Back in 1990, Gary King (Simon Pegg) and his friends embarked upon an epic pub crawl that proved to be the highpoint of his young life. Things have not turned out so well for him in the years since. In a mad bid to recapture lost youth, Gary cajoles his estranged best friend Andrew Knightley (Nick Frost) along with Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Peter (Eddie Marsan) to return to their home town of Newton Haven and attempt the drinking marathon again. But as the guys attempt to reconcile the past and present, it becomes apparent strange things are afoot in Newton Haven...
For the third and, seemingly, concluding entry in the so-called Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost crafted an ingenious storyline drawing upon the mantra of every forty-something man-child confronted with a sharp, sobering dose of reality: it’s the world that’s changed, not me. Whereas Shaun of the Dead (2004) and, to an extent, Hot Fuzz (2006) dealt with the process of growing up, The World’s End is the team’s mid-life crisis movie. A film about coping with disappointment, missed opportunities and the foolishness of obsessing over the past when the future holds so much more at stake. Given more than a few people resort to alcohol as a means of dealing with just those issues, the film’s central premise is pure genius, the ultimate extension of Shaun of the Dead’s shrewd observation that when the going gets tough, the British go to the pub.
As both science fiction and comedy, the film displays a uniquely English sensibility, melding the paranoid high concepts of John Wyndham with the trenchant social observation of Mike Leigh, along with the occasional nod to Hollywood genre fare from It Came from Outer Space (1953) to Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Unlike other comic teams, Wright, Pegg and Frost never resort to replaying the same schtick ad infinitum. The trilogy stands as a genuine achievement in distinctive characters, situations and themes. In the selfish, deluded, alternately annoying and lovable Gary King, Pegg crafts a potent tragicomic hero, resulting in moments of pathos in his interactions with Frost’s sensible, exasperated Andy (an amusing contrast to his past characters, showing his underrated range) that draw more tears than most dramas. Similarly, amidst an outstanding ensemble cast, Rosamund Pike makes an endearing appearance as Gary’s old flame Sam, who becomes embroiled in the night’s outlandish events, bombarded by declarations of love from more than one source as the film regrettably wastes her chemistry with Simon Pegg.
The film’s grandest achievement is perversely also its undoing. It proceeds like a story conceived by an inebriated Gary King, alternating highs of exuberant anarchy with lows of maudlin self-loathing. The plot is downright belligerent confounding our narrative expectations, setting up problems that remain unresolved by the jarringly apocalyptic finale. Although undoubtedly the most ambitious of the trilogy, The World’s End is less cohesive and emotionally layered than its predecessors. Things do take a while to get going as the film struggles to find its feet. But the laughs are there along with some fun surprises, in-jokes and boisterous action sequences including cinema’s most inspired bar brawl wherein Gary struggles in vain to avoid spilling his pint. You’ll laugh, you’ll thrill, you may even tear up in some scenes but unlike the previous films, it is doubtful many will cheer. For whilst the finale does its utmost to celebrate a very British form of defiance in the face of stifling conformity, the consequences are downright deflating.