This review contains SPOILERS.
Once you’ve reached a certain point in life, everybody knows Gary King. Maybe he’s a friend. Maybe he’s a distant acquaintance. Hell, maybe he’s you. But he’s a real person, and he’s one of those rare breeds who manages to stir up a whole host of conflicted, complex and mixed emotions. Is he to be revered for his hedonistic and worry-free lifestyle? Pitied for his inability to let go of the past? Some awkward, indescribable mixture of the two?
Where you fall on this issue is almost certainly a matter of personal identity. The Gary King archetype is something of an agent of chaos, but more importantly, he is a mirror, reflecting one’s own personality back onto the self. He tells us more about who we are than who he is. How we feel about Gary King is directly related to how we feel about ourselves: the reverent are those in denial, the pitying those with perspective (though perhaps not complete perspective) and the conflicted those still grappling with certain indecisions in their own life.
And this is how Edgar Wright drops us into the final instalment in his Cornetto Trilogy, the aptly-titled THE WORLD’S END: among a group of childhood friends, all brought back together by The King in order to lay all their cards on the table. When Gary (Simon Pegg) – alpha-male extraordinaire and epitome of stuck-in-high-school scoundrel – reappears in the lives of his friends after a decade of no contact, he suggests (forces, rather) that they return to their hometown. The goal? To complete the Golden Mile, the pub crawl to end all pub crawls – one which they failed to complete on the last day of high school some twenty years earlier.
Though Gary’s initial motivations are entirely selfish, his mere presence at the core of this group of estranged friends is as revealing of them as it is of him. All of them are at fairly static points in their lives: Andy (Nick Frost) is a buttoned-up businessman, Oliver (Martin Freeman) is a respectable realtor, Steven (Paddy Considine), a recent divorcee, dating a girl half his age, and Peter (Eddie Marsan), who lives a quiet life with his wife and children. Gary’s existence is a mystery: nobody has seen or spoken to him in years, they’re not entirely sure what he’s doing with his life, and nobody seems to really be asking. His past (possibly present) drug problems are an implied (occasionally explicitly implied) issue, and his vagabond-esque demeanour suggests that they really don’t need to ask what he’s been up to – it’s almost certainly nothing good.
But the allure of one last chance to reunite with old companions at the turn of middle age is too strong to ignore. There’s resistance, certainly, but not as much as you’d expect; it doesn’t take long for Gary to convince his old friends to join him on this latest, maybe final, adventure. Wright (along with co-writer Pegg) is smart enough not to spin this setup with too much optimism or positivity: when we meet Gary, his desperation is obvious. Though it’s all played for subtle laughs, there’s nothing particularly encouraging about the situation. Gary’s tragic fixation on the past is less funny than sad, and his friends see it just as clearly as we do: he drives the same car, listens to the same mixtape he’s had in his tape deck for two and a half decades and dons the same duster he’s worn since the ’80s. Here is a man who is stuck deeply in the past, and he is both exciting and pitiable in equal measures.
The first 45 minutes of THE WORLD’S END is pitch-perfect. Wright continues to display his incredible kineticism as a filmmaker, and his storytelling abilities are first rate. The premise is something that is completely identifiable for anybody of a certain age, and it plays out with elegant simplicity: upon arriving in their old hometown, Gary expects everything to be just like he left it. He parades around town in a shot-for-shot recreation of the early scenes we saw of the group as friends, expecting people from twenty years ago to recognize and revere the legendary King. But this isn’t the case. Nobody seems to remember him, and as his absurd expectations for the recreation of the crawl become increasingly apparent, his friends become less willing to enable his troubling behavior. With each passing moment, it becomes more obvious that the great Gary King is floundering.
But then, things change. It’s at this point in the film that Wright, with absolutely zero warning, shifts the entire story. Just as Gary has reached his lowest point and his friends have resolved to abandon their hedonistic crusade, he makes an incredible discovery: the town has been overrun by some sort of extraterrestrial force who has swapped all of the inhabitants with robotic versions of themselves.
