The World’s End (Review)
By Rachael Kelly (PhD)
Originally published in Infinite Earths (online; September 2013)
Nobody does genre quite like Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. Even the name of their Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, 2004; Hot Fuzz, 2007; The World’s End, 2013) reveals both a close familiarity with film history and a deep affection for the medium – it’s a sly nod to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours series that, fittingly for a creative team who have built their careers on astute cultural pastiche, originated as an in-joke on the promotional tour for Hot Fuzz (Huddleston, 2013). The final installment in that trilogy, The World’s End, features the green mint choc chip variety of the popular ice cream, and, with that, their work here is done.
This combination of encyclopaedic knowledge and fannish love is the duo’s great strength as filmmakers, and has led to, arguably, two of the best informed – and funny – films of the past decade. The humour derives from the absurdism, quick-witted banter and slapstick violence that Pegg and co-star Nick Frost perform par excellence, but underpinning it is a sharp eye for genre – a fan’s eye for genre – that allows Wright and Pegg to deconstruct conventions so familiar to modern movie audiences as to be essentially invisible, deftly skewer them with the care and affection of the true cinephile, then patch it back together as something magnificently self-referential, new, sharply well-observed, and, above all things, hilarious. Shaun of the Dead took the generic conventions of the zombie flick and created the rom-zom-com. (“A romantic comedy. With zombies.” – Anon, 2004) Hot Fuzz poked gentle fun at the buddy cop movie. And with The World’s End, they turn the genre-microscope on… uh, all of them, I think.
Well, no, not all of them – and it’s unfair to deride a movie that delivers the same extended, agonizing belly-laughs as first two movies in the trilogy, the same glorious anarchy of hyperkinetic editing and hyperbolic set-pieces, the same effortless chemistry between its two leads (Pegg and Frost), and mixes them with a pinch of something much darker and more grown-up, in a manner that’s at times disconcerting and, occasionally, even profoundly moving. And, indeed, taken on its own, the movie is an almost unequivocal triumph, apart from a few logical inconsistencies and a clear confusion about how to tie everything up in the final act. It’s only that, placed in a continuum alongside Shaun and Hot Fuzz, there’s a comparative lack of that keen observational focus that make the first two such a multi-layered joy to watch.
The story is simple, in that very specific definition of “simple” that only applies to a Wright/Pegg collaboration. Twenty-three years after the pub crawl to end all pub crawls sputtered to an ignominious halt six establishments short of the twelve that make up the legendary Golden Mile of their middle-England home town, five forty-something friends reunite at the urging of their erstwhile ringleader, Gary King (Pegg), to try to recreate past glories – and reach the final pub on the map, The World’s End. So much, so sub-generic Getting The Band Back Together movie, drunken hijinks and self-actualising revelations fitted as standard. But, because this is Pegg and Wright behind the steering wheel, the respectable middle-classes of Newton Haven turn out to have been replaced by alien robots as the first stage of a planned invasion of the earth. The world might actually be ending, and the only people in any kind of a position to do anything about that are five pints down with another seven to go.
Before launching into a discussion as to why The World’s End doesn’t work as well as its predecessors, it’s worth pointing out that, for a team as talented as Pegg and Wright, “doesn’t work as well as its predecessors” still equates to an incredibly effective piece of filmmaking: visually, comedically, narratively, and performatively. The only manner in which it doesn’t quite hold up is as a part of a “Non-Trilogy” (Brown, 2013) of films that weren’t deliberately linked to each other until the second movie was already in cinemas. And the reason it falls a little short of its thematic brethren may well be linked to this fact – because what the The World’s End suffers from is not the law of diminishing returns, but rather an excess of ambition.
Part of the problem is that, while the zombie movie and the buddy cop movie are relatively narrow subgenres, The World’s End uses high-concept science fiction for its organising narrative, and the problem with cinematic science fiction, as JP Telotte argues, is that “although the genre certainly sports an iconography that immediately asserts a kind of identity and one with which the average filmgoer is usually quite familiar – rockets, robots, futuristic cities, alien encounters, fantastic technology, scientists (mad or otherwise) – these icons or generic conventions have, within the critical establishment and, to a lesser degree, even in the popular mind, never quite satisfactorily served to bracket it off as a discrete form, something we might easily categorize and thus set about systematically studying” (Telotte, 2001). Science fiction, as a generic classification, works better as an umbrella term for a multiplicity of different subgenres (acknowledging, of course, that this is over-simplified for the purposes of brevity): social realist future noir, space opera, post-apocalyptic dystopia, little green men (invading or otherwise), the possibilities inherent in Artificial Intelligence, and so on. All of these categories have distinctive, recognisable conventions of their own and iconic examples that have fed pervasively into the cultural lexicon. And, although Wright specifically calls it a “robot apocalypse movie” most of them are present in The World’s End.
