The World’s End feels weird. On the surface, it resembles its Cornetto Trilogy forebears, especially once the old propulsive energy kicks in. The camera still skips and zooms across the film’s geography. The banter still ricochets from one mouth to the next. The action is, if anything, better than it has ever been. For this film, Wright moves from the more orderly ‘dude VS dude’ duel-style action he had nailed down following Scott Pilgrim, to long, flowing takes across perfectly choreographed brawls. I like a busy shot, and with one character’s battle merging into another’s battle, set against a background of multiple other battles, The World’s End pub fights definitely keep the eye occupied. Furthermore, it’s refreshing to see the chaos of conflict conveyed through actual visual complexity, instead of a shaky cameraman. Still, the film as a whole remains weird. Like Newton Haven itself, The World’s End looks like the same old Cornetto on top, but is very different underneath.
Up until now, the consistent undercurrent of Edgar Wright’s filmmaking has been a faith in humans. The characters of Spaced have their past traumas (whether ex-girlfriends, the deaths of dogs or Jar-Jar Binks), but no matter how awful or bizarre their tragedies, Tim, Daisy et al manage to recover and advance as people. At his film’s opening Shaun is a stagnant slacker, but once thrust into conflict he takes responsibility and gains in competence. Nicholas Angel by contrast manages to break through his own fanatical work ethic to find friends on the other side. Even Scott Pilgrim becomes an adult, and not just for the woman he loves. Wright doesn’t skimp on tragedy, or gore, or even ugliness (Scott’s mental reordering, post-breakup with Knives, is particularly uncomfortable), but despite all of that he seems to believe that people can change for the better. This belief is absent from The World’s End.
Representative of the bleak state of mankind is protagonist Gary King (Simon Pegg), a character best summarised as a modern Alex DeLarge (A Clockwork Orange). He doesn’t kill anyone with giant plaster cocks, but while the two characters may act differently, those acts occur for the same reason. They are both escapists. Alex, surrounded by his dirty, dreary town and his ditchwater dull parents, expected to submit to predatory authority figures, finds exhilaration in destruction. Gary King, who has found adult reality to be similarly disappointing, attempts to escape through nostalgia. For him, the past is Utopia, and his determination to reach its shores never wavers, no matter what he might have to do to get there.
This is a particularly sad character to hang a film around. Every time King reveals another fragment of his past that he’s dragged into the present, the discomfort twists you up inside. Yet Gary is worse than just sad. He’s bleak, because he’s contagious. He doesn’t just refuse to move on with his life: he somehow manages to drag the others backwards. In his company Peter (Eddie Marsan) is consumed by his memories of being bullied. Steven (Paddy Considine) becomes re-obsessed with his secondary school crush. Andrew (Nick Frost) hurls himself off the wagon after passionately declaring the bravery of the teetotaller. It seems to make no difference that Gary is a man mentally and physically broken by an excess of nostalgia. His obsession ensnares his drinking buddies all the same.
That’s pretty sad already, but Wright takes things further. Gary is not just nostalgic for increased hangover resistance and a lack of back troubles. What Gary wants from the past is the joyous freedom of his youth. He returns to Newton Haven to recapture that, and blunders into The Network (Bill Nighy), an alien intelligence who has filled the town with robots, and would really like it if humans could start behaving sensibly. Naturally, the two do not get on.
The Network has all the worst traits of the old imperialist, dressed up in the pleasantries and justifications of the modern counterinsurgent. They try to hide obnoxious arrogance behind twinkly-eyed paternalism, and attempt to rationalise atrocities out of existence. They claim not to conquer, but all the replaced people would imply otherwise. Then, when they find resistance too tough to manage, they bugger off like sulky children, taking their toys with them and leaving their supporters behind to face the hatred of the colonised. Yet, though World’s End is not kind to the colonisers, when the rebels are led by Gary King, can they be much better? If the Network acts like an evil stepfather, overbearing and illegitimate, Gary and the others behave like naughty children. They drink or fight or break everything they touch, and in the face of judgement make dick jokes, though these are, at least, slightly funnier than the joke that is their cause.
King and the others fight for freedom, in a film with strong beliefs about what freedom is. We tend to use the word ‘freedom’ as an ideal term, a grand and noble thing. The word even sounds good, like audible sunshine. In The World’s End however, it starts to sound stale. It’s inspiring when King says the human race does not like being told what to do, right up until you remember that King used his own freedom to lie, steal and binge. In The World’s End, freedom is the ability to self-gratify and self-destruct at the same time. This film takes a culture-defining ideal, makes sweeping statements about its appeal to humanity as a whole, and then pisses all over it and its pedestal both.
The World’s End does this skilfully. Like the previous Cornetto films, The World’s End is dense with Easter eggs of foreshadowing (pay attention to the pub names) and meaningful song choices. Each character has clearly defined motives and traits. This a story with legs. It’s also a story with two faces, a smiling one on the front, and a sad one emerging out the back like a depressed Voldemort, and the problem is that, while the sad face weeps loud enough to be heard, the audience barely sees it. All we see is the cheeky grin of the front-face, and as the sobbing becomes louder and louder, that unrelenting grin becomes less entertaining and more baffling.
Tragedies can be funny. Last time I saw Hamlet I found bits of it hilarious, but at some point in every tragedy the jokes should stop. In The World’s End, they never do. Right up until the credits, The World’s End allows only moments of seriousness before Wright’s staple goofiness creeps over it again. The World’s End is a good story. It is well-structured, the characters work, the fight scenes are incredible, the dialogue is clever and the ideas that animate it are clearly expressed. Still, it is also a tragedy that has real difficulty just being tragic. I don’t think this makes it a bad movie, but, it does keep it from feeling ‘right’.