Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
The World’s End charts its destination by beginning with Gary King (Simon Pegg) fondly recounting what he thinks are the good old days. Twenty years prior, Gary and four of his high school buddies—Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), and Andy (Nick Frost)—began The Golden Mile, a notorious pub crawl featuring 12 pubs strewn across their hometown, Newton Haven. Thinking this teenage stage of his life the climactic combination of freedom and pleasure, Gary remembers these years with juvenile fondness. However, the group of friends also came a few pubs short of a complete tour; they didn’t reach the final stop, The World’s End. Therefore, pub crawl memories present to Gary the prospect of not only reliving his perceived peak, but also the opportunity to perfect the ideal which captivates—and stunts—his imagination. Gary’s remembrance of The Golden Mile is displayed in an opening montage whose crafty editing is defined by chaotic cuts accompanied by energetic wit. The comedic brilliance of this setup, though, is discovering that the setting of Gary’s narration of this memory is an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It’s not 1990 anymore, and maybe Gary’s nostalgia has been misplaced for years.
Gary begins coaxing his four pals to join him for a reunion at Newton Haven where they might finally complete The Golden Mile, but they’re not as enthused about the throw-back adventure. While Gary still wears all black, including a trench coat, graphic tee, and an unbuttoned long sleeve shirt with the thumb holes, his friends are outfitted in neat sweaters, fitted suit jackets, and cardigans. While Gary struggles with alcoholism, his friends deal with their responsibilities as husbands and fathers. Gary’s four friends have a similar look in middle age, but Gary’s uniqueness isn’t necessarily something to be proud of either. Peter, Oliver, Steven, and Andy oblige Gary’s quest, but the genuine conflict—and source of comedy—framing the film is less about reaching The World’s End and more about Gary’s stand-still life. That sounds like a too-simple concern, but the film has layers which come out about halfway through the film when it takes a sharp narrative turn toward the science fiction beats of the first two films in the Cornetto trilogy. Twenty years may not have changed Gary, but something is far amiss in Newton Haven (spoiler alert from here on out!). At the fourth pub, The Cross Hands, Gary gets into a fight with a local teenager who has, like Oliver’s sister Sam, rejected Gary’s varied attempts to latch onto his 1990 self. Sam rejects his sexual advances; and the local teenager isn’t interested in Gary’s barely disguised attempt to live vicariously through him. The tussle ends when Gary snaps off the teenager’s head, discovering that he—along with countless other Newton Haven residents—is a robot.
An emerging concern is how do we be grown ups in such a way that, by virtue of growing up, we grew more free? What are the qualities of this maturation and why do they exist?
It’s interesting—humorous too—to think about The World’s End as structured by barhopping. The act itself—involving a series of destinations featuring brief patronage—suits a fast-paced action movie, particularly one which, in part, formally emphasizes the inherent chaos of irresponsibility. This fast-cut pace also facilitates snappy exchanges between a larger cast of characters. The editing and banter plays almost like the feeling of being buzzed: It all still makes sense, even if you find yourself a split-second behind on the uptake. Further, barhopping typically requires a certain freedom—to be in control of coming and going, of staying out late, of drinking as much as you please; it’s the sort of freedom that Gary longs for, and the sort that his friends are initially reticent to participate in. For various reasons, the reality of consequences—and therefore the qualities of freedom—often come into clearer view with age. Gary makes evident, though, that it’s not so much age as it is maturation which bears out this recognition. And yet, merrymaking is one way to stave off boredom or to resist the robotic doldrums of a “responsibility” qualified by its own stale form of stagnation.
Therefore, when world-ending warfare with robots besets Newton Haven, there are a few things at stake for “Gary and the Enablers.” These concerns mostly subvert the past summer’s dull, repetitive preoccupation with global destruction by humorously localizing the eschaton in some blokes’ arrested development. Gary’s insistence that they be able to “do what they want” is set in sharp contrast with the town robots whose primary goal is to enforce a civilizing process for humanity’s betterment. The evening of barhopping, then, refuses to be something as simple as trying to get Gary to be like his friends; rather, it’s also about offering better alternatives than a “maturity” qualified by the ennui of going through the prescribed motions. Which is to say: There seems to be an essential question underlying the film’s cunning quips and robot killings that has to do with “growing up”—growing more civilized—while also growing more alive. Maturation isn’t necessarily having a family, so much as it is that one doesn’t stop—neither stop growing more mature, nor stop being present to one’s relational commitments.
To suggest all of this, Edgar Wright seamlessly integrates his comedic punch and sci-fi imagination by showing how libertine desires can be not only manipulating, but also manipulated by the culture we inhabit. Gary tries to repeat a hookup situation with Sam; but the robotic intelligence also attempts to seduce the group into their control with robots behaving lasciviously. It’s not just Gary who is lured into this trap, but his friends too. When Gary laments that The Golden Mile is the only thing he has left and that he’s jealous of Andy’s more put-together life, he is met with Andy’s confession that his marriage is falling apart. During the latter half of the film, one of the seductive robots takes Andy’s wedding ring and swallows it whole, offering him an immediate pleasure that seems to be a distant memory in his marriage. While there’s an apparent contrast between Gary’s pursuit of licentious freedom and the robotic pursuit of social control, there’s also quite a revealing cross-section which says certain conceptions of freedom aren’t truly freeing. It’s a revelation achieved in Wright’s smart enfolding of 40 year olds behaving like 20 year olds into a conflict of futuristic mayhem.
Perhaps the world’s end might be a potential destination in which salvation from libertine freedom and manipulative control—and the ways the two intersect—is revealed. When Andy responds to the seductive robot who swallowed his wedding ring—one who invites him to, ahem, be “inside” her—by punching through the robot to retrieve his wedding ring in a triumph of boozed madness, it’s a riotously good moment. And when Gary’s offered the chance to be his eternally youthful self and instead chooses to decapitate his robotic 1990 self, it’s more satisfying than anything else that happened in this summer’s slate of blockbusters. Mostly, it’s because The World’s End implies that responsibility has to do with desire.
Early in the film when Gary tells Andy that he just wants to do what he wants, Andy responds incredulously, “And this is what you want?” Irresponsibility happens not only when we have misplaced desires, but also when we allow our desire to fade in the relationships to which we’ve committed. Andy’s ring retrieval and Gary’s self-decapitation are forms of cultivating and locating desire in a place where it can flourish—a way of charting a path forward that is both mature and free, both responsible and alive with purpose.
In this alcoholypse, the end is marked with signs: “Drink responsibly” and “To err is human; to forgive, divine,” among others. The famous line from the British poet, Alexander Pope, is the most noticeable revelation. It suggests that the various ways in which our laughable stupidities bring about devastation might in the end be forgiven and made right. That’s a sobering thought.