The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The World's End

Written by Matt Denny.

Photo from the article The World’s End is one of a select breed of films that is more interesting in what it fails to do, than in what it actually achieves. It is a tantalisingly rich film, but never quite succeeds in making good on the promise of its premise. I find two causes for what I perceive to be the failure or The World’s End: one is the packaging of the film as the conclusion to a trilogy, the other is its unsatisfying engagement with the genre it purports to belong to and/or satirise. I add the qualifier, though, that The World’s End is far from universally regarded as a failure. The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes is testament to the film’s critical success, and I can’t help but feel like William Shatner in that episode of The Twilight Zone madly gesturing at the gremlin on the wing that only I can see. I lack the hubris to suggest that I’m correct where all others are wrong, and this article isn’t written in the spirit of denouncing a publicly nude emperor. Rather it should be read as a personal attempt by a fan of Frost, Pegg, and Wright’s previous output to work through his dissatisfaction with their latest work.

Let us begin with the first obstacle I identified, the place of The World’s End as the concluding part of the Cornetto Trilogy (also known as the The Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy). Even in this opening sentence we run into problems. Is The World’s End truly the concluding part of the trilogy, or merely the third? The title certainly has a finality to it, although this refers directly to the apocalyptic events of the film (and the titular pub they must reach) rather than any conclusion of a grand narrative arc. Compare this to the third film of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, At World’s End. Again the title refers to a location (“The Farthest Gate” - believed to be the edge of the world) and to the apocalyptic events of the film. It was also (for a time at least) the end of the series, rounding up Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth’s (Keira Knightly) story and taking Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) right back to where he started. Of course this comparison only works if we choose to ignore On Stranger Tides and the announced Dead Men Tell No Tales.

I make the comparison because Pirates is a trilogy in a true sense; three films with their own internal narratives (save the girl, kill the monster, and the battle for the fate of the world respectively) linked by recurring characters and an overarching narrative. At World’s End is the concluding film of a trilogy, it wraps up the story. The World’s End is simply the third film in a group of three films that have been incorrectly marketed as a trilogy.

That last statement is rather unfair. I don’t think the grouping of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End as a “trilogy” was ever anything more than a joke reference to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours Trilogy (1993-1994). An interview with Edgar Wright for Time Out confirms that the idea started out as “silly joke” when a reporter pointed out Cornettos featured in both Shaun and Fuzz. That being said, the idea of the films as a trilogy featured very heavily in the promotion of the film, resulting in some nifty colour coded posters and a run of trilogy screenings. It seems like a joke that got out of hand, that everyone started taking too seriously until it stopped being a joke. There is perhaps more going on here, the grouping of these films hinting at a deep-seated need for holism and organic completeness, a distaste felt towards fragments and a fondness for wholes. We like to group things, it’s why we have genres and still cling to auteur theory. This desire to see everything as part of whole can be damaging. Individual films are no longer seen as whole in their own right, but as fragments, as part of a greater whole. That’s the irony at the heart of this drive towards completeness - you end up constructing everything as incomplete.

I certainly fell prey to this desire to see The World’s End as the “Epic Conclusion” to the trilogy that never was a trilogy. This goes some way to explaining my disappointment, as the pleasures that The World’s End does deliver are not the pleasures of the concluding film to a trilogy. There is, after all, no continued character progression - there are no continued characters, only recurring actors. There’s no grand narrative wrapped up, because this is a new story with a new beginning. What there are however, are themes that echo and bounce across the three films. There’s the exploration of “Britishness”, which also occurs in the playful deconstruction of the differences between Hollywood and British films. There is also the focus on male friendship, and exploration of how so often “men” are simply “boys” who have gone through puberty, rather than psychologically mature individuals. These concerns are present in all three films, to a greater and lesser degree. These aren’t exactly the sorts of issues that get progressively solved across films. Rather each film should be taken as a variation on a theme. If I had been able to reprogram myself to see The World’s End in this way, as part of a triptych rather than a trilogy, then I might have been able to enjoy it more. I’m not so sure though, and this is what brings me to my second issue, the film’s engagement with genre.

