Edgar Wright’s The World’s End released to mass confusion in 2013. As a follow-up to cult classic Shaun of the Dead and box-office smash Hot Fuzz, it failed to capture the mainstream success or critical adoration of either. A forlorn Simon Pegg in a 2014 Jonathan Ross interview blames the film’s failure on its release window, which began at the annual two weeks of English summer.
The film also released shortly after a broader American comedy with a similar premise and near-identical title – This is the End, starring Seth Rogen. Rogen’s film was broad, crowd-pleasing and incapable of being misunderstood. It featured big-name stars all playing themselves getting into scrapes in the apocalypse. The World’s End, in comparison, gave audiences a deficit of what they actually wanted from a Pegg & Frost joint. The comedy dynamic was flipped, with Frost playing the straight man to Pegg’s clown.
Gary King, an aging punk hiding addiction struggles behind a façade of adolescent banter, rounds up his old classmates for one last run at the Golden Mile, the 12-pub crawl that decimated them in their teenage years. His friends have all become different shades of middle-class professionalism, most of all Nick Frost’s Andy Knightley, who gives Gary the most chilly reception of all, only relenting and joining the crawl after a vicious bout of guilting.
Once back in their hometown of Newton Haven, the gang find themselves mournfully out of step with their old haunts – everything’s been Starbuck-ised, and the local publicans and pub-dwellers recognise none of them, despite Gary’s self-mythologising. As the night rolls on, they uncover an existential, and extra-terrestrial threat – the locals have been harvested and replaced by ‘blanks’, blue-blooded robots with selective memories of their counterparts. To escape the town safely, King convinces his tribe to continue the pub crawl as if nothing was amiss, so as not to arouse suspicion. Imagine Invasion of the Body Snatchers, if the heroes all grew increasingly inebriated as the film progresses.
This Body Snatchers reference point may seem outdated for a 2013 release – Hot Fuzz took the piss out of Michael Bay’s contemporaneous oeuvre, while Shaun of the Dead was so on the pulse that it actually pre-dated Zack Snyder’s Dawn remake by a few months. In comparision, The World’s End’s striking irrelevance recalls John Waters’ 1981 film Polyester, which found the king of trash shooting something on a budget for the first time and opting to make a spoof of Douglas Sirk melodramas, a genre already two decades out of circulation.
What may seem ill-advised initially can be fascinating to look back upon, as time shrinks the space between the outdated reference and its reference point. The World’s End is still far away from even Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Body Snatchers (which Wright owes a greater debt to than the 1955 original), but time has been kind to it. Watching it again for the first time in a decade, now closer in age to Gary’s second golden mile than his first, there’s a real melancholy core scratching to get out of this genre piece. It helps that the genre piece is immaculately constructed, too.
Another thing the film revels in, which this reviewer could take or leave at this point, is all the fan-baiting easter eggs. Every scene of the film operates in a kind of doublespeak, every moment simultaneously a callback to something earlier and foreshadowing something coming up. The film’s prologue sneakily spoils the entire story on the viewer, showing King’s first Golden Mile as a mirror image of the rest of the film, sans robots – we see friends give up on the crawl at the exact moment they later succumb to the blanks, plot twists are teased with on-the-nose foreshadowing – “Mr. Shepherd; he was one of the good guys!” This kind of storytelling is great for an initial ‘wow’ moment, and seems like pinnacle of cinema when you’re fourteen. This trapping of ‘nerd culture’ is worth digging into on a deeper level – to obsess over how these small details connect, the viewer (and maybe ever Wright and Pegg) miss the forest for the trees. It’s of an ilk with Charlie Kaufman films, which are often self-absorbed and more interested in being clever than simply being. At this point, I found myself fatigued by what was the most dynamic and ‘cool’ thing about the film on its release.
The relentless, snappy dialogue recalls contemporary Marvel quips, or the endless repetition of overrated playwright Martin McDonagh, but they also dazzle in their limberness. You can hate the quippy dialogue that took over the world in the 2010s, but a film as funny and brisk as this helps you understand the style became so rampant in the first place.
All that said, it wasn’t the deluge of easter eggs that alienated audiences. The fact is that it takes a long time to get to the sci-fi premise, which people either find irritatingly inane or a wasted opportunity for Wright to tell a real human drama. There is something tantilising about the first act, which largely plays out as a comedy of manners with long dialogue scenes between our five lead characters. One could ponder what a World’s End sans aliens would look like, a kind of Mike Leigh drama meets Steve Coogan’s The Trip. When the Hong Kong action-inspired fight scenes kick the film into high gear, it deliberately throws you off-balance. I can understand people viewing the action setpieces as the film doing too little too late, or an immature excuse not to confront its themes of addiction and alienation head-on.
The side characters, like Paddy Considine’s handsome architect Stephen and Martin Freeman’s Bluetooth-equipped Oliver, are slightly thin, but not caricature. What defines them are subtle tics, not all that distinct from each other. If anything, broader stereotypes and caricatures would suit Wright’s style better, like the cosy rural folk of Hot Fuzz, which while borderline cartoony, capture flashes of lived experience undeniably sprung Wright’s upbringing in Wells, Fuzz’s shooting location. The more reserved scratchings of personality in The World’s End perhaps dictate a more mature film to come, one which we expect but, like a flaky drinking buddy, does not arrive.
Perhaps the film has so much going on in it that expecting every facet of each character to be explored is expecting too much. As it sprints towards its blowout climax, there’s a real sense of welcome finality. Wright and Pegg’s script finds a real synthesis between the emotional weight of the first act, and their sci-fi subject matter, all while getting out of their own way when it comes to the in-jokes. The climax is blistering, funny and even tearful, as the depths of Gary King’s illness come to the fore.
After this grand finale, there is an unfortunately muddled and unclear epilogue, where a still naïve Gary runs around with the alien clones of his school chums, his adolescence encased in amber. It’s a bizarre thud of an ending for his character arc, which isn’t helped by being a half-measure – has he turned a new leaf by helping this band of blanks as a kind of Last Samurai white-saviour figure? The film suggests as much, having Gary use his new clan as an excuse to the live in the past, much like the film uses them as an excuse to end on a stirring note. Perhaps a more mature film would have had Gary grow up and move on, rather than give in to the temptation to live out adolescence forever.
It’s fun to tease out what The World’s End could have been if it charged headfirst into box-office destruction, rather than jogging briskly towards it. That said, the action scenes are intoxicating and the script is a well-oiled machine which balances a well-developed alien plot with real human weight. In the ten years since its release, I’ve grown to find the value in poorly-oiled machines, ones that break down and surprise you with unique blemishes.
As a young man might look back on a ‘perfect night’ of boozing, before he realises there are no perfect nights, or 10/10 films or timeless songs or flawless works of art. It really doesn’t matter if you finish the pub crawl, or if you have a quiet few in the worst dive in town – the key factor is: did you enjoy the company you kept? All the easter eggs and clever subtextual gags mean nothing if the film doesn’t grab you. Thankfully, The World’s End still does, but I struggle with what more it could have done if it’s hands weren’t so full.