After their previous ventures into the horror genre with “Shaun of the Dead” (2004) and the crime-fighting-buddy-action-movie with “Hot Fuzz” (2007), Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have applied themselves to science-fiction and its tropes in the final film of their “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy”, which is also known as the “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy”. This third film is fittingly titled “The World’s End” and will be the focus of the following deliberations. Please, be warned that spoilers will abound through all five parts of this piece on Edgar Wright’s Film.
“The World’s End” centres on Gary King, a middle-aged alcoholic who is not able to let go of his youth, in which he thought himself respected as the proverbial “big fish in the small pond” of nightlife in the quiet English-town of Newton Haven, which since 1990 has ludicrously started to celebrate itself as the home of the United Kingdom’s first roundabout. Accordingly, he still believes that the night on which he and his friends finished school was the best of his entire life. To relive and outdo this night becomes his sole ambition, when – during an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting – he is confronted with his failure to finish the infamous pub crawl known as the “Golden Mile” on that occasion. Consequently, he reassembles his estranged and matured mates Andrew Knightley (played by Nick Frost), Oliver Chamberlain (Martin Freeman), Peter Page (Eddie Marsan) and Steven Prince (Paddy Considine) to finish, what they failed to do at the peak of their youth.
As will be shown during these loose thoughts on the movie, this pub crawl will proceed to be the silver thread along which the plot of “The World’s End” resolves. The names of the various ale-houses thereby keep reappearing in the film and are thus used to create a mental map of the ongoing plot for its viewers. The film thus mirrors orally conveyed epic tales of old. Additionally, various other repetitions, both visual and in the film’s dialogue, speaking names and a clear structure with many previews – most notably Gary’s introductory speech – guide the spectators through the movie.
At first glance, “The World’s End” appears to document its main protagonist’s struggle to find a role in adult society and his doomed attempts to recapture the splendour of his youth – even if he is the only one to remember his former self in such a glorified fashion. For him the day that should have been the start of his life, spelled its metaphorical end.
This interpretation is strengthened by the movie’s soundtrack which mainly features songs of both the film makers’ and their protagonists’ respective youth. As we have come to expect from Wright and Pegg, these songs are perfectly matched to the film they are accompanying in both tune and lyrics. “Pulp”’s “Do you remember the first time?” underlines this claim in exemplary fashion, as it also describes the futility of reliving former triumphs.
The importance of the soundtrack for “The World’s End” is highlighted in the film twofold. The obnoxious and tragic character Gary is a dedicated fan of “The Sisters of Mercy”, whose 1987 release “This Corrosion” aptly accompanies the first section of the film’s credits. This particular British rock-band has been described as an important part of early Goth-music. Gary consequently not only proudly wears a tattoo with the band’s name on his chest but also retains the “man in black” fashion routine associated with this post-punk youth culture. Additionally, Gary’s mind-set is solidly focussed on certain moments of his own past. He thus lives up to the “no future” mentality that is frequently associated with both goths and punks – albeit in a sad and twisted manner. His selective memory and retro-vision are frequently talked about in the film itself. They become even more obvious when Gary is shown to use an aged Nokia cell phone and continues to drive his very first car, which he still calls “The Beast”. As the vehicle’s name suggests it is an early metaphor for the films main antagonist, especially as, over the years, every part of it has been replaced by a newer, smoother version.
Whilst driving “the Beast”, Gary still listens to a mix-tape that was presented to him by Steve during their youth. This tape is the second exclamation mark highlighting the importance of the film’s soundtrack for its contents. It not only shows how the character is trapped in nostalgic views of his own past, but apparently also features the very same songs as the movie’s soundtrack – a gimmick which was used in a similar fashion in James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” in 2014. Gary’s mixed tape even features prominently on the main menu of the DVD that I used to write this piece. It has to be mentioned, however, that (according to director Edgar Wright’s commentary on the film’s DVD) the incident with the mixed tape stuck in Gary’s car for over a decade is actually based on an incident of his own life, when a friend surprised him with a similar revelation.
Despite the recurring fence gags, which also link the film to “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”, “The World’s End”’s main protagonist apparently was never meant to be very funny – even though Gary himself would not agree with this assessment. He always has the last word, no matter how wrong or pointless his opinion might be, and his jokes are pointedly flat, outdated and/or immature. Yet, he does not seem to register how little response he gets from other people, not least his former best friends. His views and comments are as appalling to them as they are to the film’s viewers. His failure to grow up and take responsibility for himself and his own life is definitely meant to be off-putting. The character is constructed as a warning on how futile attempts are to conserve one’s own self at any given time of one’s life. Time moves on and one can only handle its tide if one is willing to take up the oars of responsibility and manage one’s own course into the future.
Similarly, Gary’s return to Newton Haven is not met with the enthusiasm he had expected. Most people don’t recognize him and those that do, shun him. The clearest form of recognition he gets, is when a bar-keeper remembers that he is barred from his ale-house. In this manner, “The World’s End” discusses some issues which might sound familiar to many people who grew up in a small town and left their homes for the “big city”. Acting on the urge to return to the place of one’s youth might result in disillusionment, as realisation dawns that the small hometown doesn’t really care that one left in the first place. The prodigal sons and daughters of such rural towns might revisit the apparently unchanged fixtures of their own youth and thus many of their fondest memories. Yet, despite the apparently enduring qualities of such places, time has moved on, and any returning person would be left to face the often unwelcome truth that the hometown matters more to them than they ever did to it.
In many ways “The World’s End” represents a typical film of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. Similarly to the other films of the Cornetto Trilogy and their earlier projects, like the “Channel 4” series “Spaced”, their latest collaboration discusses questions of everyday life by engaging and then reconfiguring them through the gaze of allegedly lighter entertainment and well-known tropes of popular culture. As Simon Pegg claims on the film’s DVD-commentary: “Well there’s obviously the theme of loss of identity in terms of one person facing off against a collective, the notion of a protracted adolescence, friendship… also a film that takes an accepted genre and uses it as a means of saying something else, uses horror or action or science fiction as a metaphor to say more human things.” The familiar genre conventions are thus used to discuss everyday life. The layers of meaning they add to the films of both Wright and Pegg show, that their importance to the film’s makers and many of their characters is more than mere escapism. Accordingly, the films of Wright and Pegg also become more than just parodies of the respective genres, as the aforementioned tropes are not used to discuss their own source material, but to comment upon issues of a more tangible nature.
However, before we discuss these aspects more closely, a few words need to be said on the content and structure of “The World’s End”. So please return for the second part of these deliberations, when we join the lads on the “Golden Mile”!