Edgar Wright's The World's End
D. H. Lawrence’s final book Apocalypse was a uniquely Lawrentian commentary on the biblical book of Revelation. Part political treatise, part avant-garde poem, part scriptural exegesis, and part erotic fantasy, this work provides a fitting conclusion for a writer whose ambition was no less than a revitalization of all humanity through an expanding spiritual and sexual consciousness. Lawrence’s vision of regeneration is mostly baroque and mythical, but in one telling moment he observes that the “unnaturalness” of the imagery in Revelation which so irritated him as a boy was language heartily welcomed in the chapels of his northern English homeland. He writes: “such phrases as ‘the wrath of the Lamb’ are on the face of them ridiculous. But this is the grand phraseology and imagery of the nonconformist chapels… the whore that sitteth upon the waters is entirely sympathetic to a Tuesday evening congregation of colliers and colliers’ wives, on a black winter night, in the great barn-like Pentecost Chapel.”
Lawrence’s glance backward at his youth through a heady mixture of nostalgia, embarrassment, and apocalypse is intoxicating, much like the blend served up in the latest film by Edgar Wright. With The World’s End, Wright completes a loosely connected trilogy along with co-writer and star Simon Pegg. The films also have featured their ever-present third wheel Nick Frost and frequent ensemble member Martin Freeman. The international successes of the first two films in the trilogy, Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), have helped propel Simon Pegg to a high profile acting career with appearances in such franchises as Mission: Impossible and Star Trek. Edgar Wright has also prospered apart from his mates; he directed and co-wrote Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) and co-wrote Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin (2011). Some of the elegiac feeling in The World’s End may have to do with the end of this fruitful collaboration—an ending, one hopes, that will be temporary.
The World’s End is an ironically epic adventure about a pub crawl through the nondescript, suburban English town of Newton Haven. Five middle-aged friends led by Gary “The King” King (Simon Pegg) embark on their quest to finish a pint at each of the twelve pubs on the main loop of their hometown, a quest they failed to accomplish as teenagers on a night which turned out for most of them to have been the high point of lives that later sunk down into depressing adulthood. Gary has fought his maturity more fiercely than the others, retaining every artifact of his 1980s self in an effort to cling to the best days of a life now long gone. For Gary, the return to the pub crawl is a last chance at glory; for his friends, it is a begrudging concession to Gary and even a kind of intervention.
Things, however, are not what they seem in Newton Haven. The vacant stares and affectless expressions on the faces of the townsfolk are not just because no one remembers Gary and not just because suburbia has sucked the life out of its inhabitants. In a literalizing of this metaphor, the citizens of Newton Haven have been replaced by robots filled with some kind of blue ink. After making this discovery, Gary, defying all logic, convinces his mates to finish their pub crawl despite the alien menace, effectively making themselves into humanity’s last hope for survival.
At first glance, the film appears to be an assault on nostalgia. Gary’s death grip on his youth is the source of much bitter humor as he struts about in his black trench coat, Ankh necklace, and Sisters of Mercy t-shirt. The haggard look and receding hairline of middle age clash with his swagger, and the style he refuses to abandon is not retro but passé.
Though morbid nostalgia is one target of Wright and company’s satire, middle-aged doldrums are another target of their criticism. Gary’s friends are sober men working in non-descript glass buildings, perpetually wearing bluetooth earpieces and abiding loveless marriages. If Gary can be faulted for overstaying his welcome in adolescence, the alternative is decidedly uninviting. The film offers very little by way of a happy medium or a happy adulthood.
Much of Wright’s work has been focused on this condition of middle-class, delayed-adolescent ennui. Simon Pegg’s character in Shaun of the Dead works in a dead-end electronics retail job with Nick Frost as his slobby roommate. The signature joke of the film occurs near the beginning as Pegg—whose narcissism and depression match the mindlessness of his daily routines—fails to realize that his neighborhood is swarming with the undead. A slow-moving, drooling, moaning convenience store employee looks much the same dead or alive. Likewise, the near-comatose sleepiness of a provincial English town in Hot Fuzz provides the cover for a serial killer who cannot be detected because of the fine line between small-town quirk and psychopathy. Spaced (1999–2001), a television series which was Wright, Pegg, and Frost’s earliest major collaboration, depicted the struggles of twenty-somethings scrounging for rent money, but presented this condition with neither the inspirational uplift of Rent nor the wretched desperation of Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993). Instead, Pegg and Jessica Hynes portrayed platonic roommates faking a marriage to retain a “marrieds only” flat. Virtually every shot in the series was designed as a geeky reference to some action/sci-fi/horror fanboy “classic” from the 1970s and 80s. The flashiness of the show’s style served as an ironic counterpoint to its bored, pop-culture obsessed characters.
In Spaced and their film collaborations, Wright and Pegg have gleefully rehashed the trashy genre fare that caught their young imaginations. The touchstone for Shaun of the Dead was George Romero’s zombie films, which they so lovingly recreated that they earned cameo appearances in Romero’s 2005 film Land of the Dead. In Hot Fuzz they displayed their affection for lowbrow action flicks like Bad Boys II. And with The World’s End, they offer an alien invasion plot from classic sci-fi like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Together these three films are referred to as the “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy,” a joke that emerged during the press junket for Hot Fuzz when Wright was asked to comment on the recurring image of pre-packaged Cornetto’s ice cream cones. Wright quipped that he was using this device to achieve the highbrow status of Kieslowski’s Three Colors but with ice cream.
Of the films, this last “flavour” is perhaps the least coherent. Some of this may be due to the many large themes that it attempts to tackle within its genre conventions: aging, lost youth, alcoholism, suburban decline, social technologies, etc. But it may also be due to a sense that the alien invasion genre is not as central to their passions as, say, zombies. The film lags a bit when trying to justify why these men in a town full of robots do not simply get in their car and depart rather than continue with their pub crawl. And the entire premise of a suburban town that has lost its soul seems like an extended episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The final sequence of the film which—without giving too much away—I will say carries us far beyond the film’s starting point and works hard to fulfill the promise of its title, sends us into a wormhole of destruction which appears to be Wright’s favored state. Many of the problems established for the characters at the beginning of the film are resolved by its ending, but in a cataclysmic way that ultimately acts like a fulfillment of Gary’s fantasies. It is as if we cannot hold fast to the mediocrity of our adolescence or our middle age, and what remains is apocalypse.
The conclusion to The World’s End is cheerful, but offers little by way of real solution to the twin perils of obsessive nostalgia and moribund adulthood. Just as D. H. Lawrence found the religious language of his childhood inescapable, Wright and company seem drawn like Lost Boys to the enthusiasms and the dissatisfactions of their youth. In the boozy haze of their quest with its dozen brimming grails, Gary and his friends find that regeneration requires annihilation. Saint Paul suggested that this life is obscured like a dark glass and that true knowledge only comes later, once “childish things” were put away. For Wright, the childish things may be greatly inspiring so long as we let our grip on them remain light and keep in check the worst of our addictions. As Gary “the King” demonstrates, through the distended bottom of the pint glass, the view is always distorted. Lawrence’s apocalyptic vision fantasized about a re-inspired England, which, as he put it, would “re-establish the living organic connections with the cosmos, the sun and earth, with mankind and nation and family.” Wright seems less sanguine, and whatever hope there may be comes at the price of global collapse.
Charles Andrews is Associate Professor of English at Whitworth University.