So I have a confession. Well, two actually. The first is that – despite it having been out for years, and the fact that it’s always on TV (even if it’s on a bizarre channel stuck between Latvian porn and Dubai real estate) – I’ve somehow never seen Shaun of the Dead. The second is that I hated Hot Fuzz. I know. I seem to be the only person to not like that film (I thought most of the funny moments appeared in the trailer, rendering the actual film pointless, but whatever). The point is . . . well, I’m not sure actually. I guess I’m trying to say I had pretty low expectations for The World’s End.
And despite said low expectations, it still managed to disappoint me.
The film is largely driven by Simon Pegg’s character Gary King, an alcoholic, drugged-up tosser whose life effectively ended in 1990 when he and his friends attempted the ‘Golden Mile’ (12 pints in 12 pubs in their hometown) and failed. Poor old Gary’s never quite managed to get over the failure. So while his friends have all grown up and become dull corporate drones, Gary’s still wearing his crusty Sisters of Mercy t-shirts and mulling over the fact that his pathetic life won’t be complete until he conquers the Golden Mile. The film begins with him recruiting his reluctant pals to have a final crack at alcohol-soaked glory, but as the night wears on it becomes clear they’re not the same people . . . and their home town isn’t the same either.
It’s a good premise. There’s a lot of scope for exploring various themes – nostalgia, the passing of time, etc – and for the first 45 minutes The World’s End does a decent (if slow) job of this. It’s interesting watching Gary’s interactions with his old friends and seeing the revelations that are shaken out by their drunken bickering. Hints are dropped – something about a serious incident that made Gary’s best mate Andy (Nick Frost) swear never to see him again. This mysterious subtext provides a darker counterpoint to the clowning about, pop culture references and the not-very-subtle digs at the commercialisation of drinking establishments.
Then the SF element – and the main plot – kicks in, and the film veers in an entirely different direction.
Our hapless heroes learn – after a prolonged fight scene – that the inhabitants of Newton Haven have been replaced with ‘blanks’, clones created by an alien force called the Network. It’s inferred the original people were killed by the cloning process, although the film appears to change its mind about this later. Anyway, whatever: it’s down to Gary and his pals to escape the hordes of blanks and save the town – and the world – from whatever evil plan the aliens have in store (which, as it happens, is to assimilate Earth against its will into a wider intergalactic community).
Anyway, the film gets a much-needed shot in the arm, and what follows is a load of mildly entertaining action scenes, a few amusing sequences (such as Gary trying to have a fight without spilling his pint), more pop culture references and yet more dark personal revelations. It does strike something of a conflict in your mind; you know you’re meant to be cheering for Gary, but by this point he’s been revealed to be such an awful person that you’re left wondering whether he doesn’t deserve a grisly fate at the hands of the blanks. Still, whatever. It’s reasonably entertaining.
Yet the ending really bothered me.
I was – perhaps foolishly, given the nature of Pegg and Frost films – hoping Gary would redeem himself with some sort of sacrifice that saves the world and absolves himself of his past sins in the process. That would have a measure of satisfaction and purpose about it.
Instead, Gary – aided and abetted by Andy, who has depressingly decided that he’s still best mates with Gary, despite Gary being a total prick to him since forever – makes an executive decision on behalf of six billion people, which leads to an apocalypse and no doubt causes the death of most of the world’s population. Cheers, Gary.
So, as the bolted-on epilogue shows us, the world’s been reduced to ruins and decent people – like Andy – are trying to scratch a living from the ashes. Meanwhile, Gary is still playing the fool and living out some ridiculous cowboy fantasy, attempting the Golden Mile in the rubble of his old hometown.
Now, I appreciate I’m completely overthinking this, since The World’s End is a comedy film after all, with a very particular brand of humour that I freely admit doesn’t always work for me, but even so this ending didn’t sit well with me. As I left the cinema, I found myself wondering what the actual point of the movie was, if indeed it even has one.
Gary successfully forces the Network to withdraw by arguing that humans are imperfect and that we’re totally happy as we are, and that we don’t need any help from extraterrestrials to develop as a species. Which is fine, except that Gary is a mess of a human being. He’s an alcoholic, a drug user, a liar and a cheat. He treats his friends like dirt and has in some cases screwed up their lives. His reluctant admission of wrongdoing at the end of the film simply doesn’t support his assertion that humanity should be proud of its imperfection, and that we don’t need help in developing our civilisation. In fact, he proves the opposite point: that the Network were actually right to interfere with humankind’s future. Which is a bit confusing.
More frustrating is Gary’s development over the course of the film, or lack thereof. To be blunt, he’s a prick at the start and he’s an even bigger prick by the end. And yet, when the dust settles and most of the world is a wreck, he’s still having more fun than anyone else and refusing to take responsibility for his actions. For much of the film his story is a dark parable of what happens when you cling to the past and reject the realities of the present – and it’s handled in an effective manner. Except that there’s no payoff, no concluding redemption, and so the entire message of the preceding two hours is lost. After all that happens, after all the pain he causes, Gary proves that he’s learned nothing.
Maybe that is the film’s message – that humankind is basically doomed because we’re genetically programmed to self-destruct and act like fools most of the time. That we’re too impulsive, too rash, too stupid. Or maybe there’s no message at all and you’re just meant to enjoy the amusing kung-fu scenes and then go home and forget about the entire thing. Whatever.
If you liked Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, chances are you’ll enjoy The World’s End too. Just don’t think too hard about what it might or might not be trying to tell you.