“To err is human! So… err… “
Hype can be a cruel mistress. After the first two instalments of Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy were respectively one of the best British horror movies of the century so far, and an instant comedy classic with more quotable lines per minute than Airplane!, expectations for The World’s End were (justifiably) pretty high.
It’s hardly surprising that The World’s End turned out to be a great movie; Wright is one of the best directors working today, he couldn’t make a bad film if he tried. What is surprising is how little it owes to either of the Cornetto films that preceded it. In fact, the plot – which follows a group of five middle-aged blokes returning to their sleepy hometown to complete a legendary pub crawl – is a pretty extreme morality tale about the dangers of living in the past.
Miles Davis once said that jazz is about the notes you don’t play, and The World’s End is all the funnier for the jokes it doesn’t make. Nobody says “You’ve got blue on you”; the appearance of the infamous ice cream is added almost as an afterthought; and even the inevitable bit of slapstick involving a fence arrives with no buildup or ceremony.
Which is not to say that Wright hasn’t taken cues from his previous works. On the contrary; look hard enough for them, and the influences are plain to see. Just as Nick Frost conveniently sums up the plot of Shaun of the Dead in a single line of dialogue, so too do the names of the pubs on the Golden Mile – from The First Post to The World’s End – all subtly nod to key moments in the film. In the action scenes, meanwhile, he’s clearly learnt lessons from making Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. While Hot Fuzz’s British riff on the Bayhem of Bad Boys II was perfectly executed, the action in The World’s End feels slicker and more polished. Just look at the big bar brawl of Act II, which follows a drunk Simon Pegg as he tries to finish a pint between potshots at robots.
Crucially, however, the action is never allowed to take precedence over the screenplay, which is whip-smart and constantly surprises. What starts as a funny but pretty standard take on the formula of ‘man-child learning to grow up’ slowly morphs into an insidious piece of science fiction in the vein of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The tension mounts as the pub crawl continues and the fight scenes get bigger, and just at the moment when the heroes would normally prepare for the final showdown, Wright slams on the brakes and instead gives us… two drunk blokes arguing about free will with an omniscient alien. And then the world ends.
It’s a scene so wonderfully odd and uniquely British, ending on both a bang and a whimper, that it could have been plucked straight from the brain of the late, great Douglas Adams. But it’s also the opportunity for Wright to make an even more scathing critique of Little England than Hot Fuzz turned out to be. Up until this last scene, much of the film has been a not-too-subtle dig at the franchising (or “Starbucking”, as Wright puts it) of modern Britain. Here, though, he drives the backlash all the way to its absurd conclusion. Watching it in 2017, it’s hard not to see The World’s End as a remarkably prescient satire of a certain referendum we in the UK had a few months back, as an ill-informed decision to leave a seemingly oppressive but also quite beneficial union results in a literal apocalypse.
Yet even without the thematic richness of its screenplay, The World’s End would still be a riot, thanks to the finest cast of any of the Cornetto films. Returning actors like Bill Nighy, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and David Bradley are all given much meatier roles this time, and newcomers like Pierce Brosnan, Rosamund Pike and Eddie Marsan round out the ensemble beautifully. But at the centre of it all is the great double act of Pegg and Frost, who once again defy expectation by effectively swapping roles.
Frost does a great job of playing the straight man even when the straight man in question is pissed out of his mind; few other actors could say the line “I just punched my wedding ring out of a robot’s tummy” with quite such gravitas. But it’s Pegg who ultimately steals the film as Gary “The Once and Future” King. Man-child roles like this are a balancing act. Make them too sympathetic and you risk turning the straight man into a killjoy, but make them too much of a dick and they’re no longer fun to watch; a problem that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World came close to suffering from. And while Gary King is a despicable human being – the reveal of what really happened to his recently departed mother is a killer – he’s also a genuinely tragic figure with plenty of scars, both mental and physical, to show for it.
Each of the films in the Cornetto Trilogy is great in its own right, but Edgar Wright & co. saved the best for last with The World’s End. It’s the culmination of Wright’s career up to this point, and a perfect encapsulation of everything that makes him a unique talent. While Baby Driver shows every sign of being a damn good film, The World’s End is a tough act to follow.