At one point of Edgar Wright’s “The World’s End” one of the film’s protagonist’s, Andy, describes Newton Haven as a black hole. Unknown to him at the time, this will prove to be an accurate assessment for him and his friends, as both time and space seem to distort during their visit to their childhood hometown. This third chapter of my deliberations on “The World’s End” will examine this more closely and offer some interpretations on the film’s subtext. As in the other chapters of this piece spoilers will be omnipresent.
We left Andy and his friends at the “Cross Arms”, the fourth stop of the pub-crawl known as the “Golden Mile”. After an argument among the friends, Gary leaves for the gents’ room and starts a fight with his counterpart among the current youth of Newton Haven. During this fight he accidently knocks the youth’s head clean off his shoulders. Thereby he discovers that the youngster wasn’t human at all, but a blue-blooded android of some sort. At this stage about a quarter of the film’s playing time has gone by and now “The World’s End” suddenly turns into a science-fiction movie, as both viewers and protagonists are simultaneously confronted with a marked change in the nature of the film’s diegesis.
This becomes all the more apparent, when the beheaded youth stands up again and a battle of the generations starts when both groups of friends enter the fray. Thereby the social roles of the film’s main protagonists are confirmed once more, as “warrior” Andy is the only one under full control of the fight and “king” Gary just manages to hang on. The others are more or less beaten up. Peter Page even reverts to his school days and hides in a toilet cubicle. I believe that the fighting scenes in “The World’s End” are used symbolically to demonstrate the various levels of social empowerment the friends have developed. They show who has learned to cope with their own lives and has taken on responsibility for their own actions. In this case Andy, the married tea-total with his own company, who emancipated himself from Gary years ago, copes best. Gary can’t get over his own youth and is lost in many ways, but at least he follows his own ideas. The other three suppress their feelings and let their lives be dominated by others. They all are plagued by personal problems: Peter is bullied by just about everybody, Oliver is a slave of his phone who does not get past the acronym W.T.F. when he is swearing and Steve apparently is suffering from an early bout of midlife crisis, so that he keeps referring to his 26-year-old fitness instructor, although he still has feelings for Samantha that he somehow can not express or fully admit.
In the aftermath of this bathroom battle the victorious friends discover that their phones are unusable. They blame this on the network (sic!) and Gary finds an excuse as to why nobody in Newton Haven would recognize the returning friends. He now believes that most of the town’s inhabitants have been replaced by androids and believes this to be the reason behind their cool welcoming.
Andy knocks back a set of shots as he loses control after having to admit that Gary probably is right. Because none of the others can drive anymore either, the friends attempt to look inconspicuous by sticking to their original plan and finishing the “Golden Mile”. Doing this they at first act more robotic than the androids as – accompanied by the “Alabama Song” of “The Doors” – they move on to the “Good Companions”. The pub sign of this establishment fittingly shows five faces – four of which are sad and one happy. This clearly resembles the mood of the film’s protagonists as they down a pint each and head on to the “Trusty Servant”. The discomfort of the group is highlighted by their forced movements and the depiction of everybody else watching them.
In the “Trusty Servant” they meet their old marihuana dealer Trevor, who is also known as the Reverend Green. The ale-house’s name seems to refer to this character, who apparently is depicted on the pub’s sign. Trevor has now turned into a legitimate businessman, however, and is shown to be wearing a suit and tie. He reluctantly answers the friends questions and explains that the town has been taken over by robots that are not robots, as the word robot actually means slave and they are not slaves, but very happy with their situation. Apparently this was too much information already, as Trevor is called off by his supervisor.
On the friends’ way to the next pub, the “Two-Headed Dog”, they pass the youths that they had dismembered earlier on. The androids’ return and the pub’s name echo the mythical beast Hydra (think Marvel: “cut off one head and two will grow back again!”). Additionally, Samantha shows up with two friends who incidentally are twins (another recurring feature in Edgar Wright’s films) and the barkeeper greets the friends in an overfriendly manner, as he repeats a discussion from earlier on. He thus resembles the two-faced Roman God Janus. He may be showing his friendly face, but everybody knows there is a threatening face behind it.
Everybody, except Samantha, that is. Gary tries to tell her, but is expectedly not believed. Only after he fights off the twins’ initial assault and rips off some of their limbs, Samantha realizes that, for once, he has been telling her the truth. Steve misinterprets the situation and – facing impending doom and having seven pints in his bloodstream – decides to come clean and tell Samantha how he feels about her. Empowered by this revelation both Steve and Samantha (thumbs up for the good old alliterative coupling here) fight very well when the twins return.
