Putting it delicately so as to avoid revealing precise context, our ostensible heroes find themselves in one of those familiar cinematic situations where everyone around them is not necessarily what they seem and so now our ostensible heroes are worried even they might not be what they seem. How to prove to each other they are legit? Simple, they will show their scars. An arm, a leg, a chest, any old war wound will do, so long as it’s acquired from way back when. This scene is about our heroes re-proving their identities for safety’s sake, sure, but more than that it’s about our heroes re-connecting with their past and re-affirming their one true selves. They might not be re-connecting and re-affirming willingly, but it’s happening all the same.
“The World’s End”, director Edgar Wright’s final entry into his so-called Cornetto Trilogy, is both not as great as its predecessors, “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”, and greater. It does not toy with its genre conventions – in this case, apocalyptic – with quite the same relentlessly gleeful abandon but it does strive, as I suppose all trilogy concluders should, for something more humanistic and profound, even if in the end Wright cannot help but twist the satirical knife one last time.
Its driving plot point is a pub crawl initiated and captained by Gary King (Simon Pegg, co-writer with Wright) once the coolest kid in the tony English suburb of Newton Haven and now looking at 40 with a life of unfulfilled promise behind him. Well, maybe not promise. Maybe he never had much promise. Maybe he’s just unfulfilled. Alas, for Gary it seems fulfillment can only be found in the bottom of a pint (Wright makes the pouring of a pint so poetic and traumatizing at once) and so he determines to re-tackle the famed Golden Mile. This is the notorious crawl of twelve pubs in Newton Haven finishing up at the aptly named World’s End. At 17 Gary and his four best friends failed in this quest. Thus, he tells a few white lies to re-unite them and off they go.
The four friends (Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan) have all moved on to varying degrees of responsibility and happiness and sadness – marriages, divorces, kids, white collars. Wright admirably does not portray these corporate lifestyles as quite the hammered-home no-win drudgery they usually are in film, but nor does he portray them as rosy content. They have matured and grown up, but they have also come face-to-face with the everyday abyss. The older you get the more you realize this pub looks exactly like the last pub and that the next pub will probably look exactly like this pub and even if you have nobly chosen to trade in ale for tap water this knowledge can be enough to momentarily make you lose the will to abstain and down a tray of shots all on your lonesome.
None of this is to suggest that Gary King’s extended adolescence is heroic. He is our hero in that sense that he is the main character. Other than that his drinking problem is immense, his selfishness is staggering, his stasis is depressing. When he spies the requisite girl that got away (Rosamund Pike) he simply assumes she must want to pick up right where they left off (in the disabled stall) as randy teenagers. Aside from the mileage on his face he is the same person he was at 17, and so “The World’s End” finds our disgruntled quintet in that scary no-man’s-land directly between their current selves and their past selves. The fate of their future selves might be at stake.
And the future of the world. Wright does virtually nothing in accordance with standard cinematic procedure to foreshadow the twists and turns to come (and that shall not be revealed). Rather he allows the set-up itself, returning to a hometown that has become unfamiliar, foretell the trouble awaiting the prodigal sons that no one seems to recognize. Gary and his very own sisters of mercy will find their lives changed in the course of having to fight for them.
Ultimately that might be Wright’s slyest dig. The end would suggest a rejection of complacency and an acceptance of the human race as a pitiable but good-hearted band of screw-ups; that we would rather wallow in an authentic darkness than succeed in a phony light. Of course, to reach this point Gary has to decide which takes precedence – what he wants or what the rest of the world wants.
Cinematic cataclysm so often exists to spur our protagonist forward, and the film plays straight to this idea. One man’s ultimate insight is another man’s world’s end.