Moreover, the genre-clash that fed the glorious absurdity of Shaun and Hot Fuzz is less successful here, in part because, counter-intuitive as it might seem to claim the reverse for the previous two, there is much less scope for overlap between “robot apocalypse” and “male mid-life ennui”. When Shaun positions the archetypal anti-hero of the slacker generation as north London’s best hope against the invading zombie hordes, it’s played for laughs, naturally, and the main thrust of the comedy derives from an ineffectual survival strategy that involves vinyl LP-based self defense, an inability to aim a gun, and a strategic retreat to the local pub. However, as Lynn Piper argues, “Shaun both reflects and deflects established monster theory and depictions of the conventional hero by representing its zombies as even more familiar than the uncanny familiarity we’ve come to associate with the zombie, and portraying its hero, Shaun, as an ironic defender of slacker values rather than the next zombie slayer” (Piper, 2011). Transposing the slacker archetype onto the warrior hero allows the filmmakers to expose the absurdities of the masculine ideal that the latter embodies, and the failure of the average man to achieve the hegemonic paradigm, while also making a wider point about the “zombificatory” potential of modern life, and, more crucially, the commonalities between the zombie and the modern productive adult member of society – the very Other against which the slacker anti-hero more conventionally rebels. Viewed in this light, the collision of genres makes considerable thematic sense.
Likewise Hot Fuzz: setting a high-octane buddy cop movie in a sleepy rural village allows Wright/Pegg to gently observe the hyperbole of the genre as it’s stripped of its habitual justificatory location on the mean streets of a large city, and it works because there is another sub-generic police procedural – the Miss Marple murder mystery, for want of a better descriptor – that can be placed alongside it to establish a certain set of viewer expectations and then demolish them with joyful abandon. It also provides a diegetic rationale for many of the most self-consciously absurd comic sequences (something that the narrative consistently takes pains to do, meticulously adhering to its own, well-established, internal logic). Moreover, both texts may be parodic, but the reason the parody works so effectively is because they are, at their hearts, a zombie movie and a buddy cop movie, rather than specifically genre-based comedy. Both movies are at their most successful when the laughs flow organically from the absurd implications of collapsing one genre into another, but, for that to be possible, genre convention must be meticulously observed, and the collapse must be coherent, clearly articulated, and followed through to its logical conclusion.
The problem with The World’s End, however, is that the genres under scrutiny are only imperfectly collapsed into a coherent, unifying narrative (in large part, I suspect, because there are fewer thematic commonalities to link them – see note 1), which has the effect of bringing the mechanics of Wright/Pegg’s modus operandi much more clearly into focus. For the first time, it feels, conspicuously, like a genre tacked onto another genre for comedic effect, and, while the comedy is relentlessly top-notch, it also feels less subtle – less referential – than in their previous outings. If, as Linda Hutcheon argues, parody “is not just that ridiculing imitation mentioned in the standard dictionary definitions,” and “in fact, what is remarkable in modern parody is its range of intent – from the ironic and playful to the scornful and ridiculing” (Hutcheon, 2000), then The World’s End, for the first time in the trilogy, exhibits a mode of parody closer to the latter end of the spectrum, simply because the imperfect meshing of genre denies the text the kind of nuanced pastiche of the earlier movies. It’s less palimpsest than farce – funny and clever, certainly, but in a different way.
Nowhere, I would argue, is this more evident than in the final act. Its arrival requires the narrative to make a few leaps of internal logic that sometimes work and sometimes don’t – it depends how far you’re willing to run with the idea that the level of inebriation required to arrive at a decision that is, effectively, “Let’s finish the pub crawl because it’s the last thing that the sinister robotic simulacra will expect,” is consistent with the ability to effectively perform mixed martial arts against a squad of superhuman mechanical aggressors in the loos of the local pub and win, not just once, but repeatedly (see note 2), but, for there to be a movie, the characters must remain in Newton Haven on their pub crawl, even after their lives are placed in mortal danger and, to be fair, that takes a bit of logical dissonance to achieve. Moreover, the journey is so much fun that it’s hard to begrudge the writers a little bit of contrivance – it’s not as though we want the gang to give up and go home. However, their arrival at The World’s End presents a problem for the narrative: how on earth are they going to tie it up?
