By Jacob Mertens.
In film, there are any number of ways the world can end: zombies wreak havoc across the globe, colossal monsters terrorize earth from an inter-dimensional riff in our ocean’s depths, the biblical apocalypse forces mid-grade celebrities to bunker down in James Franco’s house and whine incessantly about their predicament. Indeed, the end times have produced an over-saturation of desperate struggles for survival, of ravaged landscapes and roaming misfits. And yet, I still find something compelling at work in this global fascination with the end, a shade of insight often unattainable in more mundane moments of strife. The raw emotion of those pushed to the brink, the way a character’s past can haunt a world with no future—these are storytelling devices unique to the form that, when developed in a meaningful way, offer the audience another way to look at their lives and the world around them.
In Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, the film’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers-inspired premise feels little more than an excuse for absurd carnage, at least at first. Gary King, played by Simon Pegg, lives under the shadow of his former self: a high school delinquent who held the world in sway. Since graduating, King has stubbornly refused life’s maturation process and in so doing has alienated every friend he once had. In a fit of nostalgia, the man cajoles (and deceives) his former high school posse into joining him on a quest to relive his glory days at their old stomping grounds. Accompanied by a distrustful if not mild-mannered lot of lawyers and real-estate agents, King eagerly sets out to conquer the Golden Mile Pub Crawl: 12 pints, 12 pubs, and a guarantee of revelry. However, as King and company begin their tour of debauchery, in which King alone seems distractedly convinced of its brilliance, a strange thing happens: the group is attacked by blue-blooded robots disguised as human beings.
This ingenious and sudden turn gives way to bedlam: cyborg teenagers ripped limb from limb as King’s middle-aged band of brothers squeal in confusion, fear, delight, and rage. The scene is a beautifully orchestrated, awkward mosh pit brawl and it sets the tone for King’s nonsensical pursuit to rediscover the joy of his adolescence. Yes, after the robots are dispatched the group continues on the Golden Mile at the behest of King, though they begin to suspect the entire town has been replaced by these cyborgs. Even when their suspicions are confirmed, King argues that the sensible action is to continue as if nothing had happened, to avoid confrontation and leave with a righteous hangover in the morning. For some reason the group agrees and a tense standoff between human and cyborg begins.
As the film goes on, the grand scale of the robot invasion is revealed, a desperate struggle for all humanity ensues, and Gary King stubbornly ignores it in favor of shotgunning pints at each pub left on his list. The man is convinced in the sanctity of his juvenile expedition and remains undeterrable, and so the end of the world provides a comic edge to the dire importance King has given to his task. The lengths King goes to in order to secure his drunken achievement are hilarious, but more importantly they are integral to an honest and surprisingly dark pathos. King is, for the first time in a long time, surrounded by his former friends, but he cannot interact with them as they are now. Instead, he engages with them as if no time has passed, an interaction that remains entirely one-sided, while using the Golden Mile Pub Crawl as an excuse to discard the present as a bitter daydream. His life may be in shambles, and he may have burnt out in ways his former friends cannot appreciate, seeing as how this fact is buried beneath bluster and cocksure banter, but none of that really matters. In King’s mind, the completion of the pub crawl would mean a victory over his former self, a way of affirming that his life did not end after high school—and he pursues the goal with little regard to his own well-being.
The World’s End marks the third installment in the self-proclaimed Cornetto film trilogy, following cult classics Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007). However, unlike the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost pairings of the first two films, Frost’s character in World’s End feels less a partner in the proceedings and more a supporting cast-member. This is a necessary step back because it allows Pegg’s character to be truly alone, while the end of the world gives that loneliness context. When all hell rains down on King’s dwindling group, the man cannot protect himself nor mourn for his lost friends. This would be an act of living in the present, an act far too painful for King to be a part of, so he refuses to acknowledge the situation and stumbles through mankind’s annihilation in a beaming, drunken stupor. Ultimately, King chooses oblivion over self-preservation, a choice he had made long before the end of the world ever came into play.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.