Two trends are really popular in moviedom right now: the apocalypse and nostalgia. Our blockbusters either recycle old characters and stories that we know and love, or bring mass destruction upon all humanity - or do both! From its title, it's obvious that The World's End will tackle one of those two trends, but the film is actually more about nostalgia than it is about destroying society. Although rest assured, that latter element gets the attention it deserves.
This is the concluding installment in the "Blood and Ice Cream" trilogy. These three British films each share director Edgar Wright, stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (among other actors), appearances by the different varieties of Cornetto brand ice cream, and plots that lovingly parody different movie genres. Shaun of the Dead combined zombies with romantic comedy. Hot Fuzz took on action films. The World's End shakes things up by, rather than focusing on a genre associated with America, tackling one more often linked to British culture: social science fiction.
The purview of authors like H.G. Welles and John Wyndham, such stories use their fantastical elements as a way to look critically at society or some aspect of it. In the case of this film, the story examines "Starbucking." This is the trend of globalization, of consolidation, of Americanization, of that which was once diverse becoming monolithic. It's every Mom & Pop store getting taken over by a chain, every hometown pub or coffee shop becoming a Starbucks (hence the term). What if, the plot supposes, something like Starbucking happened to people?
That's what the characters in this film encounter, when all they want to do is have a good pub crawl. Gary King (Pegg) is the protagonist, a fortysomething who's resolutely trapped in the past, still wearing the same clothes, driving the same car, and listening to the same music (on the same cassette tape, natch) that he did as a teenager. Given the generally sorry state of Gary's life, it's not surprising. While his childhood friends have responsible jobs and families, he hasn't been happy since he was young. The best night of his life was in 1990, when he and his mates attempted "The Golden Mile," a crawl of all twelve pubs in their hometown of Newton Haven. They failed, but now, all these years later, Gary wants to try again. He cajoles the old gang into reuniting, and together they return to Newton Haven. Once there, though, they run into Starbucking head on, and soon, it becomes apparent that something sinister is going on in the seemingly bucolic hamlet.
To elaborate further would be to perhaps reveal things that most viewers would rather have as surprises. But rest assured that The World's End continues the proud tradition of the first two Blood and Ice Cream films. Edgar Wright speaks a visual language of his own, a hyperkinetic dance of blazingly fast shots edited together with astounding skill. The movie conveys imagery at a nonstop pace while never ever sacrificing clarity. It infuses even the non-action bits with energy, and it makes the action bits carry a thrill that most big budget movies could never hope to match. There's a bathroom brawl in this movie that is ten times more visceral, exciting, and dramatic than the climactic battle in Man of Steel.
Another hallmark of the B&IC trilogy is the exceedingly clever usage of foreshadowing and callbacks in the script. As just one example among scores, the names of each of the pubs on The Golden Mile hint at what will go down within (The Old Familiar is where the group encounters, well, an old familiar face). Each intertextual reference pulls double duty as both a great joke for everyone who's paying attention and a piece of thematic gristle to chew on for everyone who's paying attention and really thinking.
But there are things that separate The World's End from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, beyond its genre touchstone. It's not as funny as those films, but that's actually on purpose. This one is digging into weightier themes than the first two. While all three start off with long periods of set-up before unleashing their genre elements, this film's set-up takes much longer than the others - a third of the film by my estimate, in fact. Once it gets going, the film does not ever slow down, but that lead-in is necessary to establish the characters and their situations.
While Shaun and Fuzz were at their heart buddy films, centered around characters played by Pegg and Frost, this is much more of an ensemble. Pegg is still the lead, though, and he's at a career best here. He brings a great mixture of manicness and patheticness to Gary, playing his endless adolescence to perfection. He's the kind of guy you love to kick up trouble with, but don't want to have to deal with in the morning... or any daylight, for that matter. There's a core of pitiful sadness underneath his aggravating chipperness, arising from his inability to let go.
Bouncing off of Pegg are Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, and Eddie Marsan. Frost is Andrew, Gary's former best friend who was once just as riotous as he, but who now has a family and his own law firm. Considine is Steven, whose robust sex life conceals a lingering sense of lovelornness. Freeman is Oliver, one of those kinds of people whose bluetooth headset is seemingly built into their ear. Marsan is Peter, a milquetoast ruled by those around him, too passive to ever assert himself. While they are at first intentionally frosty around each other, as The Golden Mile crawls on, more alcohol works its way into their system, and science fiction threats become increasingly prevalent, the quintet truly feels like a rabble of old pals who know each other far too well for comfort. Rosamund Pike also joins them for extended sequences, playing Oliver's sister Sam, who has had past flings with both Gary and Steven.
What differentiates these men from Gary is that they seem to have moved on with their lives. But while they might not live in nostalgia the way he does, each of them is stuck in the past in their own way. Steven pines still for Sam. Andrew can't let go of his resentment over an accident for which he blames Gary. For them, returning to Newton Haven is like tearing open a wound that you thought was fully healed, but actually wasn't. Making it even worse is the fact that no one in the town seems to remember them, that they mean nowhere near as much to it as it does to them. As I can personally attest, and I'm sure many others can as well, going back to your hometown can be like visiting aliens. The story of The World's End takes that conceit and literalizes it. In the process, it explores what it really means to grow up.
See, while the stakes of the film are apocalyptic, the real question is whether Gary could possibly grow up, even a little. More to the point, is it possible to grow up without being Starbucked by society? And if it isn't, is it really worth it to grow up at all? Might a better option be to upend that sort of system entirely? Every aspect of The World's End swirls around this idea. The fact that it does so while being hilarious, exhilarating, and heartfelt is what makes it great. In many ways, this film is a companion piece to last year's just as brilliant The Cabin in the Woods. Though this movie's apocalyptic vision is way more fun. Of course, it's way more fun than any number of apocalypses Hollywood has had to offer.