Sitting down after watching the third chapter in the “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy” (a.k.a., the Cornetto Trilogy, so named for the brand of ice cream that appears in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ, and now THE WORLD’S END), I would like to write a lengthy, detailed review noting intricate virtues of the triumphant final flavor (mint chocolate chip, for those keeping track). Unfortunately, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg neglected to craft a triumphant film, so I cannot write that review. Far from the crowning conclusion, the third serving of Cornetto melts slowly for 109 minutes, its initial lustre resolving into a gooey, sticky mess on the sidewalk. Yes, technically it’s still mint chocolate chip, but you wouldn’t want to eat it, except to prove your unswerving fealty to the Wright-Pegg tribe.
This time out, Pegg plays Gary King, a middle aged former big fish in a small pond, who laboriously explains the back story in a prologue sequence that turns out to be a monologue at some kind of group therapy session. Gary regrets never finishing the quest he and his friends attempted years ago, to pub-crawl their way through all twelve local establishments in their home town. With nothing else going on in his life, Gary cajoles and badgers his old mates into having a second go. What follows is a fitfully amusing but dramatically trite exploration of middle age, but wait – and you knew this was coming – there’s a twist: the small British town has been taken over by alien robots!
The sci-fi element is intended to put a jolt into the otherwise mundane story (god knows that watching Gary and company work their way through a dozen pubs is not enough to sustain a feature film), and to some extent it does enliven the proceedings. Unfortunately, the alien invasion is also intended to lend a new perspective to Gary’s predicament, forcing him and his friends to realize what’s truly important in life. Well, sort of.
You see, what’s really happening is something else – perhaps not fully intentional, but not entirely accidental, either. Gary, frankly, is a self-centered jerk; although he presents the pub-crawl as a chance for him and his friends to reunite, the exercise really serves only his needs, and everyone else is just along for the ride, because he would feel incomplete without his posse. In his context, the threat of alien invasion does not force a revaluation of Gary’s personal priorities; it serves to reinforce – or at least, eclipse – his personal failings. Along with his friends on screen, we in the audience are supposed to forget about what a louse Gary is, because how important is that when the world’s end is nigh?
Unfortunately for THE WORLD’S END, it is nearly impossible to overlook Gary’s shortcomings, because Pegg nails them so perfectly in his first few minutes of screen time. What he never manages to do – ever – is convey the charm that would coax his friends into following him like trained puppy dogs. Throughout Gary’s interaction with Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), Peter (Eddie Marsan), and Andy (Nick Frost), we wonder why they ever put up with him, let alone agreed to get back together with him. (He convinces Andy to come along by lying about his mother’s supposed death; Andy is too stupid to see through the obvious deceit, which the film reveals later as if it were a surprise.)
We also find ourselves yearning eagerly for one of Gary’s “friends” to punch him in the nose; when it finally happens in the third act, it is about an hour too late. By this time, whatever flavor the film had has melted away. Gary’s insistence on completing his quest – even after the aliens have snatched two of his friends – is incredible and absurd, but never really funny, and he never has a change of heart or one of those personal growth moments that might make us think there had been a reason for making him the protagonist.
Instead, THE WORLD’S END leads up to cornball conclusion in which the Voice of the “Network” (Bill Nighy) tries to coerce Gary into joining the aliens voluntarily. The aliens turn out to be less interested in violent take-over than a simple merger; they would rather win allies than replace them with Stepford Clones, but they are willing to use force if necessary, because otherwise it would not be so obvious that they were the bad guys – which is necessary in order to make Gary seem like a good guy. In response to the alien’s offer, Gary’s penchant for fucking up everything he touches is provided as a counter-point, as if it were a point of honor – proof of the superiority of the human race. We are supposed to cheer Gary’s individuality – his desire to be free and do what he wants to do* – but he provides such a miserable example of the human race, that it’s easy to see why the aliens thought we needed a little help up the evolutionary ladder. In fact, our final image of Gary sees him starting a bar fight – lethal judging by the weapons on display – over a drink of water, in the post-apocalyptic world that results from the aliens’ departure. Presumably, Wright and Pegg intend this message to be taken with a heavy dose of irony, but they offer no evidence for this onscreen.
In spite of everything that is wrong with THE WORLD’S END (the title is taken from the last pub the boys reach), Pegg and Wright are too talented to his their target completely. The supporting characters are nicely played, engendering whatever sympathy the film evokes. Pierce Brosnan shows up in a bit as a former professor, lending a touch of class that the rest of the proceedings lack: he almost sells you on the idea that the alien invasion is a good thing. The shift from character comedy to sci-fi spoof is handled in a nicely matter of fact way, and Wright is fine with handling the tonal shift. If nothing else, his films are a distinctive change from the usual cookie-cutter approach: AT THE WORLD’S END is not much better than THE WATCH, but at least is is disappointing in a more interesting way.
Wright’s handling of the fight scenes is mildly amusing in a dumb-movie kind of way. Our boys are surprisingly adept at defeating the supposedly intimidating aliens – at least until the the third act arrives and the script realizes it’s time to gin up a crisis, at which point our heroes start loosing or at least have a harder time winning.
THE WORLD’S END exudes the lazy, knock-off aura, examplified by by the appearance of a giant robot – that doesn’t actually do anything interesting – and by the title itself, which is justified in the final reel almost as an afterthought. The film may not, in a literal legal sense, but the equivalent of a “contractual obligation album,” but nine years after SHAUN OF THE DEAD, it certainly feels as if Wright and Pegg are simply delivering the film out of a sense of obligation to their fans, recycling the old motifs with little new inspiration. Once again we have the small English town with the sinister secret (HOT FUZZ), and once again we have Pegg as a man on a mission, which is interrupted by monsters (zombies instead of aliens in SHAUN OF THE DEAD).
The difference is Shaun, unlike Gary, wanted to win back his old girlfriend – a worthier goal than drinking twelve pints at twelve different pubs – and SHAUN OF THE DEAD truly felt like a Working Title romantic-comedy rammed headlong into a zombie apocalypse film, with all of the Working Title virtues intact and augmented by the bizarre context. THE WORLD’S END, on the other hand, has all the virtues of a pub-crawl – if any. Adding robot aliens into the mix does not create some brilliantly original genre hybrid, combining the best fo both. It just gives us a pub-crawl with alien robots.
THE WORLD’S END (August 23, 2013, A Universal Pictures Release of a Working Title Films production). Directed by Edgar Wright. Written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. Rated R. 109 minutes. Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, Pierce Brosnan.
2 out of 5 on the CFQ Review Scale: not recommended, but with some redeeming qualities.
- Gary’s creedo is provided in voice via an audio clip from THE WILD ANGELS: “We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. … And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time. And that’s what we are gonna do. We are gonna have a good time…”