The World’s End (2013) makes the case for humanity perhaps in spite of itself. It tells the story of a reconciliation of old schoolmates, all but one of whom have grown up and moved on beyond their hard-drinking crazy youth. But that one, he’s something else. As the phrase goes, we’re only as good as our weakest link. In The World’s End that link is Gary King and if we’re no better than him, perhaps the aliens should just do away with us.
The movie is the latest collaboration of actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright, whose previous output included Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007); their specialty is in humorously violent, self-aware special effects comedies, somewhere on the spectrum between Evil Dead II (1987) and Ghostbusters (1984), with elements of both. The World’s End begins like any number of other recent comedies about men of a certain age in arrested development. It starts with narration from Gary King (Pegg) relating the story of the greatest night of his life: a drunken, though incomplete, evening of drinking and carousing 23 years ago along his hometown’s “Golden Mile,” a string of 12 pubs in which he and his mates were to start with a pint at The First Post and continue on to their twelfth and final one at The World’s End, though the boys were only able to make it to the tenth place before they were done in by drink. The warmth and happiness in Gary’s voice as he relays this story is infectious. That’s dampened somewhat by the revelation he’s telling the tale to his addiction support group.
It seems Gary has never really let that evening go, hoping to live his entire life in the same sort of unbridled frivolity. His friends, who have all grown up and into respectable lives, are curious to see Gary try out of the blue to recruit them to attempt the Golden Mile again.
“You remember the Friday nights. I remember the Monday mornings,” says an incredulous Andy (Frost) in his posh London office.
Despite their protests, Gary successfully rejoins the gang, which includes Andy, neurotic Oliver (Martin Freeman), meek Peter (Eddie Marsan) and cool Steven (Paddy Considine). They all descend upon the place they grew up and begin a very different type of 12-step program. However, something is changed. The fellas aren’t as into it as Gary is and certainly not as into it as they were all those years ago. Andy doesn’t even drink, ordering water (“You’re drinking fucking rain!” Gary screams). They’re not interested in this kind of thing anymore, and they pity Gary that he still is. After a confrontation and a decision to call the whole thing off in only the fourth place, Gary storms off to the bathroom. Then he is attacked by a humanoid robot with blue blood.
It’s at this point that the movie changes course slightly. As we discover, the town’s inhabitants have been taken over by alien forces and replaced with replicas. The aliens don’t want to invade us, but they are infiltrating key communities with their higher intelligence in the hope of changing our self-destructive ways by leading a good example. They didn’t count on Gary King who, as evidenced by the non-influence of his well-to-do friends, follows only his own example. Because of his resistance, Gary and the gang come under attack from the pod persons who implore the bunch to fall in line or become replicants themselves. They choose neither but decide, at Gary’s insistence, to continue the Golden Mile, saving humanity from the beneficent alien threat along the way.
This presents a funny twist as our heroes slowly get more drunk, which makes their attempts to make sense of what’s happening fairly hilarious. There’s a great bit that begins with the fivesome trying to come up with a name for their pursuers (“Bluebloods,” “The Robots That Aren’t Robots”), devolves into a discussion on pronouns and ends with “Nothing I’ve heard in the last three minutes has been better than ‘Smashy Smashy Egg Men.’” This is what the movie has going for it, an unabating silliness coupled with competent, creative action filmmaking, as if you gave the sharpest goofball in the class the keys to the studio. The movie is set up so well, giving us real characters angling toward one story then ending up in another (although they’re really the same story), that it isn’t too terribly disappointing that it doesn’t fully pay it off as the action begins to drive the tone and not the other way around, and the project gets bloated from a number of indulgent action set-pieces. It also ends on a down, and wrong, beat.
None of this keeps it from being terribly funny and enjoyable. Pegg’s manic enthusiasm carries the whole thing while Frost’s sweet strength gives it heart. If Rosamund Pike is troublingly underused as an undeveloped character designed only, it seems, to meet an estrogen requirement, than Freeman’s uptight yuppy makes good use of limited time. He’s a real estate agent who has an ever-present Bluetooth and speaks in lingo and catch phrases (his constant use of “WTF” gives way to one of Gary’s best lines: “What the fuck does ‘WTF’ mean?”). His speech is so scrubbed clean of actual human authenticity that when he’s replaced by one of the alien replicants, the lads hardly notice.
The World’s End reminded me of one of the better movies of recent years, Attack the Block (2011), a different alien invasion comedy (though Frost is in both), which is a good thing. Attack the Block had a little better control over what it wanted to do; that gets away from The World’s End a little in its unraveling final act, but those are minor points and a man like Gary King is all about simplifying.
“How was your mum’s funeral, Gary?” he’s asked (P.S. his mum isn’t dead; he just told his friends she was to guilt them into going to the Golden Mile).
And were I limited to just three words to describe The World’s End, they would be “Really, really good.”