept that our increased addiction to information sharing and handheld devices may have sinister undertones is given mere lip service instead of the screentime and dramatic support it needs to fully resonate. And the film’s unexpected conclusion is either deeply profound or frustratingly random, or simply evidence that Wright and Pegg are enormous fans of the lesser John Carpenter movies. Whatever your interpretation, there just doesn’t appear to be enough evidence in the film’s actual text to disprove either of the others.
But that very subjectivity is what keeps The World’s End turning over and over in your mind long after the credits roll. The idea that the problems of normal people have greater meaning to the world at large, or are at least symbolic of the universal human experience, is rarely conveyed with this much sincerity and amusement. So what if the pieces don't stick together very well? The World’s End holds up regardless.