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.