The World’s End Is Even Better Than Shaun of the Dead

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Aug. 22 2013 6:58 PM

The World’s End

Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s best movie yet.

A still from "The World's End."
It's the end of the world as they know it.

Courtesy of Focus Features.

The English writer-director Edgar Wright’s The World’s End is the third and perhaps best in his wonderful trilogy of genre spoofs, known variously as the “Blood and Ice Cream” trilogy, the “Cornetto” trilogy, or the “Three Flavours Cornetto” trilogy. (The fact there are three schools on what to call it speaks volumes about the devotion—and the geekiness—of the series’ fans.) There was the zombie romantic comedy Shaun of the Dead (2004), the buddy-cop action adventure Hot Fuzz (2007), and now, The World’s End, which might be classified as a sci-fi … bromance? (Simon Pegg, the co-writer and star of all three films, recently told the podcast host Marc Maron that he dislikes that word and concept because—I’m paraphrasing here—it devalues male friendship by reducing it to a string of jokes about straight-boy homophobia. I tend to agree, in addition to objecting to bromance on general annoying-buzzword principles. Let’s phase it out.)

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Though they don’t share any characters, the Cornetto films draw from a common pool of actors, including Pegg, his longtime comic collaborator Nick Frost, Bill Nighy, and others. Above all, though, the movies are united by a directorial approach that uses pastiche and parody as storytelling tools rather than just delivery devices for jokes. (Not that all three movies aren’t also bursting with snappy dialogue and rapid-fire visual gags.) Wright sets his sights higher than most comedy directors when it comes to both technical artistry and emotional depth. He can get a laugh from the way he uses the camera, along with what’s happening in front of it, and his characters tend to be more complex and less heroic than your average zombie-outrunning, mystery-solving, alien-slaughtering genre heroes. Though he is only 39 years old, Wright’s punchy, genre-bending style has already been an influence on other English filmmakers, including the comedian-turned-director Joe Cornish, who made the 2011 aliens-in-the-ghetto thriller Attack the Block with Wright as executive producer.

Gary King (Pegg), the protagonist of The World’s End, is the darkest Wright hero yet, a lonely alcoholic in his early 40s still fixated on his youthful heyday as the hardest-partying kid in the village of Newton Haven. An opening voice-over in which Gary lyrically recalls a legendary all-night pub crawl with his then-teenage friends soon reveals itself to be the adult Gary speaking at an AA meeting—from which he then bolts with an impulsive plan to seek out his now-estranged childhood mates and recreate the whole thing. Although they are now functioning adults with careers and families, Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (Martin Freeman), and Steven (Paddy Considine) reluctantly allow themselves to be dragged into this clearly foolhardy plan. But Andrew (Nick Frost), now a teetotaler, is tougher to convince—after all, the whole reason he’s stopped drinking has to do with some undisclosed event in the past involving Gary. Finally, after establishing that he’ll be drinking water only, Andrew crankily consents to come along, and the five men set out to drink their way through the 12 pubs that make up the “Golden Mile.”

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That sounds like the setup to an awesome movie even before the alien robots with bright-blue blood come along. Which happens about three pubs in, after the boys have already started to notice some odd things about their old village. First off, none of the residents seem to recognize them—though could that just be because they left town longer ago than they’re willing to admit, and were never as big a part of local legend as they’d like to imagine? The pubs, too, seem different, their grotty individual character subsumed by the chains that have been buying them out and making them depressingly identical.

But it’s the blue-blooded robots that seal the deal: Newton Haven is being taken over by some sort of malevolent interplanetary force, and it’s the boys’ job to … save the world? Get the hell out of town? Or should they, on the advice of the charismatic but demented Gary, try to escape alien detection and achieve some ill-defined moral victory by staying the course and finishing the Golden Mile?

It’s clear from the earliest moments of The World’s End (whose title is also the name of the last pub on the route) that for Gary, the completion of the pub crawl matters more than his own, or even his friends’, survival. His methodical insistence on downing a pint in every one of those 12 bars even as mayhem erupts around him becomes a gesture of fuck-the-world nihilism, a search for his lost youth, and a symbolic suicide attempt. These high emotional stakes are palpable even in the scenes involving men’s-room fistfights and dance-floor robot seductions, so that The World’s End functions equally well as a rollicking action comedy and a powerful parable about addiction. Nor do Gary’s marginally more sensible mates exist only as a background canvas to his self-destruction—each man has his own fears, failures, and secrets, which they reveal to one another other gradually over the course of an increasingly disastrous night. The five actors constitute a superb ensemble, creating a group dynamic that’s as toxic as it is hilarious. Wright keeps things moving with whiz-bang in-camera tricks, action choreographed by Jackie Chan’s longtime stunt coordinator, and pop music from the boys’ salad days, including Primal Scream’s bouncy 1990 party anthem “Loaded.”

I think you can deduce from the foregoing that I pretty much unreservedly loved The World’s End, whose compact dramatic structure and steady flow of good jokes puts most mainstream American comedies—too often loosely bundled collections of hit-or-miss sketches—to shame. There are a handful of rough spots in Wright and Pegg’s script. A coda that walks us through the aftermath of the robot invasion felt either too short or altogether unnecessary, and (as was the case with Wright’s last film, the graphic-novel adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) the fight scenes, however cleverly staged and shot, started to resemble one another after the third or fourth go-round. One might also wish there’d been a more substantial role for the reliably delightful Rosamund Pike, who plays one character’s sister and the object of another’s longtime crush, but who seems to appear only when the bloke-centric narrative absolutely requires it. Still, The World’s End not only makes a more than worthy conclusion to the Cornetto trilogy—it stands on its own as one of the sharpest, saddest and wisest comedies of the year.

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