Just when you thought summer movies had worn out their welcome, when the onslaught of special effects and flashy sci-fi concepts and action sequences and all of the tropes that signal the return of the oppressively hot months had broken the proverbial camel’s back, The World’s End comes along to remind you that, hey, movies with those things can be fun.
(You know what else is fun? Knowing as little about this movie as possible for you see it for yourself. To that end, I won’t be spoiling anything significant in this review. Read on!)
That’s right, fun. Remember fun? When you go to see a movie and you leave the theater clamoring to see it again because you just enjoyed the experience of watching it unfold so much? The World’s End remembers that time gloriously. This movie packs more verbal jokes, visual gags, character evolutions, plot twists and yes, special effects, into 100 minutes than some of this summer’s considerably longer behemoths, and yet director Edgar Wright (working from his own script written with the movie’s star Simon Pegg) keeps the trains running smoothly with effortless pacing, innovative editing and a traditionalist’s sense of story structure fused with our modern ADD sensibilities.
The World’s End is also the rare spiritual sequel; rather than returning to the characters and universes of the previous two films in the Cornetto Trilogy, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright translates many of the same actors into a similarly genre-bending story with different stakes, character motivations and plot elements. He also retains some of the series’ signature motifs, including the floating Cornetto ice cream wrapper (green this time, representing science-fiction), a fence-jumping gag and the appearance of the effortlessly droll Bill Nighy in a small but key role. While these three movies were never planned as a trilogy, the continuity among the three of them make for a dynamic, consistent moviegoing experience without the energy suck that can come from tired retreads.
In both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Nick Frost played the bozo to Simon Pegg’s more capable character, but in The World’s End, the roles are somewhat reversed. Simon Pegg’s reckless Gary King is an alcoholic with a reckless streak who begins the movie by attempting to reunite his four childhood buddies (Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan) for a return to one of their hometown’s most storied traditions: the pub crawl, twelve pubs in one night, all leading up to the “mythical” World’s End. But Gary’s friends have moved on: Freeman’s Oliver works in real estate, Considine’s Steven and Marsan’s Peter are (somewhat) happily married (even if Gary seems to be completely oblivious to the unwritten rules of matrimony), and Frost’s Andy has sworn off drinking together.
It wouldn’t be the movie if Gary didn’t get the band back together, though, and he does, in hilarious and withering fashion. Pegg’s Gary is a fascinating creation, a character nearly grating enough to be unlikable and frustrating, but with just the right amount of heart and soul to keep us invested when he seems utterly ignorant of his own downward spiral. Credit Gary’s appeal to the magnificence of Pegg, who offers his best work of the three films here. Gary’s character trajectory goes down several interesting paths, and the conclusion to his story is far more ambiguous than in the last two films. His co-stars rise to his challenge too: Freeman embodies the middle-aged stiff’s role quite well until he evolves (no spoilers!) midway through the movie, and Frost is as convincing as average and hardworking as he was dumb and oblivious.
I also like the way that this movie’s sci-fi-ness gradually reveals itself. Rather than bashing us over the head with aliens and conspiracies and all manner of throwback sci-fi ideas that clearly get Wright and Pegg’s engines revving, the movie firmly establishes its personalities and throws them into their old haunts (though they’re surprised to find that their old haunts have received a personality downgrade) so that the headier plot moments don’t just seem like heavier plot moments, but actual events with important implications for the characters.
In taking the less-is-more approach visually, Wright manages a summer “blockbuster” that feels explosive and grand but not bloated or self-indulgent. I wouldn’t dare describe the movie’s most involving spectacles for fear of ruining the delightful surprises, but suffice it to say that the villains in this movie run blue-blooded and have an unexpectedly tech-conscious agenda. The World’s End, like Shaun and Fuzz before it, tells a genre-laden story with characters we care about because we know they’re capable of evolving even when they don’t know it themselves. Wright and Pegg explore arrested development with greater finesse than ever before, and the result is the summer’s most satisfying, fun experience. Fun! What a concept.