The World's End: A comedy of ideas as well as gags

Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg return for the final instalment of their "Cornetto" trilogy: a raucous comedy slightly gnarled by its lofty ambitions.

The World’s End (15)
dir: Edgar Wright

The sobering lesson at the heart of the pubcrawl comedy The World’s End – that the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there – is hardly an original one. When L P Hartley wrote that line, he may not have envisaged that the sentiment would be expressed in an apocalyptic comic thriller about a sleepy town quietly infiltrated by a race of alien beings with blue blood. Presumably the colour was chosen for its domestic connotations (think classroom ink or Harpic) and for its liberating effect on violence (you can spill as much blood as you like and still keep your 15 certificate when that blood isn’t red).

The satirical content in the film revolves around the homogenisation of a Britain where every pub is indistinguishable from the next and national idiosyncrasies have been wiped out by branding. “It’s Starbucking,” someone says. “Happens everywhere.” In its role as a comedy of ideas as well as gags, The World’s End places the blame on a force more sinister even than globalisation.

Fear of conformity also ran through Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the previous two film collaborations between the director Edgar Wright and his lead actor and co-writer Simon Pegg. The hero of the new picture, Gary King (Pegg), is a screw-up who never grew up, a fortysomething man-boy stuck in his student years (Sisters of Mercy T-shirt, black trench coat, oil-slick hair). Getting in Gary’s clapped-out Ford, his old pal Steven (Paddy Considine) is amazed to hear the early-Nineties mix tape he made for him back at college. “Where did you find it?” he exclaims. “It was in the stereo,” Gary replies, nonplussed. Development doesn’t come much more arrested.

Even the soundtrack choices comment on it: Kylie’s “Step Back in Time”, Suede’s “So Young”, Pulp’s “Do You Remember the First Time?” Most poignant is the shot of Gary and his friends gathered in the pub snug while Inspiral Carpets sing: “This is how it feels to be lonely . . .” (I always said Inspiral Carpets would come in handy for something one day and no one believed me.)

Gary is haunted by the memory of un - finished business in his home town of Newton Haven. After leaving college, he and his chums tried and failed to complete a 12-stop pub crawl known as the “Golden Mile”. These days, Gary is more 12-step than 12-stop but that doesn’t prevent him from convincing the gang to return to Newton Haven to give it another go. As well as Steven, there’s the Bluetooth-eared estate agent Oliver (Martin Freeman, a master of the gently disdainful reaction shot), the car salesman Peter (Eddie Marsan) and Andy (Nick Frost), the most grudging participant on account of bad blood – bad red blood – between him and Gary. Popping up intermittently is Oliver’s sister, Sam, played by Rosamund Pike, who is so charismatic – whether rebuffing Gary’s charmless propositions or wielding garden furniture like a martial arts master – that it beggars belief that the film sends her off-screen when it runs out of things for her to do.

Frost and Pegg have been playing BFFs since long before the world started talking in impersonal acronyms – as far back as Spaced in the late-Nineties, the fine-grained flatshare sitcom that also established Wright’s magpie-eyed film-making style. Their chemistry seemed exhausted in the science-fiction road movie Paul but there is a genuine ache and anguish to their scenes together in The World’s End. Andy still gets furious whenever Gary suckers him with another lie but mostly he’s mad at himself for being a pushover. Turning from mild to wild during a fight scene, he’s railing not only at his extraterrestrial adversaries but at his lot in the world.

Double-fisted gunplay of the type pioneered by Chow Yun-Fat was once all the rage in the action genre. Here, there’s a sweetly parochial equivalent when Andy takes on all comers with a bar stool in each hand, rather than a Glock. It’s still unfortunate that, after the first two dust-ups, there simply isn’t enough variety to keep the confrontations fresh. Or is it just that those of us raised on the oeuvre of Burt Reynolds will always be resistant to a bar-room brawl?

At least the film has the courage of its convictions where it counts. Rather than foisting redemption upon Gary, the film insists to its final frame that warts-and-all is better than nipped-and-tucked, personality-wise. If that message smacks of A Clockwork Orange, the tone of the film is more reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, John Wyndham or The Thing. Abundant the raucous comedy may be but it never quite cancels out the creepiness of certain images, such as the members of “the Network” emitting blasts of light from their faces that intensify their accusing eyes and O-shaped mouths.

