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The World's End

#718 - The World's End
Edgar Wright, 2013

A group of friends reunite to recreate the best night of their lives but soon discover that their old hometown has changed.

Ever since I first saw Shaun of the Dead over a decade ago, Edgar Wright has easily become one of my favourite directors. The 2004 zombie parody stood out to young me for many reasons - the taut construction of both written and visual humour, a cast full of excellent comic talents, inventive effects, technical panache, and a great soundtrack. I naturally kept an eye out for everything else he did, especially his collaborations with Simon Pegg. Short-lived geek sitcom Spaced was great, as was their 2007 sophomore feature Hot Fuzz, which sought to affectionately lampoon the action genre in the same way that Shaun had taken on horror. After that, Pegg and Wright struck out in different directions, with the former mainly getting a lot of comic relief roles in hit franchises while the latter created another rapid-fire genre comedy with the Spaced-like geek fantasy of 2010's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. 2013 saw the duo reunite to complete their so-called "Cornetto trilogy", which had begun with Shaun and continued with Fuzz. By this point, Wright and Pegg's capacity for cleverly constructed gags and reference-heavy humour was threatening to wear a little thin and one could easily worry about diminishing returns as they sought to deliver a third film seemingly out of obligation.

The World's End begins with a grainy montage introducing us to a cocky Goth named Gary King (Simon Pegg) as he retells the story of the best night of his life; on the last day of school in 1990, Gary and his closest friends embark on a legendary pub crawl known as "the Golden Mile", which involves visiting all twelve pubs in their small hometown of Newton Haven and drinking a pint of beer in every single one. Though they don't complete the crawl, Gary still considers it the best night of his life. Fast-forward about twenty years and Gary, now pushing forty and in rehab, gets the bright idea to throw on his high-school duds, reunite his old friends, and finish the Golden Mile once and for all. However, this is complicated by the fact that his friends have all moved on with their lives and have no real interest in reuniting with Gary for the crawl - especially his former best friend Andy (Nick Frost), who has nothing but resentment towards Gary due to an unspecified past incident. The other three - neurotic family man Peter (Eddie Marsan), sharp-tongued romantic Steven (Paddy Considine), and tech-savvy straight-man Oliver (Martin Freeman) - don't exactly hate Gary, but they all have their own baggage that doesn't make them relish the idea of spending time around him. After barging into their places of work one by one and convincing them to join up, Gary drives them all out to Newton Haven and they get started on the crawl, but it doesn't take long before they find out that the town is hiding one very dark secret...

Before continuing on with addressing the quality of the rest of the cast, I think I need to single out a paragraph for Pegg and Frost alone. With the previous two films featuring Pegg as the straight man and Frost as the goofy man-child, the decision to have them swap roles had the potential to fail but it pays off magnificently. Pegg's turn as the manic and self-obsessed burn-out who constantly cracks bad jokes and needles his old friends is liable to alienate audiences right off the bat, but it soon becomes clear how much his cheerfully manipulative behaviour masks a broken man secretly trying to cope with his many flaws, which only becomes clearer and clearer as the film progresses and leads to some genuinely affecting work from the man as the film races towards its climax. Frost, on the other hand, has to deal with the challenge of playing a character that's far removed from the happy-go-lucky fools he played in the other Cornetto films. Fortunately, he's not only able to provide a gloriously contemptuous and sarcastic foil to Pegg's antics but also manages to pull off some serious heavy-lifting in the role, managing to cover a wide array of emotions as he must once again deal with his erstwhile best friend getting him into trouble.

In keeping with its more focused approach to characterisation, The World's End assembles a cast that more than matches up to the bevy of British character actors featured in Hot Fuzz. The rest of the so-called Five Musketeers involve actors who have all made names for themselves as serious actors - like Frost, they all function as straight men towards Pegg but all in very different ways. Freeman may get the least development of them all as the Bluetooth-wearing businessman who constantly censors himself and is embarrassed by some of his friends' fixation on his sister Sam (Rosamund Pike), but he delivers his usual comedic frustration with competence. Marsan also does well as the wealthy but extremely timid man whose monologue about his abusive childhood definitely stands out as a dark moment in a film that's surprisingly full of them and also makes him an interesting counterpart to Pegg. The normally intense Considine still impresses as he channels a lot of dry humour into every scene that Steven is in, whether it's shrugging off Pegg's nonsense or opening up about his unrequited feelings for Sam. Despite Sam coming across as a token female character who exists mainly to serve as a point of conflict between several of the male leads, Pike definitely has enough talent to make the role into something more.