The answer is a delightfully over-the-top mash-up of science fiction’s greatest hits, but it feels as though it belongs in a different movie. It begins, disconcertingly enough, with the film’s most abrupt and disturbing tonal shift – the revelation that Gary’s obsession with completing the pub crawl is symptomatic of a misery so profound that he’s recently been discharged from hospital, where he was being treated for an injury that looks an awful lot like attempted suicide. Indeed, the sequence packs a powerful emotional punch, offering a moving commentary on the nature of addiction and the folks that attempt to save their loved ones from addiction, that Pegg and Frost sell with the kind of acting aplomb that they’re only rarely called upon to display. It would have been a particularly gutsy place to draw the movie to a close, in fact. But then Gary pulls the magic lever, the bar begins to descend into the aliens’ subterranean lair, and we’re back on message again for a delicious piece of deus ex machina-lampooning (of a mode that this diehard Trekkie particularly enjoyed) and the funniest line in the entire film.
It’s just that it doesn’t fit. The movie’s comedy has so far been predicated in large part on the overlapping of the micro (Newton Haven) with the macro (the Terran offensive of a galactic invasion), and this sequence removes us from the small-town setting and transports us to something altogether more genre-specific. It delights in, once again, inverting genre expectations – instead of arguing for the fundamental decency of humankind and the chance to prove themselves worthy of a place in the great galactic playground, Gary, true to character, insists on the “basic human right to be fuck-ups” – but even before the jarring generic shift of the final, post-apocalyptic sequence, Gary’s argument with the Network feels shoe-horned in, in a way that the most ridiculous moments of parodic indulgence of the previous two installments never did. Where the explosive, high-casualty shoot out of Hot Fuzz’s quiet Gloucester village flowed organically out of painstakingly established narrative foreshadowing, The World’s End’s scenes with the Network, and the dystopian consequences of their decision to abandon humanity to its worst excesses, fail to elicit the same satisfying sense of a narrative brought to its logical close in a denouement informed, and predicted, by what has gone before.
None of the above, however, should serve as an argument that The World’s End fails to deliver a thoroughly enjoyable two hours of Wright/Pegg cinematic magic – quite the contrary, in fact. It roars along at breakneck speed, serving up quality gags both visual and verbal, and the chemistry between the leads – all of whom have worked with each other in some capacity before – is as effervescent as ever. The special effects are, as always, effective – and genuinely unsettling in places – and the story is, on the face of it, vintage Cornetto territory. It’s only that, despite forming the third and final chapter of the trilogy, The World’s End seems to exhibit a subtle but significant shift away from the pop culture-savvy reappropriation of form that made the first two so uniquely satisfying, in favour of something that’s a little bit more straightforwardly genre-based – a comedy rather than a parody – and that seems like a shame.
But, then again, “straightforward” is another one of those words that means something slightly different when you apply it to Pegg and Wright…
- Wright argues that “the sci-fi element fits perfectly with those bittersweet feelings of returning to your home town. You used to be kings of the castle, now you feel somehow alienated. That’s the deliberately punny premise of the film” (Huddleston, 2013). While I certainly wouldn’t argue with directorial/authorial intent as expressed by the director/author himself, this thematic link is clearly less substantive than those invoked by the preceding films.
- Wright explains this as drunken bravado: “Brad Allen, who is the stunt coordinator, is from Jackie Chan’s team. In Drunken Master Jackie Chan has to get drunk to fight, but this is more the idea of Dutch courage. You know, when you’re kind of drunk and you think ‘ah, I can climb up that scaffolding!’ Or just that you’re impervious to pain. One of the things we talked about is this idea that they become better fighters the more oiled they get” (Franklin, 2013). The problem arises in the execution and the suspension of disbelief, as there’s often little evidence of drunkenness in the level of coordination and skill displayed by Gary and co in their fight scenes.
Brown, B. (2013, June 25). Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg Explain the “Non-Trilogy”. Retrieved July 26, 2013, from BBCAmerica.com: http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2013/06/watch-edgar-wright-and-simon-pegg-explain-the-non-trilogy/
Franklin, O. (2013, July 17). GQ&A: Edgar Wright. Retrieved July 26, 2013, from GQ-Magazine.co.uk: http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/entertainment/articles/2013-07/17/edgar-wright-interview-the-worlds-end
Huddleston, T. (2013, July 9th). Edgar Wright: ‘I Can’t Watch Zombie Movies’. Retrieved July 26, 2013, from Timeout.com: http://www.timeout.com/london/film/edgar-wright-i-cant-watch-zombie-movies
Hutcheon, L. (2000). A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. (Chicago, University of Illinois Press)
Piper, L. (2011). “Slacker Bites Back: Shaun of the Dead Finds New Life for Deadbeats” in Christie, Deborah and Lauro, Sarah Juliet [eds]: Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie As Post-Human (New York, Fordham University Press)
Shaw-Williams, H. (2013, June). ‘The World’s End’ Featurette: The Accidental Cornetto Trilogy. Retrieved July 27, 2013, from Screenrant.com:http://screenrant.com/the-worlds-end-movie-featurette-cornetto-trilogy/