[Note: This review discusses the entire film, and as such contains many spoilers.]
1. The World’s End is a challenging film that’s already well on its way to being misunderstood. I myself got it entirely wrong on my first viewing, after which I concluded that it was the simplest and weakest of Edgar Wright’s movies to date. After a second viewing, I can see more of the film’s intricate design, and now think it might be Wright’s most complex work, and possibly also his best.
Part of the problem is that I went in with wrong expectations. The World’s End is a very different movie than Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead. It’s funny, but it’s not as funny as its predecessors, and I thought that a problem. I wasn’t alone—Anthony Lane, for instance, wrote of it in the New Yorker:
“the patter of laughs […] is less breakneck than it was before, and the result is strangely sour and charmless by comparison. […] I cannot imagine returning to it the way one does to ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘Hot Fuzz,’ hungry for fresh minutiae.”
But this is a film all about returning, and the minutiae are there. They’re just invisible on a first viewing.
2. The World’s End is indeed a soberer film than its predecessors. This isn’t a problem, though, because the film, while comedic, isn’t ultimately a comedy.
Wright & co. do try to alter our expectations. Consider the opening narration, in which Gary King triumphantly recounts a twelve-tavern pub crawl that he and his mates attempted in 1990. Although they conked out nine pubs in, King proudly pronounces the night the greatest of his life.
From there we cut to an unflattering shot of him seated in sweats in a rehabilitation center, decrepit, gaunt, and totally spent. It’s a funny transition, to be sure, but it’s uncomfortably funny, and more than a little bleak—our hero’s a drug addict, something the film doesn’t want us to forget. As others continue speaking, King zones out, lost in his memories . . . only to be replaced by an image of what he’s doubtlessly thinking about: a beautiful shot of a beautiful pint of golden beer, over which Wright applies the title: “The World’s End.”
And for King, that’s true: beer is the world’s end.
3. King begins the film a tragic character, his many flaws all apparent. Only he recalls the past as glorious. Everyone else is glad to have left it behind, and now thinks him mad—a loser unable to function in the world of 2013. King’s biggest mistake, his error, is that he never moved on, never shaped up, never got with the program—he never grew up. As such, he’s treated like a child—as he later cries, complaining about the rehab center, “They told me when to go to bed!”
The message would appear simple: This is going to be a film about learning to mature. “You can’t live in the past, Gary King!”
But what if it turns that out one can? What happens if we take Gary King seriously?
4. The film’s plot kicks off when King escapes from the center in order to reassemble the old teenage gang. Peter, Oliver, Steven, and Andy’s respective surnames—Page, Chamberlain, Prince, and Knightley—provide the first indication that there might be some merit to King’s decidedly anachronistic ways.
Viewed one way, King is a drunken fool, unable to escape the past and desperate to get sloshed. But viewed differently, he is a king summoning his once-loyal retainers to join him on a new quest, a return to the taverns of old, where they will reclaim their past glories. Understanding this doubleness is essential to reading the film properly.
5. To reiterate: the mistake I made on my first viewing was to view the film as the third comedic installment in the “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy”—an equal companion to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. But that’s not what The World’s End really is.
In Shaun of the Dead, Shaun ultimately shapes up, takes responsibility for his life and wins back his girlfriend, Liz. In Hot Fuzz, Nicholas Angel learns how to relax, makes a new best friend, and comes to appreciate his reassignment away from London.
But The World’s End doesn’t function the way the other two did, and I don’t think it wants to. It’s an ending. It’s The End. Accordingly, Gary King doesn’t change, growing toward others in order to better fit into society. If anything, he remains resolutely maverick the entire film, as society changes around him. And if he is happier and healthier by the film’s end, it’s because he finds himself in a very different world.
6. It may be because I’m currently reading a lot of medieval English poetry, but I see The World’s End as a deliberate evocation of Anglo-Saxon poems like “The Wanderer.” Its mood is deliberately somber, melancholic—elegiac. It’s genuinely concerned with a theme that echoes through the ages: “Where did the past go?”
Again, the film isn’t coy about any of this—it references King Arthur, for instance, and its setting descends from and fetishizes the medieval. What prevents our reading the film as a medieval tale, however, is how easy it is to dismiss King as a serious character. The movie doesn’t paper over the fact that he’s an egotistical, embarrassing drunk, a crazy boozehound with delusions of grandeur who annoys his friends just as much as he amuses them.
But what if, at the same time, King is something more than that?
7. King—aided in part by drinking—sees a different world than everyone else does. For him, a beer named “Crowning Glory” really is a crowning glory.
Consider also his periodic bouts of archaic speech—when he spouts off with lines like, “Let battle commence!” or, “The once and future king has returned!” Or:
Tonight, we will be partaking of a liquid repast, as we wind our way up the golden mile commencing with an inaugural tankard in the first post, then on to the old familiar, the good companion, the trusty servant, the two-headed dog, the mermaid, the beehive, the king’s head, and the hole in the wall for a measure of the same—all before the last bittersweet pint in that most fateful, the world’s end. Leave a light on, good lady, for though we may return with a twinkle in our eyes, we will in truth be blind—drunk!
