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Non-Review Review: The World’s End

The World’s End feels curiously nostalgic. Not just in the way that lead character Gary King tries to recapture his old youth by roping four childhood friends into revisiting their old home town to complete a pub crawl they started upon leaving school, nor in the way the sound track includes such hits of yesteryear as Loaded by Primal Scream and Kylie Minogue’s Step Back in Time, and not even in the fact that the school reunion includes a trip to a literal school disco.

Instead, it feels like a belated criticism of a recent chapter in British history, a reflection on the era of “the special relationship”, and mournful retrospective on what might be perceived as the erosion of British culture by the relentless assault of American influence. The World’s End is an invasion story, but it’s a conscious reversal of the second wave “Britpop” invasion of the nineties (an era the movie evokes nostalgically). This isn’t a hostile occupation. It is, to quote one of the characters, “peaceful indoctrination.”

They've got him Pegged...

They’ve got him Pegged…

The casting of Pierce Brosnan is perhaps the biggest hint. Playing the role of the town’s career guidance teacher, Brosnan is put in the position of explaining what has happened to this typical quaint British town when Gary and his friends return. Brosnan is probably best known for playing two iconic screen roles. He was the essentially British James Bond, and an underrated one at that. He was also the distinctly American Remmington Steele. The fact that Brosnan is Irish just adds a whole other layer of interesting meta-text to his screen career, and his casting here.

Despite the presence of Rosamund Pike, his co-star from Die Another Day, Brosnan’s presence in The World’s End is not intended to evoke his turn as Bond. He’s only passively involved in a couple of the film’s big action sequences, and never gets the chance to flash his comedic chops in the same way that his predecessor, Timothy Dalton, did in Hot Fuzz. Instead, Brosnan’s role here is that of an elder statesman, consciously evoking his performance in Roman Pulanski’s The Ghost, where he played a convenient stand-in for Tony Blair in a story which alleged the Prime Minister was nothing but a puppet of American overlords.

You're damn right he is...

You’re damn right he is…

In that narrative of the Blair era, the Prime Minister is cast as the voice of reason. He’s the tempering force. He’s the man who makes the sales pitch about the necessity of the actions taken by his colleagues. Explaining the situation to his former students, Brosnan’s teacher positions himself as the voice of measured authority. He offers the lads some pints, while he sips on something a bit more refined. When it comes to the intentions of the town’s new occupiers residents, he’s somewhat coy. “Now I’m not saying they’re afraid to get tough,” he vows, in what might easily pass for Blair speak.

Of course, the reaction to that era of British politics was quite potent and incredibly heated. Author Robert Harris reportedly churned out The Ghost in record time, in reaction to the betrayal he felt. More closely related to The World’s End, producer and writer Russell T. Davies used every opportunity to bite the hand that fed on the BBC’s Doctor Who. Sometimes he made his commentary through allegory, but early in the series he had a bunch of characters find a Prime Minister who was probably Tony Blair killed and stuffed in a closet in Downing Street while aliens claimed to be hunting weapons of mass destruction.

Drinkin' it in...

Drinkin’ it in…

So the strangest thing about The World’s End is how dated it feels. It feels like a relic of an era that ended a few years ago. Britain and America still have a complex political and social relationship, but other concerns have eclipsed that in the public mind. The script – written by Pegg and Wright – feels like it would have been a blistering critique even four years ago, but time has softened the blow somewhat.

That’s not to suggest the film’s exploration about the peculiarity of British identity is entirely without merit. The death of the local community, victim of franchising and big brand chains has become a familiar lament. When Gary and his friends arrive, they discover that quite a few of the pubs look incredibly similar. Even the quaint British pub in a town whose only claim to fame is housing “Britain’s oldest roundabout” are not immune to the influence of franchising.

Evenin', gents...

Evenin’, gents…

“Stop Starbucking us!” one of the lead characters shouts at the film’s climax, as the town’s secret occupants reveal their plan to homogenise mankind. Of course, there’s not necessarily anything new to this. Returning home for the first time in years, Gary insists, “It’s not us! It’s the town that’s changed!” We might like to believe that, there’s something very romantic about the belief that the world was so much more vibrant and idealised in the past.

To be fair, The World’s End is smart enough to play with Gary’s nostalgia. The fact that the movie is nostalgic for a period as recent as the nineties cleverly avoids the film from becoming too deeply drawn into Gary’s romanticised vision of the past. (As does, wonderfully, the frequent reminders from Gary’s friends that he was then – and still is – an unreliable jerk.) Gary’s desire to return to some imagined idealised past is understandable, but the movie is never anything less but completely honest about how pathetic his goal is.

