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Entries in World's End [2013] (1)

Thursday
Aug292013

The World's End (2013)

Twelve (Pint) Steppers

The last two weeks have been an embarrassment of riches, as "favorite movies of the year" are concerned. But unlike The Spectacular Now and The Act of Killing, I can actually recommend Edgar Wright's alcoholism-and-aliens comedy The World's End to just about anyone. It's the most accessible of the three (and the most widely distributed, at this point), but there are no fewer chills here, or dark issues wrapped in bizarre entertainment, than in the other, so-called "serious" films.

You may have heard that The World's End concludes Wright's Cornetto Trilogy; like me, you may have wondered what the hell "The Cornetto Trilogy" is. Simply put, it's an accident that became not only a marketing executive's dream, but also an encapsulation of the writer/director's journey from adolescence to adulthood.

While doing press for his second picture, Wright was asked why he featured Cornetto ice cream in his movies--and if the colors he chose were conscious nods to the stories' thematic elements (strawberry popped up in the bloody Shaun of the Dead; a blue variety was used for the cop comedy, Hot Fuzz). Intentional or not, he ran with the idea, and decided that green mint would be the perfect flavor to represent an alien invasion.

It's smart to link the movies together, because it forces us to look at Wright's filmography as a whole.* Though its characters live in parallel versions of England, The Cornetto Trilogy has a distinct and evolving through-line. Shaun of the Dead was about developmentally arrested best friends forced to leave their childhoods behind during a zombie apocalypse. Hot Fuzz was about reconciling macho, boyhood fantasies with real-world brutality. The World's End is about stripping away the mechanisms that allow people to remain in denial for decades.

The film stars Simon Pegg as Gary, a charismatic, laugh-a-minute drunk whose teenage life remained frozen in time while his best friends grew up and moved on. Twenty years ago, on their last day of high school, Gary and the boys attempted "The Golden Mile", an epic, twelve-stop pub crawl around their dead-end town. Though everyone agrees the night of beer, debauchery, and vomiting was fun, Gary never let go of the gang's inability to make it to the last bar, The World's End. During an AA meeting, he decides to replace one addiction with another, rounding up his pushing-40 professional friends for one last shot at "glory".

Like From Dusk Till Dawn, The World's End zips along as one kind of very compelling movie before switching genres on a dime. Wright seems to have learned from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's mistakes by maintaining focus on his film's underlying themes during and after the transition. Several pubs into their journey, Gary gets in a fight with his closest friend, Andy (Nick Frost), who expresses the group's frustration at this juvenile waste of time. Gary storms off to the restroom, where he gets into a fight with an obnoxiously aloof kid. Within moments, Gary has popped off the head of a blue-goo-blooded android and found himself in the middle of an intergalactic body-swapping conspiracy.

Gary reasons that the only way to avoid being detected by a town full of robots (and their human slaves/sympathizers) is to continue on their mission as if nothing were amiss, and then quietly leave town the next day. This doesn't happen, of course--mostly because everyone's far too drunk, scared, and pissed off to be anything but conspicuous--and the film and its characters race toward their inevitable destination.

Yeah, about that...

Much has been made of the movie's last five minutes. Some have compared them, unfavorably, to The Return of the King's multiple, post-climax endings. I understand this criticism, but I don't accept it. While staying far, far away from spoilers here, I will say that Wright could have ended his picture at precisely the place his audience would have expected him to--the "perfect" pre-credits shot is actually in the film, and would have played nicely with some catchy, ironic song kicking in at a harsh cut to black. But The World's End's epilogue is honest, tonally, consistent, and full of daring, zany ideas that, like the end of Back to the Future II, could have served as the montage-preview to a sequel.

Most importantly, the final shot says all we need to know about what kind of person Gary is. Throughout the film, we wonder if he'll ever get his act together. Yes, he's witty and full of life, but the hard drinking makes him a huge asshole. Not even the threat of death or global assimilation will stand in the way of his feeding a lifelong addiction (not to booze, specifically, but to anything that will ease his fears of insignificance). Wright and Pegg, who co-wrote the film, keep us invested in Gary's emotional train wreck from start to finish; a more traditional ending would have found his triumph over alien-kind the catalyst for getting his act together. At first glance, the film's closing shot makes it seem as though he has--but for as lively and funny as it is, the image left me with a cough-syrup queasiness.

Despite all my high praise for The World's End's brilliantly taut wireframe, it's the dressing that makes the film so enjoyably engrossing. The aliens' design, purpose, and method of infiltration (as well as their devastating vengeance on humanity) is refreshingly simple in a modern sci-fi arena ruled by wet, formless creatures with no eyes and seventeen mouths. Their humanoid bodies snap together like the action figures Wright's characters grew up collecting (and probably still collect), and their "attack mode" involves emitting sharp light from their mouths and eyes--which creates a haunting lens-flare effect right out of early John Carpenter movies.

Wright has made a career of combining comedy and danger into wickedly inventive action sequences, and The World's End is his most accomplished work yet. The boys' numerous battles with alien drones in the second half of the picture vary in complexity and scale, featuring not only unique setups from scene to scene, but also fun mini-battles within each. The bathroom conflict I mentioned earlier devolves into a full-on brawl as more robots file in to avenge their friend, and a later beer garden scrap between Gary, his would-be girlfriend, Sam (Rosamund Pike), and a pair of homicidal alien twins (Kelly and Stacy Franklin) piles surprise on top of surprise.

Of course, all the cool action in the world won't make an action movie interesting, and Wright and Pegg populate their film with rich characters--and employ rich actors to play them. Besides Andy, Gary's gang also includes the mousy Peter (Eddie Marsan), outwardly suave but insecure Steven (Paddy Considine), and fast-talking, disinterested realtor Oliver (Martin Freeman). During this weird, hellish night, all of them face their past and present choices, fighting to reconcile issues that they've buried--which manifest in their collective id, the wears-everything-on-his-tattered-sleeve, Gary. There's not a member of the group I didn't root for to succeed, not a disposable body-count victim in the bunch, and I was reminded more than once of Stephen King's novel, It.

The World's End is Wright's most mature film, and also his best. Rarely have I seen a sci-fi comedy that maintains thematic balance so well, and I can't think of another example where predictability flies straight out the window. Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and even Scott Pilgrim are popular, multi-million-dollar sketches that have led to what by all rights could be this filmmaker's thesis statement on pop culture. And if you can guess where this thought-provoking gut-buster is going to wind up, well, I guess I owe you a drink.

*We can skip Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, since Wright didn't create those characters. Also, it's terrible.