While Shaun of the Dead quite frequently foreshadowed the inevitable appearance of the shuffling ghouls and Hot Fuzz gradually eased into a murder mystery plot, for the first half-hour or so The World's End gives you virtually no hint that it's going to turn into a film about an alien invasion. It instead builds up the six leads not just on their own but also in relation to one another as they meet up and head on the crawl. One could easily see this being a straightforward dramedy that could play out quite well without any science-fiction elements whatsoever, which can be interpreted as either a point in the film's favour or one against it. I personally think it's a credit to the film that it's not only able to organically develop a handful of well-defined protagonists during its first act, but it keeps building on such solid foundations in ways that pay off in manners great and small, especially during the film's emotionally charged third act. The themes regarding nostalgia, immaturity, and individualism also feed into the admittedly familiar design of the aliens, whose easily-destroyed bodies not only resemble action figures but whose collective hive-mind also stands out as the epitome of the supposedly adult conformity that self-proclaimed free man Gary rails against.

Wright's frenetic style of filming has only escalated with each subsequent film he's directed and The World's End seems to mark an apotheosis of his particular style. The claustrophobic zombie horror of Shaun of the Dead, the blockbuster-like carnage of Hot Fuzz, and the colourful comic-book violence of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World all bleed into this film's action sequences, which definitely stand out as some of the best work Wright has ever filmed. Veteran action cinematographer Bill Pope is definitely an unsung talent here - he has worked on all sorts of memorably high-energy productions ranging from The Matrix to Army of Darkness and that energy definitely translates into the action scenes that weave in everything from long takes to relatively slick CGI effects. Despite the speed with which such scenes are shot and cut, they never become disorienting and are very well-choreographed. The fast-paced hand-to-hand fights still keep up the comedy thanks to the gory booze-fuelled slapstick that suggests influences ranging from Jackie Chan to Sam Raimi, which is still kept grounded thanks to the aliens' blue blood making the splatter seem enjoyably cartoonish rather than graphically overdone. Such scenes may be few and far between, but this is definitely a case where quality wins out over quantity.

The depth of the characterisation and execution of the action are all very well and good, but since The World's End is primarily intended to be a comedy, one can question whether or not it delivers. The intricately-woven mix of clever dialogue and well-staged sight gags made Shaun of the Dead into a sleeper hit and Hot Fuzz managed to offer its own variations on certain jokes while providing an even greater scope to its characters and humour. To this end, The World's End does occasionally seem to be better at amusing than eliciting laughter. The character-based interplay definitely has a bittersweet tinge to it thanks to Pegg being deliberately unfunny and the bulk of the humour coming from his friends barely tolerating his desperate attempts to entertain. Be that as it may, there are still plenty of funny moments scattered throughout the film that invoke both verbal and physical humour to strong effect (often involving something as simple as Frost trying to walk through a door or the group trying to figure out what name they should give to their newfound enemies). In keeping with Wright and Pegg's tendency to fill the film with all sorts of clever bits of foreshadowing in terms of both visual detail and dialogue choices, the film also proves quite re-watchable; this marked my seventh viewing of the film and I still get consistent amusement with a good few chuckles out of it.

The general consensus seems to be that The World's End is actually the weakest part of the Cornetto trilogy, but I do wonder if that's because it has to try to match the high expectations set by not only Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz but also by the fact that it's supposed to be an epic conclusion. While I was initially inclined to agree with such an assessment, over time it's grown on me and I might even give it the edge over Hot Fuzz (and I do love Hot Fuzz). The World's End proves a very satisfying conclusion to a trilogy that has been connected not just by doing quintessentially British genre parodies but also by seeing the various characters and conflicts escalate as the protagonists must work towards growing up and bettering themselves one way or the other. This may mean that the film's ending is of debatable quality and logic (regardless of it having one of the most awesome final images of the 21st century), but that doesn't stop the rest of the film feeling extremely solid. It works as a straightforward genre pastiche that just so happens to be funny and also has a great collection of people working on both sides of the camera. It's fun but also has emotional resonance to it, plus the action scenes show Wright at the top of his game. That's without mentioning the mix of Steven Price's appropriately dramatic score and a selection of mostly-retro tunes that reflect Wright's capacity for great marriages of sound and vision - look no further than the film's sublime usage of the intro of the Sisters of Mercy's "This Corrosion".