I’m not quite sure how to compare The World’s End to the previous work of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. In some ways it’s weaker: the writing duo delivers fewer gut-bustingly hilarious moments here than they did in Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, nor is it nearly the perfectly-aimed genre send-up that those other films were. On the other hand, The World’s End is rougher, darker, and more serious, as if Wright and Pegg finally ran out of jokes and pop culture references and fell back to doing something genuinely character-driven instead. The acting and character development is especially note-worthy.
As the leads in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Pegg and Nick Frost showed range. But nothing like here. Pegg’s Gary is a remarkable creation: half goth, half dudebro, he’s the former leader of a quintet of high school misfits who decides to reunite the gang for a commemorative pub crawl through their hometown. He has all the aspects of a middle-aged man who never outgrew the characteristics of his teenage self – at turns charismatic, funny, over-the-top, and deeply selfish and unpleasant. He’s also clearly gone all the way down the rabbit hole of alcoholism. Frost goes equally far in the opposite direction as Andy, Gary’s best friend in the quintet who broke off the relationship after Gary failed him at a critical moment at the end of high school. Andy is now a married and successful professional who refuses to touch alcohol, capable and comfortable with his values and stable domestic life, and understandably driven to his wits’ end by Gary’s shenanigans. It’s great to see how ably Frost inhabits the character and the flip of the usual power dynamic, after being consigned to well-meaning layabouts and goof-offs in Wright and Pegg’s previous films.
Filling out the quintet is Martin Freeman as Oliver, a real estate agent who never lacks a bluetooth in his ear; Eddie Marsan as the shy and unassuming Peter; and finally Paddy Considine as the thoroughly-decent Steven, who also harbors a life-long crush on Oliver’s sister Sam (Rosamund Pike). Just after graduating, all five attempted to complete “the Golden Mile,” a pub crawl through 12 establishments in their hometown that ends at the appropriately-named The World’s End. But they never finished it, and two decades later an Alcoholics Anonymous session ironically convinces Gary that he needs to take a second crack at completing the journey. So he rounds up his deeply skeptical companions, whom he hasn’t seen in years, to carry out his vision.
After that, there isn’t a great deal more to the plot. And the previews have revealed the rest anyway, so I’ll just out with it: as they carry on with their pub crawl, the five slowly discover that the entire community is being replaced – with echoes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers – by robots. This set up gives Edgar Wright, as the director, plenty of opportunities for long camera takes of bar brawls and absurdist violence, as robot heads shatter like pottery and blue robot goo splatters everywhere. There are downsides to that. Like I said, the humor is less impressive and more repetitive, and the overall structure of The World’s End apes Shaun of the Dead, except with mechanics replacing the zombies. I got tired of the action and Wright’s hyper-edited drinking sequences pretty quickly. The epilogue, which swings for the fences in terms of whimsy, winds up being odd and clunky. Also as with their previous films, Wright and Pegg dispose of some of their likable supporting characters with a shocking lack of ceremony.
But the character arcs saved the day. The slow reveal of the damage adulthood has inflicted on Gary and Andy is genuinely moving, and there’s a real humanism to the way Andy evolves from despising Gary to protecting him. The ultimate villain behind the robotic takeover turns out to be an alien-disembodied-intelligence-version of Michael Bloomberg – utterly flabbergasted that anyone would not want to be remade into the best possible version of themselves – and The World’s End concludes as an unapologetic broadside against the creeping tyranny and soul-crushing sameness imposed by everything from the demands of the modern professional office world to advanced communication technology. So I could see conservative and libertarians latching onto The World’s End as something of an anthem against well-meaning technocratic neoliberals. On the other hand, conservatives and libertarians go in for their own form improvement. It’s just that they focus on ambition, self-control and virtuous labor rather than liberals’ preference for education, cultural enlightenment and physical health. Not to mention that conservatives prefer to incentivize that improvement by threatening people with poverty and immiseration, rather than liberals’ preference for cajoling improvement through bureaucratic support.
What’s really invigorating about The World’s End is its almost joyous rejection of improvement as a necessary aspect of human life entirely.