The World’s End is a science fiction film. It’s also a comedy. In my short review of the film I observed that it doesn’t serve either of these genres particularly well, but does fine with action. This seems a major problem, as while the action is for the most part interesting, lively, and entertaining it shouldn’t really be what the film is about. It also doesn’t make much sense. I’m all for pleasurable excess, but I prefer it to be motivated. The fight choreography for the robots is interesting and characterful - somewhat recalling the dogged, bludgeoning style of Agent Smith. Gary King and Andy (Nick Frost) also fight in a characterful style. King is scrappy and gets by more on luck than intention, whereas Andy is a brawler, able to wield two barstools as weapons. The problem is more that the characters seem inexplicably powerful and skilled. It’s established that the smashy-smashy-egg-men are strong but fragile, so it’s not beyond reason that the five musketeers should be able to break them - but why do they look like superheroes doing it? This unavoidably makes me consider the battle-prowess of the characters in the other Cornetto films. I tried to make the case for not unfairly comparing World’s End with Shaun and Fuzz, but it is hard not here when the other films are such shining examples of how to do what World’s End fails to do.

Consider Shaun of the Dead, when the eponymous hero encounters his first zombie in the garden. When the zombie makes her first attack, Shaun (Pegg) pushes her back and she trips, impaling herself. Shaun and Ed attempt to fend off the zombies by throwing records at them, bickering over which are worthy of preservation and which can be weaponised. Eventually, Shaun has to resort to a cricket bat, finally finding the right tool for the job. This is complexly layered scene, where the films dual genre requirements are both catered to. Shaun learns how to deal with Zombies in a number of quick stages. The comedy is evident in the film’s commentary of the absurdity of the situation. Shaun and Ed’s first thought isn’t that the strange girl in their garden is a zombie, but that she’s drunk. The disjuncture between audience and character knowledge is milked for both humour and horror. The audience, knowing the girl is a zombie find humour and horror when she tries to attack the oblivious Shaun. Ed and Shaun are horrified when they think they’ve killed the girl, and there is black comedy in this for the audience. That Shaun and Ed can still bicker about records when their lives are at stake is characterful, reflecting the pair’s inability to think beyond their own small world. I can’t really think of an equivalent scene in World’s End - the film is too rushed. It’s the worst sort of rushed too, not desperate to tell its story but over eager to get to the “good bits”, the action. This is a real shame, for as pleasing as the action is to start with it does get tiresome.

The action in Shaun escalates from the mundanely humorous to more straightforwardly heroic. Even so, the final confrontation begins with Shaun pulling an errant dart out of his head and heroically proclaiming “but dogs can look up”, sending up his heroism even as it confirms it. Fuzz takes the interplay between the mundane and the heroic or fantastic as its chief theme. The conventions of the Hollywood actioner become absurd in the bucolic West Country setting, this joke neatly complementing the opposition of town and country the film sets up. Wright’s aggressive editing fits Fuzz better than any of the other films, a perfect combination of form and content that produces a rather wonderful approximation of what The Wicker Man would look like if directed by Tony Scott. For me, Fuzz is such a pleasure because it manages to be both a satire of action films and a satisfying action film in its own right. Inspector Frank Butterman’s superbly quotable line “He had something you haven’t got […] A great, big, bushy, beard!” is just one example of the joy the film seems to take in playing with the clichés of the genre.

There is a singular moment in World’s End that matches up to Fuzz’s beautiful confluence of form and content. After noting the disappointing lack of personality in the first pub, the group are eager to get into the second, which they hope will have retained all its unique charm. The gang enter, and the pub is revealed to be exactly the same, the details revealed in a sequence of shots identical to those establishing the first location. This is the film's best joke, and it resembles the layered approach to humour evident in Shaun, bringing together all of the film’s themes in a shining moment of comedy. There is the sense of thwarted nostalgia, of the past not being what it used to be. There’s the commentary on commercialisation and conformity, what the characters describe as “Starbucking”. As with Shaun, the humour and the unease come from the same place.

For me, the film never really gets satisfyingly into these issues. The sci-fi is never really granted the full treatment it deserves, with the film more keen to smash up its replicants than explore what they mean. When King is confronted by a clone of his younger self and destroys it, we understand something of the conflict the film is presenting, but it seems to be a conflict between false-nostalgia and individuality that is then never satisfactorily resolved. King ends the film accompanied by the clones of his young mates, finally able to be the leader of his teenage gang once again. Even in a post-apocalyptic future, King is trapped in the past.

