The World’s End is about a pub named “The World’s End” and also about the actual end of the world. But most of all, it’s about the end of the Edgar Wright cinematic world of small budgets, ensemble players, and a chew-them-up-and-spew-them-out-every-which-way approach to genre tropes. Wright the indie genius is turning into Wright the big-time Hollywood mover and shaker—and The World’s End is where those two Wrights meet and bash each other’s brains out in kinetic stumbling choreographed fight scenes and stupendous sprays of beer and blue ichor.
Wright stalwart Simon Pegg plays Gary King, a forty-year-old loser who spends his life pining for his glory days as a teen, hanging out with his buddies in the small town of Newton Haven. All of those buddies have gone on to steady jobs in real estate and sales, but Gary convinces them all to go on one last nostalgic pub crawl back to their old haunts. Unfortunately, Newton Haven turns out to be the site of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style event; the townspeople have all been replaced by robot clones with blue fluid instead of blood, and the misbegotten pub crawl turns into an ever-more-drunken fight for the future of the earth.
The World’s End is the third of Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy movies with Pegg (who co-wrote the script) and actor Nick Frost (here playing Gary King’s estranged best friend Andy). The first two films in the trilogy, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, were also Wright’s first two feature-length movies. But The World’s End wasn’t released until 2013, six years after Hot Fuzz, and a lot had changed for Wright. He’d released Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a bigger budget bomb which became a cult classic. And he’d co-written the Spielberg blockbuster The Adventures of Tintin. In that context, it’s not just Gary who’s getting the band back together. Wright too is gathering his old friends to take one more stumble through the quaint English countryside of pubs and homely actors before getting in that spaceship and whooshing off to Hollywood for good (or ill).
Selling out is generally portrayed as a bad thing. But moving on and seizing the future is supposed to be a positive. Wright picks his conflicting genres with an eye to highlighting and mocking that contradiction. Gary King, nostalgic man-boy, is a familiar filmic figure. He’s an immature, slovenly dope, still playing the same Soup Dragons cassette in his car some decades years after the ’90s ended, and eagerly referencing high school in-jokes all his friends have forgotten years ago. He lies to his pals, telling them his mom died to get them to hang out with him, and he thinks old flame Sam (Rosamund Pike) is going to have sex with him in the toilets like she did when she was 17. He’s a sad, callous jerk who needs to “grow up, mate, and join society” as one of his buddies tells him.
But while the belated coming-of-age narrative shows that Gary needs to move out of the past, the aliens-will-replace us narrative has a different message. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a Cold War reactionary paranoid parable about how the communists were going to turn America into a blank, filthy hive mind.
Wright doesn’t pick up the anti-communism; instead, his collective consciousness looks a lot like bland corporate capitalism, turning scruffy fun-having teens into boring be-suited adults, and standardizing old England to death. The pubs in Newton Haven have all been cleaned up and assimilated by the aliens—or perhaps it’s simply that they’ve been purchased by chains as “part of that nationwide initiative to rob small, charming pubs of any discernible character.” Either way, the aliens offer a path to adulting that is all clean living and responsibility and vague neoliberal self-actualizing gobbledygook: “We are here to enable your full potential,” they declare from the bright light. “Full potential” here meaning that Gary and his friends can retain their memories in new young clone bodies and maybe have sex with the Hollywood-hot school-age girls they left behind them. “We create simulants to spread our ideologies through peaceful means” the aliens declare. That sounds like the remit of the standardized, by-the-numbers, big-budget films that Wright has (temporarily) abandoned.
Gary’s recalcitrant childishness turns out to be the hope of humanity. He refuses to be assimilated because he wants to hold onto his stupid right to burp and be a jerk and finish his pub crawl by tossing pints down his neck till he can barely toddle. Other people may be tempted by the cleaned-up clone world and the hot young things, but Gary longs for boozy battle, and drags his friends with him into spectacular urine-slick bathroom and beer-garden beatdowns of young brittle robots.
Gary’s triumph is also Wright’s. The director films alien invasion and drawing a pint with the same hyperbolic kinetic quick cut, zoom-in close-up style, so drinking till you puke becomes an over-hyped metaphor for battling for the earth, and vice versa. In the end the aliens are so exasperated by Gary’s cribbed-from-Peter-Fonda adolescent dipshittery (“We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we want to do and we want to get loaded! And we want to have a good time!”) that they just leave. Their departure destroys all technology on earth, sending humans back to the dark ages. The last scene is of Gary leading younger clone versions of him and his friends through a post-apocalyptic Mad Max wasteland. He’s found a way to take his past with him into a strange, silly new genre mash-up, keeping the best of his youthful nonsense with him as he finds new pubs to fight in.
It’s a typically loopy, and typically brilliant, way to resolve the film. But it’s not clear that Wright’s career has exactly worked out this way since The World’s End hit theaters. Wright was supposed to direct the 2015 MCU film Ant-Man, but ended up leaving the project over creative differences. His 2017 movie Baby Driver was a critical and commercial success—but it was also a fairly straightforward Hollywood heist script, without the adventurous genre-scrambling and glorious silliness of his early efforts. His next scheduled release, Last Night in Soho, scheduled for release in 2021, is a time-traveling psychological horror movie. It may well be great, but it looks much more sober and adult than Wright’s collaborations with Pegg and Frost.
This isn’t an indictment. As The World’s End says, at some point it’s time to grow up and join society. You can’t stay 17 forever, and sex in the loo starts to get creepy when you’re pushing 40. Wright can’t relive the same pub crawl over and over. At some point, if you don’t want to stagnate, you’ve got to let the Hollywood aliens transplant you into an older, slicker shell. I look forward to seeing what Wright does next. But I’ll admit, I miss the blue goo he poured into those old pint glasses back in the day, when we were young at the world’s end.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics (Rutgers University Press).