Rivaled only by Iron Man 3 and Pacific Rim in this summer's slew of science fiction action adventure films, The World's End is able to balance nearly every element needed to make this concept work. There are a few stumbles here and there, particularly as it crossed the finish line, and ultimately the film doesn't have the energy and invention of either Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, but it is still easily the most entertaining science fiction we've gotten this year so far.
Writer/Director Edgar Wright uses every trick in his playbook to make The World's End the most smoothly cut action film of the year, as well as the best written. As you probably already know, The World's End follows five old friends who have fallen out of touch as they get back together in their home town in order to complete the Golden Mile, an epic pub crawl with the goal of having at least one pint in each of the twelve pubs on the route – a feat they tried and failed to complete twenty years earlier. Oh, and there are robots. Well, not really robots. Robots that aren't robots. With blue stuff inside.
The combination of Middle-age Angst and Alien Invasion doesn't quite come together as holistically as did the Rom-com and Zombies of Shaun or the Cop Buddy Drama and Brit Pagan Horror of Hot Fuzz, but it's not for lack of trying. Co-writer Simon Pegg plays loser drug-addict, alcoholic dick hole Gary King with a wild abandon and disturbing charisma. His motivations for organizing the return to the Golden Mile are pretty obvious from the get-go and veer sharply into blink-and-you'll-miss-it melodrama as the final act peaks.
There's a darkness there that is powerful and important, but it is almost immediately glossed over with the finale's "We reserve the right to be fuck-ups" message. This is then further muddied by a needless epilogue that establishes that all Gary needed to take some responsibility in his life was the Apocalypse and a posse of teenage doppelgangers with whom he could roam the countryside.
As fun as Pegg is to watch, and he is very fun indeed, I was most impressed with Nick Frost's performance as Andy Knightley. I've been a big fan of Frost since I first saw him in Spaced, and this is easily the most mature character I've ever seen him play. Andy and Gary's collapsed friendship is the emotional core of the film and it's really what allows the audience to feel something other than dread about Gary's destructive energy. It's a relationship that takes some of the best of Shaun and Hot Fuzz and allows Frost to really deliver an emotional wallop when they reach The World's End pub.
Playing Prince to Pegg's King is Paddy Considine as Steven Prince, owner of a construction company and former musician who is also along for the youth-reclaiming ride. Of all the gang, Steven is the character with the most emotional depth. He lived his youth in Gary's shadow, and even though he's a successful businessman, he's still missing something. And that something is Sam Chamberlain (Rosamund Pike), sister of fellow pub-crawler Oliver (Martin Freeman). Sam is a bit underdeveloped as a character (as was Kate Ashfield's Liz in Shaun – if there's a consistent criticism that could be made of the Cornetto Trilogy, it's in the lack of noteworthy female characters) and serves mainly as a way to focus attention on Steven and Gary's rivalry. She's another missed opportunity of youth that the pub crawl itself is representative of.
The final two crawlers, Oliver and Peter Page (Eddie Marsan) suffer from the fact that there are maybe too many characters to focus on. Of course, their names make it clear that they are the least important narratively of the group, as Page and Chamberlain to the King, Prince, and Knight. Marsan still manages to bring a great deal of humor and pathos to the role of the nebbish car salesman. Before everything is said and done, he provides some of the biggest laughs and strongest emotional moments not tied to failed friendships.
Martin Freeman's Oliver, the always-networked real estate agent, is given the least to do dramatically in the script but is, as always, worth paying attention to whenever he's on-screen. He's kind of the Hawkeye of this boozy Avengers and ends up seeming like one of the parade of co-stars and cameos rather than a central member of the cast.
And there are co-stars and cameos galore. If you're a fan of the best British comedy of the last decade, you'll be thrilled by appearances from Reece Shearsmith, Nicholas Burns, Steve Oram, Alice Lowe, Rafe Spall, Mark Heap, Julia Deakin, Pierce Brosnan, David Bradley, Mark Kempner, Darren Boyd, the voice of Bill Nighy, and my personal favorite, Michael Smiley. I'm pretty sure I'm missing a name or two, but you get my meaning.
Every performance is perfect. Every scene is directed with confidence and swagger. There's a slight disconnect during the action sequences, as suddenly these fortyish men become hand-to-hand combat specialists, but the fight scenes are so beautifully choreographed and executed it adds to the thrilling absurdity of the situation. We have to remember that none of the Cornetto Trilogy films are meant to be realistic. They're homages to the films that inspired them. They are filmic worlds inhabiting a meta-narrative space in the same ways Tarantino's Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained exist as the films earlier Tarantino characters would watch.
Where the movie stumbles is in the end, as we discover the alien agenda and learn that the film's themes are a bit too overt and obvious. I mean, the aliens are called The Network for fuck's sake. If it stopped there, then it would maybe be the best film of the trilogy – the most emotionally mature and complex, anyway. Instead we get a coda that smacks you in the face with what was inferred from
the rest of the film about living authentically rather than virtually, the value of friendship and family, and rugged individuality. Oh yeah, and sobriety.
It was just completely unnecessary except to line up with the epilogues of the other two films where we get glimpses of the characters' new lives. I see why they did it, but really wish it had been done with more subtlety and a less heavy hand.
Despite my misgivings with the final moments, though, this was a fantastic film and a glorious way to wrap up the Cornetto Trilogy. Even if I hadn't already been head over heels in love with Edgar Wright's directing, this would have sealed the deal for me. With each film he makes, he becomes a stronger director with a unique vision and a style that is characteristically his and his alone. It has been a joy to watch his work develop from Spaced through Shaun, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim to World's End. And given the way he's handled the action this time out, I can't wait to see what he's got in store for us with Ant-Man.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.