Movie Review: The World's End (2013)
There’s always something wrong with the perfect village.
In “Shaun of the Dead” it’s infiltrated with zombies, in “Hot Fuzz” with murderers, and now in “The World’s End,” the third in the so-called Cornetto trilogy, genre-comedies created by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, it’s been taken over by aliens who replace the village residents, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”-style, with robots.
Each, by the way, is a commentary on some aspect of our sad society.
Zombies? They’re so much like us—who commute daily between soul-destroying jobs and mind-numbing drink and TV at home—that they’re not even noticed at first. The murderers? They take out anyone who threatens their “Village of the Year” title. They do bad merely to appear good. And now? The robots? It’s part of that odd, return-to-your-hometown vibe. Doesn’t everything seem the same and yet ... odd? Clean and quaint and blank and homogenized? That’s why. It’s not you, it’s them.
Each movie also happens to be very funny.
But does each buy too much into the genre? The first and third certainly begin as character studies (young slacker tries to get life together; middle-aged man attempts to relive school-age glories), then become action films. They begin slightly British and end very Hollywood.
I’m free/ To do what I want
Gary King (Pegg) is the self-proclaimed leader of a group of mates who graduated in 1990 with an attempt at the “golden mile” pub crawl and came up three pubs short. Now it’s 23 years later, he has nothing going for him, and he wants a re-do. Where does he realize this? At a 12-step meeting. One assumes (rightly, it turns out) at an AA meeting.
But his friends have moved on and grown up. Peter (Eddie Marsan) sells cars at his father’s dealership, Steve (Paddy Considine) runs a construction company, Oliver (Martin Freeman) is a real estate broker, and Andy (Nick Frost), the old hard-drinking rugby player, has a corporate job and hasn’t had a drink in 16 years. None are too happy to see him. All agree, nonetheless, to take the train to Newtown Haven on Friday at 4:00, where Gary will pick them up. He does—an hour late. He’s driving the same 1989 car, “the Beast,” and wearing the same types of clothes—hipster 1990 clothes: the long trenchcoat, etc. Basically a cooler, darker version of my college wardrobe.
On the drive to the village center he starts playing the 1990 hit “I’m Free” by the Soup Dragons, and Steve’s interest is perked. “I put this on a tape for you,” he says, slowly remembering. Gary’s response is enthusiastic. “Yeah, this is it!” he says. At first, Steve is confused, then dumbfounded, that they’re actually listening to that same tape, and that Gary didn’t have to dig it out; it’s been in his car the whole time. All of the various iterations of technology—CD to MP3—have passed him by. Considine’s doubletake, backed by Pegg’s obtuse enthusiasm, made me laugh out loud, but this back-and-forth is also relevant to the story. More later.
So they begin the crawl, catch up, draw closer, even as Gary, the instigator, remains the outsider. He’s a bit like David Brent, isn’t he? Thick and self-important and sad. Oliver’s sister, Sam (Rosamund Pike), shows up, a one-time source of rivalry between Steve and Gary since they saw her wearing fishnet stockings in their school production of “Cabaret,” and Gary greets her, “Cabaret”-like, with “Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome.” A minute later, she slaps him and hangs an OUT OF ORDER sign around his neck. At another pub he’s reduced to defending his sad life to his mates. “You’re all slaves and I’m free!” he says, echoing, unintentionally, the Soup Dragons.
The evening is dying on the vine for him and he tries to show off in the men’s room to a kid there, part of a gang who remind him of them back in the day; but the kid doesn’t respond to his sad bragging. A fight breaks out and the kid’s head is crushed against a urinal and ... pops off. He bleeds blue ink. He’s a robot. So is most of the town. The homogenization of the pubs in the crawl? That’s why. That bad piece of public art? It’s a sentinel. The crazy man who drinks with a crazy straw? He’s the one who knows.
The robots are easy to kill but quick to reboot, and our heroes’ numbers begin to dwindle. First they get Oliver, then Peter. Gary insists on continuing the crawl so as not to alert them, then because he has nothing going with his life. In the end, at the final pub, The World's End, the alien intelligence—a beam of light with the voice of Bill Nighy—greets them and tells all. Replacing humans with robots is being done less for nefarious purposes than to provide harmony to the universe. Earth? It’s the least-civilized planet. It’s full of fuck-ups involved in the same cycles of self-destruction. Like Gary. So a few robots replace a few humans to keep things running efficiently. Except—and Gary points this out—we’re such fuck-ups, we’re so uncivilized, that the aliens have had to replace almost the entire town. He defends the species, after a fashion:
Gary (to alien): To err is ...
Steve (to Gary): ... human.
Gary: To err is human, so ... (defiant shrug)
He tells them where to go:
Why don’t you get back in your rocket and fuck off back to Lego Land, you fucking cunt!
What I like? It works. The aliens give up without a fight. Nighy sighs, says, “Fuck it, it’s pointless arguing with you,” and the aliens leave, reducing much of our technology in the process. Because, right, all the tech, how interconnected the world has become, from satellites to the internet to MP3s, that was the aliens’ doing. They leave, it falls, and we descend into a post-apocalyptic world, with Gary a kind of Mad Max figure picking fights in pubs with, as his mates, former robots, now called blanks.
What I don’t like? It’s kind of the redemption of Gary, isn’t it? And I never liked Gary.
I like the other guys. I like them getting together again, the rekindling of something, the warmth of old friendship. These are good actors, funny and smart. I like the self-sacrifice of thankless jobs (them) rather than self-aggrandizement and chest-thumping through an empty pop-culture filter (Gary).
I like the Britishness of their friendship. They discuss etymology and Alexander Dumas. You don’t get that much in American movies. They discuss Shakespeare. They have an old phrase, “Let’s boo-boo,” for when it’s time to go, and they recall its derivation. It began when they studied “A Winter’s Tale” and laughed over the stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Then it became something about exiting with Yogi Bear; then it became “Let’s boo-boo.” That’s nice. It’s almost a throwaway, but it’s there and it recalls a history. And it’s smart.
But the movie suggests that the true savior of the world isn’t the self-sacrifice of men in thankless jobs—in fact, they contribute to the problem—but self-aggrandizing fuck-ups like Gary. It dismisses what’s British and holds up what’s American. As an American—not even an Anglophile, more of a Francophile—I object. Or maybe I just object as someone in a thankless job.