With The World’s End, writer/director Edgar Wright and frequent collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are finally lowering the curtain on their so-called Cornetto Trilogy, which began in 2004 with Shaun of the Dead and continued in 2007 with Hot Fuzz (my personal favorite of the three, in case a measuring stick is helpful here). As enjoyable and charming as The World’s End is, though, I can’t shake the feeling that Wright and company are wrapping things up just in time. Their latest film is still sharp, hilarious, and surprisingly melancholy, but the team’s genre send-up schtick is beginning to show the faintest signs of wear around the edges.
Now that they’ve given horror movies and cop buddy flicks a proper seeing-to, Wright and co-writer/star Pegg have turned their attention to sci-fi films. Though it’s the second apocalypse comedy of the summer (the first was the embarrassingly funny stoner yarn This Is the End), The World’s End really only spends a few minutes feverishly cramming in its Mad Max references. The filmmakers are more concerned with alien invasion and body appropriation tropes, with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (pick a version), Day of the Triffids, and even The Quatermass Xperiment laying much of the groundwork. If that’s a lot of name-checking to stuff into one paragraph, it’s nothing compared to the rabbit’s hole of in-jokes that is The World’s End. Even the poster is an act of unrepentant fanboy rib-nudging; it’s a reworking of the poster for a seldom-seen 1977 stinker called End of the World.
But sniffing out the references has always been part of the fun of Wright’s genre parody cycle. Another part is the fact that Wright’s self-awareness extends to his flaws as well as his strengths. You don’t have to work very hard to find shades of the filmmaker and his collaborators in the characters at the center of The World’s End. Fittingly for a bunch of nerds who constantly reference their childhood obsessions, the movie is ostensibly about a group of middle-aged men who make one last attempt to recapture whatever fleeting glory they might have enjoyed in their youth.
Their leader is Gary (Pegg), a man-child who still wears his high-school uniform (in Gary’s case, a Sisters of Mercy T-shirt and a black duster) and drives the same car he drove as a teenager, complete with the same 20-year-old mixtape in the cassette player. Gary would be pitiful if he weren’t so obnoxious; it takes his full powers of manipulation to persuade his four childhood pals—Andy Knightley (Frost), Oliver Chamberlain (Martin Freeman), Steven Prince (Paddy Considine), and Peter Page (Eddie Marsan)—to join him in an attempt to finally complete an ambitious pub crawl that defeated them as teenagers back in July of 1990. For Gary, it’s a way to finally accomplish something after the steady, two-decade slide into addiction and mental illness that has been his life since high school; for the others, it’s a chance to ditch their grown-up jobs and families for one last night of childish abandon.
When they arrive in their hometown of Newton Haven, they’re alarmed to find that no one remembers them. It could be because they weren’t that memorable to begin with, but it might have more to do with the fact that many of the townspeople have been replaced by look-alike automatons that spew blue blood and have headlights for eyes. The sci-fi mayhem doesn’t kick in until the midway mark, but once it does, things get utterly bonkers; it would be a shame to spoil any of the increasingly goofy twists.
Amidst the chaotic chase scenes and Tex Avery-inspired bar fights, though, there’s a wistful sadness that permeates The World’s End. Gary is obnoxious and often unlikeable, but he’s also a heart-rendingly pathetic guy whose penchant for self-destruction is matched only by his conviction that none of it is really his fault. The poignancy that underscores the film is just as layered as the fanboy humor that strings it all together. There’s a lot going on here—the Arthurian references built into the characters’ surnames, Wright and Pegg’s habit of lifting lines from material that lifted those lines from other sources, leaving a trail of pop culture breadcrumbs that can be fun to follow—and the movie almost demands a second and maybe third viewing to sort them all out.
Except I’m not sure I want to watch it again. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I think it’s a fitting end to a great trilogy, but I’m ready to move on. I’ve grown a little tired of watching movies that are composed almost entirely of bits snatched from other movies, and The World’s End left me with the feeling that maybe Wright and his friends have grown a little tired of making them.