Apart from the scene with the identical pubs, the film doesn’t do enough to build up the unease of this changed-but-unchanged place. In the interview referenced at the start of this article, Wright alludes to author John Wyndham and Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series (first a BBC series then adapted as features by Hammer). There isn’t much of a trace of these influences in World’s End, which is a real shame. I can’t help but imagine a more Wyndhamesque version of World’s End, where the characters return to a town that actually hasn’t changed since the 90s, a weirdly persevered and artificial version of Britain. Here, the oddly uniform chain pubs that kill all the charm of a rural ale house by replicating it en masse would work as an alien’s interpretation of what a pub should be.

The World’s End is ideologically muddled especially in its attitude to Gary King. On the one hand, King’s arrested development and false nostalgia are presented as the obstacles that character needs to overcome. It then becomes part of the argument for leaving the human race to be free what it wants to do. The gang return home to find the town has changed, not only have the pubs lost all individuality but so have the people. Conformity, then, is a bad thing. But this also becomes complicated. Part of King’s resentment towards his friends is that they’ve grown up, conformed. They aren’t teenage rebels any more. Oliver (Martin Freeman) is the most conformist of all, and so it makes sense for him to be taken over first. Problematically, King is the poster boy for non-conformity. King’s qualities become the defining qualities of humanity in the face of The Network’s (Bill Nighy) conformity. But with the conformity of The Network comes progress, technology. Without The Network, humans are back in the dark ages - we regress, just like Gary King. There is perhaps something of the ambivalence of Wyndham here, whose apocalyptic novels Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes have endings even more anti-climactic than The War of the Worlds'. The humans don’t so much play to win in Wyndham’s stories, but to draw. I’m not sure the conclusion of World’s End is ambivalent though, it just feels wrong.

A far better model of non-conformity is Andy. His response to King’s taunts about drinking water are actually quite dignified, and suggest a more noble individuality than King’s. Andy’s outlining of the bravery required to walk up to bar surrounded by all his hard drinking Rugby teammates and order a soft drink is more admirable than any of King’s swagger; and I can’t help but feel the character of Andy is let down by the film when they have him drinking again. Nevertheless, Andy’s tee-total habits reflect an inability to let go of the past every bit as potent as King’s, but where Gary lives in the rose tinted glow of a near perfect night, Andy is trapped in the nightmare of the very worse night. It’s a shame the film didn’t explore this parallel more. In fact all of the gang bar Oliver are trapped in the past somewhat. Peter (Eddie Marsan) is haunted by memories of being bullied, and third musketeer Steven Prince (Paddy Considine) by one-that-got-away Sam (Rosamund Pike). Oliver has no such hang ups. He wants to forget the past, erasing his birthmark and resisting his childhood nickname. Even the young O-man is presented as an early adopter with a bulky brick phone. The older Oliver has replaced this with a bluetooth headset and a “hip” knowledge of internet-speak.

The film is too in love with King to really explore how damaging giving such weight to past can be, with the characters coming around to King’s way of thinking rather than King learning to grow up. In Hot Fuzz, Nicholas Angel (Pegg) and Danny Butterman (Frost) start off as opposites, slowly picking up the more positive aspects of each other’s characters while dropping the more negative aspects of their own; as is the expected outcome of the Buddy Cop Comedy. Shaun of the Dead is more bittersweet. Shaun grows up and gets the girl, but only after Ed sacrifices himself for them. The end of the film tries to suggest that Shaun now has appropriate balance between his love life and his friendship with Ed, but his friend is now zombified and chained up in the shed, confirming the parallel set up at the start of the film between the directionless, routine existence of Ed and Shaun and the zombies.

This leads me to think about the Frost-narrated coda to The World’s End. It’s an odd thing, seeming tacked on, and uncertain as to what its purpose is. It has the tone of a moral summing up, but because the film is so ideologically confused it isn’t really clear what the moral is. It’s also here that the anticipated mint cornetto makes its appearance - and it's a flagrantly self-aware gesture. As narrator-Andy explains how he doesn’t crave processed food any more, the Andy on screen clutches longingly after the empty wrapper of the dairy based treat. In the cinema, I laughed knowingly at this touch - but now I’m haunted by it. It seems so horrifically symbolic of my reaction to the film: a man grasping for something that is only the empty shell of what he really craves, while claiming that he didn’t want it anyway. That’s the problem with The Cornetto Trilogy concept, it forces the viewer to compare The World’s End with two vastly superior films. As a standalone film, The World’s End is passable, an interestingly flawed film with lots of ideas that never quite get explored. The sort of thing you can argue about in the pub for ages. But as the conclusion to two superb, ground breaking films? It just doesn’t measure up.

This Alternate Take was published on September 03, 2013.

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