A man of your legendary prowess drinking fucking rain! (spoiler notice)
And so ends Edgar Wright's, Simon Pegg's and Nick Frost's much-lauded 'Cornetto trilogy'. The World's End comes not entirely hot on the heels of the breakthrough success of 2004's Shaun of the Dead and the hilarious Hot Fuzz from 2007. Once again, the story centers around a pair of friends played by Pegg and Frost. I say a pair, not the pair, since the tales are unrelated and the characters different every time. The trilogy's hallmark isn't its stories, it's the way it smartly deconstructs modern genre cinema and its tropes; lovingly put together in films brimming with inside jokes, knowing foreshadowing and a real jolt of craft.
Except, The World's End falls remarkably flat in comparison to its forebears. Yes, that's unfair, since it's a fun and deft movie in itself, but no, it's fair, because we're not talking about a set of newcomers trying their best at a new gig – this is the finale to the smartest group of comedies in the last decade bar none. Expectations, those damned dirty things, have a place here. The movie, regrettably, falls a little short of them.
At face value, all is in place. Pegg is marvelous as smarmy, deadbeat alcoholic Gary King, who reached his zenith in high school with an almost-perfect run of twelve pubs in quaint Newton Haven. He's now stuck living that fading moment of glory. His four friends have moved on and grown up, including his best mate Andy. Twenty five years later, Gary insists on them returning to finish what they started. The group grudgingly acquiesces to their obnoxious, self-centered childhood leader. The film takes a while to set all of this up, before the fun begins with a surprise genre twist into science fiction.
The town turns out to be overrun by robots from space, who have replaced all the original inhabitants (a metaphor for the feeling of alienation upon returning to your home town after decades). Gary convinces everyone that the best course of action is not to flee, but to finish the golden mile so as not to raise suspicion. This despite them moving from bar fight to bar fight, the local toilets drenched in blue robot blood and flailing limbs. What's at stake here, the movie subtly informs us, is no extraterrestrial invasion, but Gary's unrelenting alcoholism. He must finish the pub crawl, it's the only thing that matters to him. At the heart of The World's End is a simple, tragic tale of a man lost to addiction.
This is where the film stops. Well, it continues, of course, but it stops developing. Things happen, the group falls apart, yet the story ideas sort of fizzle out. After the umpteenth robot rumpus, you start wondering if this is all it has to offer. Not counting the surprising twist at the end, yes, this is the case. I'm not arguing about the careful themes and the smart way in which the film tells us about Gary's illness, that's all right in order, or out of order, I should say. Where it disappoints is the actual thing on the screen, the action, the dialogue. Where is the boundless imagination that made Hot Fuzz such a delight? The clockwork storytelling that elevated Shaun of the Dead? Here, the frequent fistfights feel like filler. The laughs are there, but it's a little emptier and more repetitive than it needs to be to rise up to its peers. The science fiction angle in particular reminded me a little too much of Paul, another feature with Pegg and Frost, though not directed by Wright, from 2011.
I think one's reaction to The World's End will have a lot to do with your own, personal circumstances. I've read a review by someone absolutely smitten by it, because they were or had been struggling themselves with alcoholism. To them, the film felt smart and true and painfully close. But I have no experience at all with substance abuse. I don't even 'do' substances. As a result, to me, an addiction is almost cartoon-like behavior. Why can't Gary just not drink that glass of beer? A human without a shred of self-control might as well be Bugs Bunny. I'm not trying to belittle the issue, which is incredibly grave and destructive, I'm merely explaining why I feel a lot more for a character like Shaun, the flailing twenty-something worker struggling with relationships – something I do feel a connection to – than Gary. Both of them have about the same depth and proceed along a similar character arc, but one taps into a very specific problem and condition, while the other tackles a fundamental human struggle experienced by almost everyone.
I'm sure further viewings will have something to offer. Hopefully little touches like the repeat camera movements of Shaun, tracking from their house to the grocery store, that quickened the pulse when you first noticed it. Perhaps then I'll find that familiar, diabolical sense of enjoyment, that spark of ingenuity. As I look at it now, it's a well-written comedy, above most others this year, that offers plenty of laughs and delightful, ridiculous characters. It's so much fun. But not quite up to the Cornetto-challenge.