You can't go home again...

You can’t go home again…

This is a man who lacks the basic math skills to determine that five people crawling twelve pubs will consume sixty pints (“steady on, you alco!”) and whose reaction in the face of the apocalypse is to just keep drinking. After relating the wonderful story of his lost teenage years, painted as some sort of personal odyssey, the first thing that Gary is asked is “are you disappointed?” Gary is a tragic figure, even more than Shaun from Shaun of the Dead, and Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg are smart enough to realise this.

“It never got better than that f%#!ing night,” he insists, which is all kinds of disappointing. Pegg is a strong actor when he sets his mind to it and is more than just comic relief. There was a familiar existential ennui to Pegg’s take on Shaun in Shaun of the Dead, the nobody who required a zombie apocalypse to achieve his true potential. The World’s End feels somewhat bleaker, as Gary is the most mundane sort of under-achiever, one who isn’t even able to adjust to changing circumstances, let alone to process them and act accordingly.

Staying on pint...

Staying on pint…

To be fair to The World’s End, it continues down this logical path for most of its runtime. It’s an even darker comedy than either of the two previous comedies, only the cast’s talent, Wright’s skilled hand and the movie’s occasional decision to dabble in slapstick that prevents the film from becoming more of a requiem mass for a past that didn’t exist. The World’s End is frequently hilarious, thanks to witty dialogue and rapid-fire delivery, but – for most of its runtime – the film is never afraid to shy away from the bleaker implications and undertones of Gary King’s quest to get “annihilated.”

As such, the film’s ending feels like a bit of a cop-out, a last minute attempt to pull the movie out of what had been a downward spiral. Gary’s ability to continue to mess things up is repeatedly reinforced and it forms the crux of a surprisingly effective emotional finalé, but the film softens quite a bit in its final few minutes. It feels just a little misguided. I can understand the movie’s reluctance to commit entirely to the darker subtext, but the conclusion of Gary’s arc feels just a little convenient and contrived.

King of the world...

King of the world…

Aside from that, the film works impressively. The cast is wonderful, and the comedy is quick. Wright and his team are able to offset the potentially grim side of Gary’s character arc through clever slight-of-hand. As much as Gary might be a manipulative and pathetic failed manchild, the script imbues him with a fast-talking charm, and Pegg is perfectly able to keep pace. There’s never an extended period where things get too much, and Wright manages to balance the character drama against the comedy and the high-concept science-fiction with his usual deft skill.

The World’s End might not be the strongest of Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy, and it might feel a little dated already, but it’s a decidedly and quintessentially British. (Even the lead character’s name is King!) There are worse ways to close a trilogy, and I’d happily have another round.

 

8 Responses

  1. Ah, you’ve gotten me even more excited for the film, Darren. Unfortunately, it won’t come out till August for us here in the States (and deep into it, sadly).

    • Consider it turnaround for how we have to wait months for Oscar releases over here! (We won’t see Twelve Years a Slave until 2014!)

      I hope you enjoy it, though.

  2. Took my mum to see this film. She loves all sorts of films, but her biggest complaint is always “the dialog is too quick” or the humor goes over her head. She didn’t have that problem in The World’s End. The Brit humor was something she not only understood but enjoyed. Which is a big plus point for this film in my eyes!

    Do agree that at times it felt a little dated and definitely the weakest out of the Cornetto trilogy, but it was still a lot of fun, entertaining, funny and a decent end to the trilogy.

    • Yep. It didn’t quite click as perfectly as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz did on first viewing, but I suspect that repeat viewings might warm me to it further. (That’s something about Wright’s films – no matter how well they work on first viewing, subsequent viewings are generally rewarding. Even my Dad – who was lukewarm to Hot Fuzz at best on first viewing – was so caught up in a rewatch I was doing that he suggest the family sit down and watch it again, because it looked a lot funnier.)

      That said, I really enjoyed it. Great fun, and certainly one of the stronger films in cinemas at the moment. Just not quite as good as the other two.

  3. Hmm interesting review – and an entirely different take to my review. See what you think http://michaelpiggott.wordpress.com/2013/07/23/the-worlds-end-and-a-marmalade-sandwich/

  4. Not bad movie but it looks like Simon lost his mojo. Too much time spent in Hollywood

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