The shift is jarring, and is quite possibly the film’s greatest weakness. Unlike his previous films, there’s no feeling here that Wright has been carefully bread-crumbing his way towards the big reveal. Instead, the change in genre and story is more of a product of thematic extension, and proves that THE WORLD’S END is much more of an internal film than any of the filmmaker’s preceding works. Though that kind of ambitious storytelling is commendable, it would have been nice to split the difference a little bit more. Nevertheless, the development brings along with it a host of new ideas and character developments.
THE WORLD’S END is really two films merged into one: a classic story about men who are stuck in the past (even if they don’t realize it), and a throwback to old paranoia science-fiction films from the Cold War era. The juxtaposition is not as random as you might think. Though the initial clash between the two is certainly a bit off-putting, it becomes increasingly apparent throughout the film just how perfect a union the pair make. Wright beautifully captures the (now-antiquated) feeling of identity loss which was a natural product of films like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and INVADERS FROM MARS, and he combines it not with the warring political ideologies of that era, but rather with a more universal and complex notion: that identity loss is not just some external thing that can be forced on a person. It can also be an internal thing.
Maybe it is as simple a parallel as High School vs. The “Real World” and The “American Way” vs. conflicting and threatening ideologies (and Gary’s continuous pleas for freedom are certainly verification of this), but maybe not. Maybe it’s something more than that. Gary is trapped in a place where his way of life is being threatened by the expectations, responsibilities and dangers of the real world, sure. But it isn’t just the new ideologies of age that are expecting Gary to change – it’s the paralyzing knowledge that there is no going back. This isn’t a war. This isn’t a situation where Gary is in constant and direct battle with an opposing ideology that could threaten his way of life. His way of life is over. Communism won. He’s nostalgic for capitalism, and he tries to recapture it in menial and pathetic ways, but it’s long gone, and he knows it.
The Cold War-era of science-fiction films was all about fending off invading forces, ones which threatened the very way that we exist and live our lives. There were always replicants and fabricants and replacements of all of the people that you knew and loved. It wasn’t just an external force; it was a creeping sickness, something which burrowed its way into your very being, distorting the things you held dear and transforming them into something unrecognizable, terrifying and often cruel. It wasn’t enough to know that one day this alien force would come to claim you – it had to take everything from you first. It had to steal away the identity of your friends and family before it came for you. And there was nothing scarier than losing your identity.
And this is where THE WORLD’S END succeeds with flying colors. It may stumble a bit on its way into the genre, but once it gets there, it lays its cards bare for all to see. Gary King lives a life in a post-war world. His people, his way of life, has failed. Some of his friends were body snatched before they ever re-entered Newton Haven: Peter, who settled down and started a family, is already gone. He shows sparks of life once he starts to drink – he’s perhaps the most susceptible to the charms of Gary, maybe the most in obvious need of a little return to the old way of life. But it doesn’t change the fact that the Peter which Gary once knew has already succumbed to this brave new world. The same goes for Oliver. His stiff, business-like attire and lifestyle are in direct opposition to his old personality. It’s appropriate that these two characters are the only two to “turn”. Try as he might, Gary can’t bring them back. He may have hope that they can be saved, but their succumbing to this new way of life is inevitable.
It’s interesting to note that both Andy and Steven retain their “humanity”. While Steven’s divorce leaves him free to venture back into the way of life which Gary cherishes so much, Andy’s situation is more complicated. His fellowship with Oliver and Peter’s new-world personas is nothing more than a facade. In reality, his family has left him. He is fighting with all of his might to resist the pull back towards Gary’s world, but the truth is that he is right back where he started, stumbling around, looking for his own feet in the night alongside The King. And so he survives the transformation process, “saved” by the destruction of his own adult world.