At this point of the story, Andy has lost control of the situation and reverted to the role he had during his youth. Failing to find a better solution, he blindly follows Gary King – even through a closed glass door if need be. Furthermore, it soon becomes clear that his marriage is running through a hard spot. Consequently, he falls for the temptations of a youthful “Marmalade Sandwich” in the eighth pub which is known as the “Mermaid” and even loses his wedding ring to one of the seductresses. The motto party, at which everyone apart from the friends is wearing school uniforms, shows how the siren’s song – that is meant to tempt the new arrivals – not only consists of fancies long lost, but also of the promise of eternal youth and in Gary’s case a return to the glories of old. Kylie Minogue, who herself has remained rather youthful for a very long time, provides the film with the more than appropriate background song “Step Back in Time” in order to highlight this.
In the meantime, Basil abducts Steve and explains to him how the invasion happened. He describes how the aliens came to earth on the very same 22nd of June 1990 on which the friends had attempted to conquer the “Golden Mile” for the first time. Basil goes on to point out that humanity was not meant to be erased, just changed to resemble the aliens and their values more closely. In other words: a friendly merger took place and a new corporate identity was installed. Only people that refuse to go along with these rules of… let us provocatively call it… political correctness get replaced. Basil uses the words “trust, love, respect, desire… replaced in the name of progress.” The superficial friendliness, the strict, albeit somewhat arbitrary rules of conduct (i.e. pro-alcohol and contra-marihuana) and the methods through which the aliens add new links to their social network with blanks (by acquiring the necessary DNA) enticing new people to join the fold, strongly resemble our current society with its social media and the technologies that go along with it. The friends’ name for the androids, which are robots who are not robots, is “blanks”. This term echoes our “smombies”, “tinderellas” and similar expressions for people who live most of their life online. Additionally, the aliens’ plan strongly calls to mind the homogenisation of the English pub landscape and similar marketing ploys which were discussed earlier in the film.
Fittingly, the newly found lovers Samantha and Steve with their shared past pluck the others out of the siren’s den which is aptly named the “Mermaid”. They thus save their friends from being assimilated. Yet, their help comes too late for one member of their group. Samantha’s brother Oliver, the salesman who never takes off his ear-piece, becomes the first of their group to succumb to the aliens. As we learn in the next pub, which is called the “Beehive”, he was already replaced by an android, when he frequented the bathroom in the “Trusty Servant”. The sixth pub’s name therefore not only refers to the Reverend Green but also to Oliver (an aspect which again is confirmed on the film’s advertising posters). As with many other things, this was already predicted in Gary’s opening tale, as pint six spelled the end for Oliver in both attempts at the “Golden Mile”.
In these scenes Martin Freeman excels as he plays yet another inconspicuous character at the heart of a production. Once more, I have to congratulate the casting department of “The World’s End” for this choice of actor. As with other characters depicted by Freeman, i.e. Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit” or Dr. Watson in “Sherlock”, the ever friendly and reserved Oliver is very easily underestimated by viewers and other characters alike, although he plays a key-role and constantly manages to give subtle hints to his true capabilities or his changed nature (if one knows what one is looking for). One such hint might be seen in the acronym “w.t.f.” that Oliver frequently utters. Its usage not only shows how the character cans his emotions, but also alludes to the typical modern shorthand applied whilst writing SMS, Tweets etc. Another tell-tale-sign are his clothes, as anybody wearing the “cold” colours green or blue in modern day Newton Haven seems to be linked to the androids in “The World’s End”. Other clues can be found in Oliver’s sudden enthusiasm for the “Golden Mile” and his obvious sobriety – especially as he was the first of the group to drop out of the pub crawl on their last attempt in 1990. In the film his role as a blank is uncovered when he stumbles over a pronoun outside the beehive and Andy notices that his birthmark has returned. This birthmark is shaped like the number “6” – a clear reference to the film “Omen” in which a birthmark formed like the number of the beast “666” gives away Damian as the son of the devil. In “The World’s End” the birthmark consequently also gives away Oliver’s link to the film’s main adversary. This birthmark provided him with the hated nickname “O-man”. Interestingly, he no longer reacts negatively to this denomination after his transformation and thus provides the viewers with another clue to his true nature.
Andy, who was previously seen contemplating the ramifications of his missing wedding ring, has regained control of himself by the time the friends enter the ninth pub which is known as the Beehive. He consequently knocks part of Oliver’s head off, revealing him as an empty headed blank to all others present. As on their first endeavour at the “Golden Mile”, the friends’ stay in the “Beehive” thus results in a mass brawl. Samantha takes the lead, as she knocks her brother’s replacement firmly off his chair. Andy follows suit. He loudly renounces Newton Haven and therefore his own past and wreaks havoc among the blanks. Apart from Peter all of the group seem to have come to terms with their situation and thus acquit themselves reasonably during the ensuing fight.
As with every beehive the drones keep coming, however, so the friends are forced to flee. Where they go, how their adventure continues and what all of this may mean, will be the focus of the fourth part of my deliberations on Edgar Wright’s “The World’s End”.