Living in the Past
Warning: This review discusses the plot, including the film’s ending.
It’s likely that The World’s End will come to be regarded as the quintessential entry in the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg partnership; a union that’s been more successful than most in tapping into the perma-adolescent streak that runs through their (presumed male) target audience. That isn’t to say it’s their best movie but it’s the one that’s going to resonate the most with Wright’s apostles.
Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were knowing celebrations of self-consciously playful genres – the zombie flick and action movie, but The World’s End takes a different tack; the movie’s preoccupied with the experience of youth, naturally including but not defined by cultural baggage, and how polarising it can be. For preening, time-stunted cock Gary King (Pegg digging deep in a difficult role), the nostalgia’s so potent and adult life so intrusive that he’s become defined by his past and miserable in the present. For the gang that left him behind it’s a period regarded with faint embarrassment. The world’s moved on and so have they. Sure, they may be spiritless wage slaves but that’s adult life, right? Well here’s the movie that invites man-children everywhere, both out and closeted, to relax: it feels your pain.
If the film’s a prayer for eternal adolescence it’s a highly effective one. Gary, rallying his childhood pack to complete an abandoned pub-crawl from their final summer together, a failure that’s come to symbolise his adult woes, may be a cast iron degenerate – clothes and car late of 1989, but they’ll be many refugees from that period who’ve bought into the same nostalgia. Gary doesn’t really want to get the band back together; he wants to relive the best time of his life – exactly as it was. “We’re your enablers,” says an angry Nick Frost, co-opted into the reunion against his will, and that’s an uncomfortable truth that will surely be recognised by many who’ve attempted similar trips down the piss stained cobbles of memory lane.
True or not we’re with Gary regardless. Did it matter that your childhood friends were full of shit, or that you talked nonsense to each other? Does it matter that you wouldn’t have a thing in common if you met today? No, because if that period in your life’s about anything it’s sharing that sense of drift, embarrassment and self-discovery with whoever was on hand; it was a period when difference mattered less. The World’s End is notable for being the first film to deliver an ending that fully embraces that childhood nostalgia. Alien technology allows Gary to restore his gang, not as they are today but exactly as they were 20 years ago. He’s reinstated as gang leader. What you wouldn’t give, eh? If you’re still young in your mind that conclusion’s got to be preferable to the horror of accepting your once foot loose and fancy free friends as conformist adults, saddled with mortgages, children and a daily grind they insist on talking about at every opportunity.
I had every sympathy with Gary. He couldn’t remember the name of his friend’s wife, he had no interest in the failed relationship of another, and why should he? Wright’s audience turn up to escape such banalities. Sure, the film gets plenty of comic mileage in mocking Gary’s blinkered retro-world view and playing his responsible friends off against his maddening attempt at clawing back the intervening years but there’s a reason the man-child wins out: the film believes in the purity of the past and is as suspicious as Gary of the affected present. It’s an easy position to take when you make movies for a living but that’s not to trash the sentiment.
The aliens who’ve colonised the world, replacing those they couldn’t get to conform (not for nothing are these nodding dogs nicknamed ‘blanks’) are motivated by an authoritarian, paternalistic tendency – they want to crush the very irresponsibility that Gary’s always celebrated. Though the film must settle for being fun rather than hilarious, showcasing Wright and Pegg’s playfulness in dialogue and narrative; setups aplenty that payoff with sublime efficiency; there’s no denying the strength of that conceit or the skill with which the audience is conditioned to embrace it.
Perhaps Gary’s right and the end of youth really is the end of the world. Millions feel just that, occupying a distended and joyless ever after. Wright’s film utilises his trademark zest, a style of filmmaking that’s surely youthful, to explore that feeling, suggesting that it’s the present that feels wrong and artificial – a lifescape populated by domineering robots, their old friends replaced by people they don’t recognise. Great satire then, though not for the ladies who hardly feature and must settle for an accessorising role, still – best to write about what you know, eh boys?