We all had a Gary King (Simon Pegg) in our lives. He was the coolest guy in high school, the guy who deeply cared about showing us all how much he didn’t care. He was the guy at every hip concert featuring bands you never heard of, the guy whose carefully mannered slovenliness seemed awesome in spite of itself. He was the guy who quoted philosophy books he never read in elaborately constructed justifications for splitting class and getting fucked up behind the gym. He was the center of the universe, the epitome of high school fantastic… and somehow all of us knew that the grown-up world was going to beat him like a rented mule.
The World’s End is essentially a eulogy for the Gary Kings of the world, as well as the youth of those of us who followed them. It celebrates the tension between who we were and who we’ve become, reminding us that we can’t go home again and quietly mocking our desire to try. It understands the quiet desperation of youth, the way we come to loathe our hometowns and our inevitable gravitation towards anyone who offers a different path than the norm. Then we grow up and put aside childish things and see the pathos of those who remain mired in the past, even though some small part of us still wishes those Peter Pans could help us never grow up.
Oh yeah, and it adds an apocalyptic alien invasion scenario on top of it all. You know, just to fuck with us.
Director Edgar Wright has become a god among film fans for precisely this kind of genre goof-off, and The World’s End is as good as anything he’s done. Like his earlier films Sean of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, he starts with character and then adds the scenario, a magic bullet that the rest of Hollywood has never seemed to figure out. Your average blockbuster would start with the aliens and use that as the centerpiece. Here we get Gary, who isn’t so much grappling with a midlife crisis as trying to ignore it completely. He ropes four of his best friends – who have all gone on to lead respectable lives – into reenacting their glory days with a 12-pub marathon in their home town. Their fearless leader acts like nothing has changed, a fact that serves as an endless irritant to his not-so-merry-men. Their lingering wounds slowly come out as the night goes on, with old feuds flaring up and nostalgia slowly giving way to bitterness.
That’s when the twist hits and the quintet suddenly realizes that their old stomping ground may actually be populated by alien duplicates from outer space. It’s a funny concept – and seriously, who among us hasn’t suspected a pod-person infestation in our home towns? – but it also lays bare all the dark ruminations rattling around the protagonists’ heads. Perpetual childhood becomes both a temptation and a distraction, as Gary’s fucked-up priorities put a damper on the whole saving-the-world business. (Okay ,the fact that all our heroes are drunk off their asses doesn’t help.)
It has the air of a colossal prank, and yet Wright grids it with real emotions to highlight the film’s deeper points. The World’s End understands the angst of growing older the way few films do, as well as the way that friendship warps and tears as the years go on. The complexities of that equation benefit from the director’s keen technical prowess and from another fine turn from Pegg in the lead. Still widely known as a comic actor, he holds his dramatic chops in reserve for careful deployment at the right moments. His game supporting performers (including Wright stalwarts Nick Frost and Paddy Considine, as well as comparative newcomers Eddie Marsan, Martin Freeman and Rosamund Pike) play their parts equally well, walking the line between humorous send-up and emotional truth with subtle grace.
Sure, The World’s End acts primarily as a comedic genre-bender, doing for Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenarios what Sean of the Dead did for zombies. But like his earlier films, Wright refuses to rest on mere genre convention, and in the process turns The World’s End into a potent meditation on real truths in our lives. That it’s all still funny as shit just helps it go down more easily. As the end of Wright’s Cornetto trilogy, it certainly has an air of closure about it. But these boys are a long way from done, and I expect them to rise from the ashes at some point and continue to blow our socks off like they always have. For now, however, it’s a fitting final act, one that – like its protagonist – leaves us looking back at what came before with bittersweet affection.