In its final half-hour, the movie gets snarled up in its ambitions; the narrative alters shape so drastically that it becomes impossible for the brain to process the new information in a single sitting. Then again, maybe that’s another way of saying: this one’s a keeper.

Totally slaughtered: from left, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Eddie Marsan.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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The best defence against Alzheimer’s

Spoiler: the best way to avoid Alzheimer's is to stay young.

At the recent meeting of the European Academy of Neurology in Copenhagen, doctors were signing up to attend a workshop teaching non-specialists to test for cognitive decline in their patients. How do you tell the difference between a scatterbrain and a case of early dementia?

It’s a question that is increasingly urgent. Last year, 47.5 million people were living with dementia. That will have risen to 75.6 million by 2030 and will reach 140 million in 2050. The World Health Organisation has declared that dementia should be regarded as a global public health priority. But what can we do about it?

The primary cause of dementia, accounting for roughly 70 per cent of cases, is Alzheimer’s disease. It’s all very well to put a name to it, but we don’t have a clear understanding of the mechanisms that cause it – or medicines to battle it. Alzheimer’s drugs have a high rate of failure. In the decade to 2012, 99.6 per cent of newly developed drugs failed to make it past clinical trials. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s and none on the horizon, either.

There was, however, a small breakthrough last month. A study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine suggests that Alzheimer’s could be a result of fighting infections from other diseases that would, if left unchecked, ravage the brain. The hard lumps of sticky plaque in the brain that characterise the onset of Alzheimer’s seem to be the result of the immune system attempting to isolate and neutralise microbes and other pathogens that have made their way into the brain. The plaques catch pathogens, preventing infection from taking hold. Unfortunately, it’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t: the plaques also trigger inflammation that leads to the death of brain cells.

This observation mirrors another catch-22 with Alzheimer’s. Some researchers have suggested that the drug failures might be averted by getting candidate treatments to the disease earlier, before symptoms appear. Put simply, the drugs may stand a better chance of success when trying to counter the first stages of damage to the brain. The problem is: how do you get that early diagnosis?

There are various genetic indicators for a heightened predisposition to developing Alzheimer’s. A gene called apolipoprotein E, for instance, comes in three variants: one kind seems to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s while another increases it. Other genes – variously associated with the body’s uptake of cholesterol, its propensity to engender inflammation and the efficiency of communication between neurons – also have a role to play in raising or lowering the chances of onset.

However, the interplay between genetic factors, environmental factors and what appears to be pure luck makes foreknowledge of whether Alzheimer’s will strike any individual impossible. It’s no wonder that the US National Institutes of Health does not generally recommend genetic testing as a worthwhile route for anyone wanting to know their future. After all, a result that indicates you are more likely than the average person to develop dementia is, in many ways, little more than a heavy psychological burden, to be borne until the symptoms start to appear – a scenario that keeps you stressed (a grave health risk) even if onset never happens. If the drugs don’t work yet, why would anyone sign up to be tested?

In the absence of a reliable test or cure, the best advice seems to be to delay ageing as much as possible, particularly where cardiovascular health is concerned. It’s an observation that fits with last month’s breakthrough. The plaque-provoking pathogens reach the brain through the weakening of the blood-brain barrier, a wall of cells that wraps around blood vessels and prevents foreign bodies from passing into the brain’s circulatory system. This weakening happens with age, suggesting that action to delay the degradation of the cardiovascular system will also delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Here, at least, we have some good news: the rate of appearance of dementia cases seems to be in decline. This may be a spin-off of our attempts to cut deaths from heart disease. It seems that as we take control of blood pressure and cholesterol levels, making significant improvements to our heart and circulatory function, we are unwittingly improving our cerebral health, too – almost certainly because the brain requires good blood flow to operate well.

The surest way to avoid Alzheimer’s, then, is simple to state and impossible to achieve. All you have to do is stay young. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain