Movies Without Pity

The World’s End: Childhood’s End

by Ethan Alter August 23, 2013 5:55 am
<i>The World’s End</i>: Childhood’s End

Ever since Shaun of the Dead kicked off their so-called Cornetto Trilogy, Edgar Wright and his regular cohorts Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have repeatedly stated that they aren't mere spoof-meisters à la the classic Zucker-Abrams-Zucker crew or the more recent Friedberg & Seltzer team. Sure, both Shaun and its follow-up Hot Fuzz directly riff on specific genres and films the trio in charge grew up watching, but they aren't an Meet the Spartans-style assemblage of pop culture-derived sketches. Or, for that matter, a Top Secret!-like tapestry of nuttiness mostly untethered to things like plot and character development. Rather, they argue, each of the individual entries in the Cornetto series is a movie unto itself, where they use familiar genre tropes and famous movie scenes they've carried with them since childhood to advance a new story and set of themes. That line of reasoning gets its strongest workout in The World's End, the last Cornetto film and by far the most dramatically ambitious of their collaborations to date.

The genre in question here happens to be small-town alien invasion pictures and the individual movies referenced include Invasion of the Body Snatchers (specifically the 1978 Donald Sutherland version), Village of the Damned and Invaders From Mars. But right from the jump, Wright and Pegg (who co-wrote the film, as he has the previous two installments) make it clear that their primary aesthetic interests lie well beyond recreation. Both Shaun and Hot Fuzz eased audiences into their original stories via satirical pastiche, playing on our collective memories of Dawn of the Dead and Lethal Weapon respectively.

The World's End, on the other hand, doesn't tip its Body Snatchers card until well into the second act, by which point the viewers are so caught up in the human story being told, the sudden introduction of genre elements is almost as big a surprise to the audience as it is to the characters. And that's actually another thing that distinguishes The World's End from its predecessors. To a certain degree, the heroes of Shaun and Fuzz recognized they were in a movie or, at least, that they were playing out a situation they had previously seen in a movie. The same could be said of Wright's lone non-Cornetto film as well, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, where the self-aware title character was hip to the fact that he was inhabiting a pop-culture multi-verse. Here though, Pegg's Gary King is too enamored of his own personal history to waste time mooning over old films, comics and what have you. He's not interested in recreating pop culture… he's out to recreate his life. In a strange way, that makes The World's End -- despite its alien invasion trappings -- the most "realistic" film that Wright has made to date.

Specifically, Gary wants to recreate one very specific event from his life; an pub crawl through their picturesque English small town that he and his four boyhood friends, Andy (Frost), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Peter (Eddie Marsan) and Steven (Paddy Considine), embarked on but left uncompleted when they 19 years young. Looking back on that night from twenty years on, the 39-year-old Gary is pretty much convinced it was the last time he was truly happy, which is understandable given that in the present day, his chums have long since scattered to the four winds and he's regarded as being less the life of the party persona and more a sad, middle-aged drunk. Convinced an old-fashioned nostalgia tour is the solution to his deep-seated emotional problems, Gary cajoles his pals into heading back home to finish their 12-pub bacchanal. And while they allow themselves to be talked into attending this reunion, the guys can now easily see through their former leader, none more so than Andy, who experienced first-hand the serious effects of Gary's rampant alcoholism. (The dynamic between Frost and Pegg is a good deal of fun to watch this time around, with the latter playing the childlike screw-up -- and a much meaner one than either Ed or Danny -- while the former is the shit-together grown-up.) Barely three pubs into the crawl and the group is on the verge of splitting up yet again… that is, until they discover that, as much as they've changed over the past twenty years, they're hometown has changed more.

I'm going to dispense with the synopsis at this point, partly because Wright wrote us critics a very nice letter requesting that we leave at least a few plot points for audiences to discover fresh and also because the back half of the movie is driven less by incident and more by an idea. That's not to imply that The World's End suddenly goes all Terrence Malick; to the contrary, the film remains a rollicking entertainment, boasting some terrific (and terrifically unexpected) plot twists, a bunch of laugh-out-loud gags and clever action set-pieces that point to just how much Wright has evolved as a director in the ten years since Shaun. (And unlike the action sequences in Hot Fuzz, these aren't spot-on adaptations of other movies, but independently conceived and executed brawls).

Underpinning all these shenanigans are larger, more provocative metaphors, not just about the dangers of nostalgia (a theme that Pegg and Wright have highlighted in all their pre-release interviews), but also the twin questions of personal responsibility and one man's place in the universe -- not just his own personal universe, but the universe as a whole. (To borrow a line originally penned T.S. Eliot and memorably re-purposed by Robert Cormier in The Chocolate War, Gary is eventually put in a position where he's dared to disturb the universe and promptly takes that dare. The bitter joke, though, is that his literally world-changing decision is once again motivated by selfishness rather than noble-minded heroism.) Much more so than Shaun or Fuzz, The World's End frequently dares to not be funny in pursuit of its larger ambitions. I'm particularly curious to see the reactions to the final act, which does bring Gary's personal journey back to mental health (not to mention the entire Cornetto-verse) to a definitive, not entirely upbeat end. By the end of the movie, Gary's not the only one who has grown up and put away the mementos of his youth -- Wright has as well.

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