31 Days of Halloween, alien invasion, auteur theory, Best of 2013, British comedies, British films, cinema, co-writers, David Bradley, Eddie Marsan, Edgar Wright, favorite films, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, friends, Gary King, horror-comedies, Hot Fuzz, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, male friendships, Martin Freeman, Michael Smiley, Movies, Nick Frost, obnoxious friends, Paddy Considine, Pierce Brosnan, pubs, Rosamund Pike, sci-fi, Shaun of the Dead, siege, SImon Pegg, the Cornetto trilogy, the Golden Mile, the Network, The World's End, writer-director, youth vs old age
Like most vacation destinations, nostalgia is a great place to visit but a pretty awful place to live. While all of us may spend at least some part of our lives pining for “the good old days” and hoping to relive past glories, there comes a time when we must plant our eyes firmly ahead and charge straight into the unknown, lest we find that our lives have become the equivalent of a hamster ball: furious motion with no chance of forward movement. In a real reason sense, nostalgia can kill…but it sure is a pretty poison.
Writer-director Edgar Wright’s The World’s End (2013), the third entry in his unofficial “Cornetto Trilogy” that also features Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), is a movie that’s not only about the curse of nostalgia but also informed by this very phenomena: it’s a classic case of having your cake and eating it, too, if you will and it’s doubtful that many directors could pull it off as capably as Wright does here. The end result is wildly successful and, as far as I’m concerned, ranks as Wright’s greatest film, thus far, a towering achievement that manages to be equal parts gut-busting and thought-provoking. It’s a film that should be enjoyed by just about anyone but will have particular relevance to that portion of society who find themselves aging into versions of themselves that seem distinctly watered-down from their youthful ideals. For anyone approaching middle-age who’ve ever taken a long look in the mirror and asked, “What the hell happened to me?,” Wright’s got the cheeky answer: “You got fucking old, mate…it happens to the best of us.”
The man-child at the center of Wright’s latest opus is Gary King, expertly portrayed by Wright regular Simon Pegg, who’s managed to turn these type of roles into something of a cottage industry. From his start on the BBC with cult-hit Spaced to more recent films like How To Lose Friends & Alienate People (2008) and A Fantastic Fear of Everything (2012), Pegg has become something of the go-to guy for schlubs trying to relive their youth, characters who would rather get ripped at the pub, play video games all day long and avoid honest work than buckle down and admit that the care-free days are far in the rearview mirror.
In this case, Gary King is firmly stuck in the past: 1991, to be exact, which happens to be the year that he and his pack of friends attempted, but failed, to complete the Golden Mile. The Golden Mile entails drinking a pint at twelve different pubs, culminating in the titular World’s End pub. As far as he’s concerned, Gary’s life never got any better than that one debauched night and he’s spent the two decades since chasing that same dragon. He wears the same clothes as he used to, drives the same junker car, listens to the exact same mixtape and obsessively dwells on every minute detail of that era. When it all gets to be too much, Gary decides to do the only “sensible” thing: get the band back together, as it were, and give the Golden Mile another go.
There’s only one problem: Gary’s crew haven’t seen him in 20-odd years and many of them detest him with a passion normally reserved for baby-stealing dingoes. Never one to let common sense spoil a good plan, Gary goes about insinuating himself back into the lives of his former comrades, all the while trying to wheedle them into giving their old drinking challenge another try. Times, of course, have moved on and so have Gary’s “friends”: Andy (Nick Frost), Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Steve (Paddy Considine) all have their own lives, jobs and responsibilities to see to and none of them, particularly former best friend Andy, want anything to do with their former “leader.”
Gary’s nothing if not insistent, however, and in no time, he’s got the group back on the Golden Mile. As they pub-hop, however, issues old and new continue to rear their ugly heads: Andy is now a teetotaling “party-pooper” while no one is willing to forgive Gary’s past (and present) churlish behavior. When Oliver’s sister, Sam (Rosamund Pike) enters the picture, new conflicts abound: Gary had sex with Sam in the bathroom on that fateful night so long ago, but it’s poor Steve who’s always pined for her. Just when Gary’s insensitive, assholish behavior threatens to tear the group apart for the second time, they become united in something that seems a bit more important: the group stumbles upon a sinister plot to usurp humanity and invade our planet, a plot which they seem to be in the unique position to foil…even they can quit taking pot-shots at each other, that is. As Gary and his friends fight for the very survival of our species, they’re also fighting for the survival of their long-gone friendships and relationships, seeking to move from the immature past into the responsible present. If they succeed, mankind will live to fight another day. If they don’t, however, we may just see a future that makes Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) seem more like public service announcement than flight of fancy.
