Pitched as THE BIG CHILL meets BODY SNATCHERS, the triumphant conclusion of Edgar Wright’s “Cornetto Trilogy” is brilliantly conceived and surprisingly poignant.
How can you tell if you’re drunk if you’re never sober?
When getting back with old friends, it’s astonishingly easy to fall back into the old rhythms and adolescent behavior. For that brief span of time, all of the old inside jokes and insecurities come flooding back, and it almost feels a little bit like time travel. But there’s always that one member of the group who just refuses to leave “the good old days.” He’s put a stake in the ground: so convinced that life could never be better than it was then, he has gone to great lengths to preserve it.
As written by Edgar Wright & Simon Pegg, that willful stasis is embodied by Pegg’s Gary King, a screw-up of the highest order. Depressed and half-in-the-bag at all times, he remembers the “best night of his life” and becomes determined to recreate it: an epic pub crawl with his four best friends back in his hometown of Newton Haven, 12 pints deep, that was cut short 20 years ago and has eaten away at him ever since. He’s so trapped in his nostalgia, and so repulsed by what his life has become (residing in a psych ward, for reasons that become clear later), that he retains all the trappings of his teenage life: a muscle car called “The Beast” that has had nearly everything on the inside replaced; his punk wardrobe, tattoos slightly fading; even an old mix tape that one of his buddies made in high school that has never left the stereo. It’s his own, self-imposed Groundhog Day.
Now on this mission to go back home and finish “The Golden Mile” — from The First Post to The World’s End — he manipulates the rest of the gang to join him: Peter (Eddie Marsan), the awkward wallflower and now car salesman; Steven (Paddy Considine), former bass player and permanent also-ran to Gary’s romantic conquests; Oliver (Martin Freeman), bluetooth-addicted real estate agent and stick in the mud; and Andy (Nick Frost), Gary’s childhood best friend who has nurtured a decades-long grudge at him and has been sober just as long. Against their better judgement, the other four find themselves pulled by friendship (or obligation, or boredom) back to Newton Haven to complete the crawl.
For the first half hour, The World’s End is brilliant for simply being a window into middle-age, as Gary’s mid-life crisis sucks the others in with varying degrees of enthusiasm, even Oliver’s sister (and Steven’s lifelong crush, and Gary’s one-time lover) Sam. The dialogue rings true, the relationships feel truly authentic, and it’s also incredibly funny. But it’s a few pubs in that things start to get weird, and the true nature of the film reveals itself: Gary gets in a restroom fight with a young kid, who turns out to be robot. The fight turns into a brawl when the others get involved (a kinetic and inspired sequence), five on five, and one by one the bots (or “blanks” as they come to be called) are dispatched. Clearly, something is very rotten in Newton Haven: many of the villagers (including people the guys once knew) have been replaced by these “blanks,” for reasons unknown, presumably alien. The guys decide that the best course of action is to continue the crawl, and hope that they’ll go unnoticed the rest of the way.
The momentum never flags, and the editing is as crisp and inventive as we’ve come to expect from an Edgar Wright film, but he particularly excels with the visuals: the gorgeous cinematography from Bill Pope (pints of lager have never looked better on screen, and I don’t much care for beer), and the cleverly choreographed and shot fight scenes, with long takes and insanely complicated stuntwork. Not only do these guys turn into semi-believable action heroes the drunker they get, the robots themselves are brilliantly designed, resembling action figures when pulled apart, all plastic knobs and blue goo. Lights glow from their eyes and mouths; one attaches its legs as arms; many skulls are gleefully smashed. Each sequence is bigger and funnier than the last, as Gary and the boys repeatedly disagree on what to do next but keep getting interrupted by a new swarm of blanks.
Through it all, they have to work out their many issues, eventually cutting to the heart of what caused Gary and Andy’s rift all those years ago. The film succeeds on multiple levels: as action, as comedy, as science fiction, and even as drama. The themes resonate because we come very quickly to care about these characters, which is a testament to both the outstanding writing and the performances, which are exceptional across the board. In particular Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who have played wildly different characters across the Cornetto Trilogy, do their best work here — Pegg as the manic alcoholic who eventually has to crack and make himself vulnerable, and Frost as (for once) the straight man, proving his chops as a dramatic actor but cutting loose at the perfect moments. Along with Considine and Freeman, who both appeared in Hot Fuzz, and Marsan (who typically doesn’t do comedy at all), the five immediately exhibit the easy rapport and charm of lifelong friends. It’s just fun to watch these guys hang out — the bot fighting is just icing on the cake. As the grown-up Sam, Rosamund Pike is charming, and Pierce Brosnan and David Bradley (still having a career year) are memorable in smaller roles.
(Spoilers about the ending follow!)
The film isn’t without its flaws, as many have argued that the action beats start to feel repetitive, and some have a problem with the story’s unexpectedly dark ending, which leaves you wondering if any of these guys — particularly Gary — have actually learned anything through their experience. Having seen it twice now, I can see both sides of the argument. When Gary succeeds in driving away the intelligent alien force responsible for the takeover by declaring humanity’s inalienable right to be belligerent, idiotic catastrophes (“We want to be free! We want to get loaded! And we want to have a good time!”) , the destruction of “The Network” wipes out all of the world’s technology, leaving it a barren post-apocalyptic wasteland. Those that survive must forge on, with Gary making himself ringleader of a group of blanks, now having something to live for but just as repellantly single-minded as before. While it’s certainly an odd note to end the story on — perhaps a betrayal of the intimacy the film has earned by taking its endgame global — and not necessarily satisfying in a moral sense, it’s probably still the right choice for the character. In a way, everyone has gotten what they wanted, even the guys that actually were trying to make right decisions. We are never really on Gary’s side at any point in the film, but we come to understand him, and pity him.
Wright & Pegg’s “Cornetto Trilogy” is some of my favorite filmmaking of the 21st century, consistently surprising and lovingly crafted. While Shaun of the Dead was a delightful romantic comedy (that happened to have zombies), and Hot Fuzz’s sendup of American “buddy cop” films make it — for my money — the funniest of the trilogy, it is The World’s End that has the most to say, that is the most mature, the most confident, the most resonant, and the best.