Edgar Wright’s The World’s End might not have the references and overt “I’m a geek, you’re a geek” camaraderie of Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz (the first two films in a thematic trilogy completed here), but it’s very much from the heart of a geek who knows you can never go back. There’s no way (and no need) to replicate Shaun, and if the filmmakers had tried they would be succumbing to the same dangerous nostalgia that dots and haunts the life of new protagonist Gary King (Simon Pegg in his best performance to date). Instead, Wright and Pegg, who co-wrote the film, have decided to say goodbye to an era.
Gary King was once the ringleader of his group of friends, back in the bygone salad and beer days of 1990. As is often the case with those who feel like they’re on top of the world by the end of high school, Gary has felt little impetus to change in the ensuing years. He still lives in the same flat, still listens to the same tapes, still wears his Sisters Of Mercy t-shirt and still drinks like he’s 18. Meanwhile his friends, even if they haven’t conquered the world, have transitioned into a reasonably healthy adulthood. When Gary rounds them up to recreate an epic pub crawl they once attempted (and failed to complete), the tragedy of his choices over the past 23 years becomes painfully evident.
Where Shaun was a horror film and Hot Fuzz was an action movie, The World’s End is a sci-fi adventure that harkens back to Invasion Of the Body Snatchers (its emphasis on allegory, particularly relating to the dilemma of its protagonist, also has a bit of a John Carpenter bent). It’s also the most mature film in the trilogy. While probably not the out-of-the-box classic that Shaun was, it easily packs the biggest emotional wallop out of the three. I’ve always loved the air-tight swiss watch quality of Wright and Pegg’s screenplays, but this is the first time one of their films has been able to sting with such regularity. While Shaun built to an utterly heartbreaking moment where our hero is forced to kill his mother, there’s a constant familiar desperation to Gary’s plight that leaves our defenses weakened. The film jabs at us and then gets back to making us laugh with an admirable swiftness.
That’s not to say that the film is light on action and alien menace, it isn’t. In fact, the mastery Wright displayed in the fight scenes of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is pushed even further here. While the scale may seem smaller, the stakes aren’t – not everyone is going to make it. Still, Gary’s insistence on self-actualization/destruction remains the most frightening element. In this regard the stakes are even higher than in Shaun. When you’re 29, you’ve still got a lot of wiggle room after you decide to turn things around. That’s not alway the case when you’re 40. Sure, you can stop drinking and stop deluding yourself – but the fear that inspired such escape and delusion has, through years of neglect, now ossified into a reality. Why face that when you can run down the clock (and your liver) just as easily? Of course, the reasons why are self-evident from the other side of things (hopefully our side of things) but in the thick of what is essentially a spiritual illness they seem utterly unattainable.
The alien plot (that is, the plot of the Aliens) ties into this remarkably, simultaneously placing the youth Gary craves on the table side-by-side with the “slavery” he fears. The films builds nicely to a conclusion that’s wordy and challenging, but still compelling as Gary combats his biggest enemy – himself. And while Wright’s film is full of laughs, something I perhaps haven’t mentioned enough, it avoids easy answers and refuses to lie about everything being “okay.”
While The World’s End completes a thematic arc present in Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, I can’t tell you that it feels exactly like those films. What I will tell you is that this is not a bad thing. In fact, that’s the point. Completing an arc means resolving it, it means saying goodbye to “the beginning” and many of the things you loved about it. Those two movies will always exist in your hearts and on your shelves. Demanding them to be made over and over again… that would be very Gary King of you.