The previous two films in Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s “Cornetto Trilogy” – Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz – leaned heavily on nostalgia and pop culture references to tell their stories. What sets The World’s End apart from its predecessor is that, while it has nods to films like The Terminator, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Big Chill, it takes a magnifying glass to this pop culture obsession and perpetual nostalgia and wonders aloud if it is unhealthy to spend too much of your life chasing past joys.
The film’s protagonist is Gary King (Simon Pegg), a man so obsessed with the past that he walks around still sporting the same goth hair, Sister of Mercy t-shirt and trench coat he wore in high school. He even drives around in the same beat down old car. The film opens with him talking about his greatest triumph – the day he and his four high school buddies attempted the “Golden Mile,” a pub crawl visiting all 12 pubs in their hometown of Newton Haven. He and his friends never actually made it all the way to the final pub – The World’s End – but their quest was so much fun that Gary feels like it was the moment his life peaked.
Twenty years later, Gary decides to get the gang back together to finally finish the Golden Mile. The rest of the crew – Andy Knightley (Nick Frost), Oliver Chamberlain (Martin Freeman), Steven Prince (Paddy Considine) and Peter Page (Eddie Marsan) – all have moved on with their lives, landing solid jobs and building families. But they allow Gary to talk them into reuniting for a weekend, a decision they quickly regret. As they deal with old wounds from the past and Gary’s assortment of character defects and selfish habits, they also have to deal with a supernatural force. Newton Haven isn’t quite what it seems. People in the town have been replaced with robot doppelgangers who have a nefarious plan.
The brilliance of the Cornetto Trilogy is the way that Pegg and Wright use the genres they set their films in as a tool to tell a deeper emotional story. Sure, its fun to see these five guys square off against a town full of robotic foes, but in a way, the body snatching plot feels secondary. Anyone who comes back to visit their hometown after being gone for 20 years can relate to the idea that, while aesthetically everything looks the same, somehow it all feels oddly foreign to you. The difference in this film is that it doesn’t just feel foreign and slightly off, it actually is because of these invading robots.
Similarly, the invasion storyline enhances Gary’s quest to finish this pub crawl and reveals just how desperate and sad this character truly is. Any rational person, when confronted with evidence that their town was overrun with dangerous artificial beings, would get out of there as quickly as possible. But Gary somehow uses this shocking development as the reason they have to continue on with the Golden Mile. They can’t arouse suspicion, he claims. And besides, they’ve all been drinking and are in no shape to drive. But really, it reveals to the audience just how firmly Gary is clinging to the past. His desperation to complete this quest at any cost reveals his character.
Pegg and Wright should be applauded for their willingness to make the film’s protagonist such a sad and horrible person. It’s hard to imagine a protagonist like Gary ever seeing the light of day in a Hollywood film. Studios like antiheroes, but they usually go out of their way to give the character a handful of redeeming qualities that show that deep down he’s not such a bad guy. While you still like Gary and root for him, Pegg and Wright are completely willing to portray him as a selfish jerk. You pity him more often than you applaud him. He manipulates his friends at every turn to get what he wants. He has harmed them in incalculable ways over the years. And the lie he uses in order to convince Andy to bury the hatchet and come along on this pub crawl is beyond reprehensible. It takes courage to write such a flawed, selfish character as your lead (and, in Pegg’s case, to then portray him on-screen), but the result of that bold decision is incredibly rewarding.
The film does give us two true heroes to root for. Andy feels like the actual hero of the story and he has a really wonderful emotional arc throughout the film. And Steven is the charming guy who is chasing the girl. He’s still in love with Oliver’s sister Sam (Rosamund Pike), who he never quite had the courage to pursue back in high school. Considine proves to be a very charismatic and relatable romantic lead and he and Pike have great chemistry. And Frost, who in the previous two Cornetto films often times felt more like Pegg’s characters’ sidekick, really shines as the film’s true hero.
Fulfilling emotional journeys and epic robot battles aside, the film is also incredibly funny. Pegg and Wright know how to sprinkle heavy doses of humor throughout their films in a way that feels organic and never gets in the way of the storytelling. And even if you don’t get all of the various pop culture references and homages they love to lace throughout their scripts, they also do a good job of filling the second half of their films with plenty of callbacks to the first half, which makes you feel like you are in many of the inside jokes.
The World’s End is an incredibly satisfying film. The script shows a maturity and a willingness to go to some dark places that is really impressive. Emotionally, it is the most fulfilling movie in the trilogy. And it is easily one of the funniest and most entertaining films of the summer. I highly recommend seeing it as soon as you possibly can.