This conclusion brings us down an interesting path. We are shown countless times that Gary’s stubborn resistance to letting go is not something to be celebrated – it’s a sad, deeply upsetting reality. It’s the kind of thing that everybody copes with at some point in their lives, and Gary’s embodiment of it is the most extreme version of that trauma. And yet, the ultimate message at the end of the film isn’t to punish Gary’s pitiable behavior – it’s a (temporary) moment of triumph. In the end, when faced with the choice to either save the world by embracing this new, “adult” way of life, or to doom humanity to darkness by retaining our freedom, our heroes choose the latter. Is that a happy ending? Do we inevitably march to our deaths, embracing the things that were important to us at the cost of civilization, growth and maturity? Or do we “grow up”, letting the world live on for the sake of mechanical progress? The movie doesn’t really land on one side or the other.
More than anything else, however, this is a film about the nature of scars – physical, emotional, figurative, etc. Like everybody else in the world, all of our heroes suffer from scars. Peter’s are figurative: the old wounds of being bullied and neglected as a kid. Steven’s are emotional: the long-remembered pain of a broken heart and the betrayal of a friend over a girl. Oliver’s are literal: a birth mark which denotes his placement in the group as the object of ridicule. And Andy’s are physical: the scars of a car crash which ended the best relationship he would ever have in his life – his friendship with Gary.
Wright embraces these scars and makes them the focal point of his heroes’ journeys, using them to show just how similar in reality they are to Gary. All of them are forced to confront these scars at some point throughout the film. Peter allows his scars to consume him, seeking revenge and ultimately succumbing to the alien forces as a result. Steven must confront the girl of his dreams, as well as how it has always stood as a wedge between himself and Gary. All of these characters are stuck in the past, just like Gary. They are haunted. And whereas Gary seems to be the only character to embrace and explore his wounds, the others run from them, forcing them to the surface, where they must ultimately be confronted.
This is where Wright’s use of Cold War tropes plays perfectly into the themes of the film. The “blanks” / robots / no-bots / whatever ya wanna call ‘ems are pure expressions of their host – blank slates. It’s an old trope which goes back all the way to the ’50s, but Wright finds a new use for it here. Because truth be told, every one of these characters have reason to embrace a blank slate. They all have a reason to choose an option where their scars can be wiped clean, and they can start over fresh – at a cost. And while some of them do – though not, ultimately, by choice – the ultimate message of the film seems to be this: our scars are what make us human, and though the past may be the past, to ignore its importance to our present existence is to reject our own humanity. Which brings us, in the end, to Gary King.
Gary King is an incredible character. He is, without question, the most compelling and heartbreaking in the entire Cornetto Trilogy. His fear of losing his identity to the shifting ideologies of age and, more importantly, his fear that he has lost the most important thing in his life – his friends – consume him. The revelation that this entire adventure is a product of a suicide attempt sheds new light on the character. The scars he bears on his wrists are just like the scars of all the other characters: a product of his inability to let go of the past, and the way in which he is unable to cope. While the rest of our heroes choose to run from the past because of this inability, Gary’s path is a facade: he obsesses over it and allows it to consume him, something which is even more damaging than denial. When he screams that the Golden Mile is all that he has left, you believe him.
Pegg’s performance here is nothing less than stunning. It’s the performance of his career, bar-none, and he rises to every challenge that both he and Wright laid in front of him. The scene where he reveals the full nature of his trauma is earth-shakingly realistic, a brutal and powerful moment of devastating humanity. And when he chooses to destroy his robotic self rather than succumb, to accept his scars wholeheartedly rather than seek an escape from them (something which he has been trying to do for twenty years by living in the past), it is the most triumphant moment in the film. While this may be the most fully realized, dynamic and all-in-all excellent set of performances in any of the Cornetto Trilogy, Pegg stands apart as a highlight. Even Nick Frost’s refreshing straight-man routine can’t compete. At times eclectic, hilarious, dark and moving, Pegg turns in one hell of a performance.
THE WORLD’S END may be the least funny of the Trilogy, and it may be the most flawed (the transition into genre is not as smooth here, and its ending is less elegantly set up than in the incomparable HOT FUZZ), but it wins so many points for depth, complexity and emotional punch that it renders all problems moot. Only time will tell whether this is the best of the Cornettos, but as it stands, it’s one of the best of the summer.