For the grand denouement of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright’s “Three Flavors Cornetto” trilogy, everything implicit in the first two acts is pushed right up to the forefront to the point where it hurts. Namely, what we’ve all been suspecting for a while is now crystal-clear: this is one of the great filmic commentaries on the modern male, as much as it is a parody of the genres of film called home by that particular subset of humanity. In this tripartite comedy reworking of horror, action, and now science fiction tropes, the cheery bad-boys of the UK are exploring the mindset of the male through the genres of film men put their lives on hold for. They give us men, epitomized by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, who play out the male fantasy of these films, and we get a genial mockery of their childish in-fighting snuggling cuddly with a light-hearted homage to the youthful spirit that keeps these guys so young and alive. It’s filmic cognitive dissonance, nervy and anxious to the core. But, like main character Gary King, it plays it so cool we’d never know if we weren’t looking.
Yes, The World’s End is sci-fi, and the modern world loves it some sci-fi. But what variety of science fiction do we have here, and from whence does it come? It is not, fittingly, the kind of big heaving garish epic we see coming out the wazoo these days, the kind that insists on itself with an opulence begging to implode. The World’s End is instead something of a throwback to the late ’70s/’80s era these guys call mommy, an ode to a time of more simple self-seriousness, a time where sci-fi was mythic and deeply broad-based in the nature of explicit parable rather than fully formed, realist story. I speak of course of social science fiction, a playground of obvious social commentary less interested in nuance and very much interested in filmmaking invention and proudly unapologetic B-movie crash zooms. Insight was at a premium, with generalized commentary on commodification and conformity the order of the day. The World’s End takes up the mantle and has a little fun with it, but the basic trappings of a man and his friends back to their old stomping grounds to do a little damage, only to find out everything is quite a bit more samey than they left it, hold true to the genre nonetheless.
It’s a small delight then that The World’s End is by no small measure the most mature and perceptive of Frost and Pegg’s movies yet, and perhaps more perceptive than any of the films it recalls in the first place. Indeed, it’s as wary about the human condition as many a social sci-fi, but much more fleet and malleable in the process, less leaden in its own grandeur. This is largely because it posits its own fakery as a product of the male fantasy, indicting the classic maleness that leads to such much bickering about the categorical evil of a society diametrically opposite individual salvation and always poised like a panther to pounce on whatever freedom skulks about undernearth. By poking around in social sci-fi, it provides a reflexive critique of maleness and Western individualism and how all those films were really just whiny neo-liberals growing restless when they had no understanding of the word.
But it’s not all “subvert this” and “post-structualize that”. At the heart of the film is a loving, breathing story of men coming to terms with themselves. Simon Pegg gets the reckless bit this time out as Gary King, a past-his-prime rabble-rouser living low on his memories of well-worn glories, till death do they part. Always on the look-out for ways to over-indulge and turn slacker-dom into an art form, he finds the holy grail in an attempt to reconncet with his teenage buds over a failed pub crawl. Banding together in small-town Britain (the kind so lovingly given to horror imagery in Hot Fuzz, and here as well) with his mates, he discovers they’ve all gone … gasp …mad with maturity (Nick Frost has the plum role cast against type and having all manner of fun as the stuck-up best friend Andy Knightley). In the town, of course, things are even worse – everything appears a bit, robotic, is the word?
There’s plenty in the way of a more surreal and nasty-minded threat, but for Gary the worst, most vile hindrance of all is no alien or robot, nor anything from a over-zealous writer’s pen, but growing up. With surprising grace and nimbleness the film uses it’s aliens-invading-the-town-and-replacing-people-with-robots “A plot” as a peek behind the layers of the human condition, and specifically, the daily dialectic of aging. It is, in this essence, just like all those old sci-fi films the boys grew up on, lovingly exposed here with not just a thematic kinship but a more knowing visual aesthetic that pays homage to the edits and framing devices of ’70s sci-fi. Pegg and Frost, and particularly Wright behind the camera, aren’t just about paying their (admittedly snarky) respects to the genre through their poison-pen love-letters, but through their understanding of filmmaking, of how films from certain periods and in certain genres look and act in their raw filmic bones.
But if Pegg and Frost bring the snark, The World’s End is also ablaze with a certain soft refreshing warmth that matches to its fire-and-brimstone satire like … well, not quite a fine wine and steak (unfitting for these guys who champion the low-brow to the core). It’s more a rum and coke, or one thing that goes into a whiskey sour and a second thing that goes into a whiskey sour, but that’s just fitting for what is in essence a self-reflexive Bacchanal. Curiously, this is actually the least funny of all three films in the series, but it also intends it this way, and it doesn’t confuse maturity with the stagnancy of respectability. If it doesn’t go for as many laughs, it lets them cut deeper; the film is less a tickle to the funny bone than a shot at the ribs. It’s a film about maturity from these increasingly middle-aged thespians and its the most comfortable and relaxed of the three films, with more time for small character moments and genuine humanism.
At various points in the film Gary is unsure of whether his friends are still his friends, if you know what I mean. But the questions hit harder: even in human form, were they ever? Do they find themselves any differently now? What did they know of humanity in their stilted day-to-day-ness even before being beset by invaders? For all their agedness, they lack the childish exuberance of personality. The film, thus, knows well an even-handed formalism that keeps it balanced between free-wheeling teenage abandon and self-contained adult respectability and thoughtfulness. If it’s perhaps a little too flabby and less reckless than the first two films, and likely the most normative of them for its shift toward story and away from non-narrative “hanging out”, it’s still plenty funny. There’s some exquisitely-timed seat-of-your-pants Keaton-style bar-room brawling that kicks up a mighty dust, and Pegg and Wright trade in their characters clashing personalities and attitudes toward growing up for dry comedic chips throughout. It’s just here we have a greater sense of the tragedy underlying the humour. Its moral (and indeed, there is a moral, and it can be mighty preachy, but that comes with the territory) is one of having your cake and eating it too, seeing both sides and matching light-of-touch and heavy-handed. And when the film is at its best, it takes a lesson from itself and achieves a certain sublime balance and self-understanding. It’s a cocktail equal parts loopy energy and low-key, feeling reflection, perfectly portioned for going down smoothly, but with just enough of bite and burn in the throat to last.