The most important thing to note about The World’s End is how absolutely, completely and totally enthralling the film is: from the very first to the very last one, Wright’s film grabs the audience by the lapels and doesn’t let go. From rapid-fire dialogue to an endless array of inventive and (frequently) astounding sight gags to one thrilling setpiece after another, The World’s End is absolutely relentless. The film rarely comes up for breath and hardly ever slows down. This could, of course, be a recipe for one very tiresome film: nonstop chaos is almost impossible to pull off, as evidenced by the fact that even mostly successful films like Airplane (1980) feature as many leaden duds as high-soaring hits. Thanks to the exceptional script, sure-handed direction and fantastic ensemble cast, however, The World’s End is one high-point after the other.
Truth be told, I’d already fallen in love with the film by the time the opening credits rolled: the next 100 minutes simply served to reaffirm this feeling. While I enjoyed both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, there was something about The World’s End that really struck a chord with me. Perhaps it’s the theme of aging gracefully into a more mature version of yourself…perhaps it was the wildly inventive invasion plot…perhaps it was just the fact that the film manages to hit all of its marks and then some…whatever the reason, The World’s End hooked me hard and refused to let go.
Since part of the film’s endless charm comes from the myriad surprises that it manages to throw at the audience, I’d be remiss to shed too much light on any of them. Suffice to say that the film features fist-raising moments galore: a spot-on reference to the under-rated Dead and Buried (1981); clever riffs on Invasion of the Body Snatchers; a throw-away visual reference to The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) that’s made my jaw drop, a little; the fact that the climax manages to revolve around not just one but two classic clichés of sci-fi cinema; Nick Frost playing a neebish…Martin Freeman taking his prim and proper caracatures to their logical extreme…the film is like an endless replenishing box of goodies, coughing up untold comic treasures at a moment’s notice.
The comedy’s not the only thing that hits the mark, however: The World’s End succeeds just as capably as a sci-fi/horror film, featuring some truly intense and frightening scenes. The moments where the Blanks’ eyes and mouths become the equivalent of high beams is a truly chilling moment, whereas the numerous fight scenes are brilliantly choreographed and staged. One fight in particular, which features Simon Pegg moving in and around a brawl while attempting to avoid spilling his treasured pint of lager, is pure gold, perhaps the single best fight scene I’ve seen in years. Make no bones about it: The World’s End is a very, very funny film. It’s also a very thrilling film, however: the two polar opposites are absolutely not mutually exclusive, in this case.
In truth, there’s very little real criticism I can give the film, aside from the fact that I felt the final coda was a bit silly and unnecessary. Aside from that, however, I found myself in a pretty constant state of awe for nearly two hours. The World’s End is a smashing success, a film that sets a pretty high bar for itself, right out of the gate, and then manages to effortlessly hurdle that bar. It’s a film that can be enjoyed by anyone but should be treasured by those folks with even a passing interest in sci-fi (classic and otherwise).
There’s one point in the film where Gary posits that something must be going on with the people in the town because they’ve “changed”: 20 years later and no one seems to be acting the way he remembered. He never once, of course, allows for the distressing notion that he might be the one who’s changed, not them. We’d like to believe that we’re the truest people out there, the equivalent of a bunch of Holden Caulfields stomping through the masses, pointing out “phonies” left and right. In reality, however, we’re all just as compromised as the next person: time and the need to survive make hypocrites of us all.
Gary thinks that if he can just retrace his steps, he’ll be able to unlock some sort of Fountain of Youth, some way to prevent any more of himself from slipping away. He’s wrong, of course: the most that any of us can do is face the future, keep our backs to the past and keep trudging forward. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to make the journey with some good friends and companions. If not, we’ll keep circling the drain spout of irrelevance, ending up as no more than the dreams that our youthful selves never dared to hope might one day come true. When an ultra-goofy alien invasion comedy can make you think about stuff like this, you have what I like to call a classic on your hands.