It’s almost as though King is living in a different time from everyone else—not just 1990, but 990. (Unless I misheard him, he even refers to the year as such at one point.)
8. Interplay between metaphorical and literal meanings are a central concern of the film. The title alone means at least three things:
- It’s the name of the final pub on the crawl.
- As already noted, it identifies King’s driving ambition in life: “I don’t want to be sober!”
- It predicts the direction the film will ultimately take: this is a film concerned with the end of the world.
Note how at the start of the film, the literal meaning is the pub’s name, which is only metaphorically named after the apocalypse. However, by the movie’s end, the metaphorical meaning supplants the original literal one (which burns away).
We might also say that the film’s title is ultimately predictive. So, too, is King’s speech. During the car ride to Newton Haven, he says (paraphrase), “There should have been Five Musketeers. That way, two could’ve died, and there’d still be three left.” This of course comes to pass. (Has the King decreed it?) Later, when the gang pauses on the road overlooking Newton Haven, King instructs everyone to “gaze upon it in its original colors, for tonight we paint the town red.” Well—see the ending!
9. We get an even strong example of King’s visionary speech in his opening narration, which lays out the entire film. Everything that King says there describes not only what happened in 1990, but predicts everything that will happen in 2013. I don’t have a copy of the narration at hand, but I can point to a few examples:
- The companions fall off the crawl in the same order they did the first time around (only now they’re replaced by blanks).
- During the first crawl, when the gang got to the smokehouse, they smoked pot, after which everyone grew paranoid. This time, when they reach the smokehouse, they grow afraid of one another, no longer certain who’s human.
- The three surviving companions finally reach the hill overlooking Newton Haven to witness a new sunrise.
10. This is a movie much concerned with how words and expressions achieve new meanings. Recall the history of the expression “Let’s boo-boo”:
Gary King: “Drink up. Let’s Boo-Boo.”
Steven Prince: “‘Boo-Boo’? What is that?”
Gary King: “You remember “Let’s Boo-Boo”. You know, from Mr. Shephard’s classroom, it said on the wall “Exit, Pursued by a Bear”, you know, from that Shakespeare play?”
Steven Prince: “A Winter’s Tale.”
Gary King: “Yeah. What was it called?”
Steven Prince: “A Winter’s Tale.”
Gary King: “That’s it. And if we needed to make a quick getaway, we’d say: ‘Exit, Pursued by a Bear’. And then, it was: ‘Exit, Pursued by Yogi Bear’. And then, it was just: ‘Let’s Yogi and Boo-Boo’. And then: ‘Let’s Boo-Boo’.”
Steven Prince: “So you’re saying we should go?”
Gary King: “Yeah. Shitty, here. Isn’t it?”
11. Accordingly, we would do well to pay close attention to all signs, spoken and visual. Just like in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, there’s a tonne of printed matter on display, and all of it comments on the action. The figures, for instance, in the school disco poster (glimpsed here and there in the background and foreground) have glowing blue eyes. Meanwhile, the pubs (all of which have signs) predict what will happen at each one:
- The gang reunites with Sam at the Old Familiar;
- they see crazy old Basil at the Famous Cock
- they encounter slaves of the Network at the Trusty Servant;
- they’re tempted by a trio of sirens at the Mermaid;
- King sends Sam away following that;
- Steven drives a car through the wall at the Hole in the Wall;
The film trades constantly in polysemy, especially by means of punning (which is another reason why it requires multiple viewings).
For example, when our heroes first arrive in Newton Haven, their slow-motion swagger down the street is set to Suede’s “So Young.” At first I thought this a wholly ironic moment. But that sequence also gives us our first glimpse of Newton Haven’s eerily impassive inhabitants, who are also out strolling. And as the Suede song continues, Brett Anderson implores:
We’re so young and so gone, let’s chase the dragon from our home!
Once again, the language is predictive.
Another example: when our heroes’ cell phones stop working, one of them exclaims, “It must be the network!” He’s right, but he doesn’t know how. (Nor do we, on a first viewing.)
Along similar lines, words and phrases and jokes keep recurring throughout the film, constantly shifting meaning. At one point Andy complains that King wants his friends along to serve as enablers (a words King then mocks). The Network, later on, reuses the word: “We’re here to enable your full potential.” (It also describes what it’s doing to Earth as “an intervention.”)
12. This reuse of language, the continual infusing it with new meanings, syncs up nicely with another formal aspect of the film: the tension between stasis and change, epitomized by return.
The film begins with King’s desire to return home, to return to the past, to return to his youth. This turns out to be an old theme: the return of the King. But although he’s the most obvious example, King isn’t the only one who wants to remain in the past. As the film progresses, we see that, despite their outward signs of adulthood, the other principal characters haven’t grown up all that much. Steven, for instance, is preoccupied with keeping fit, and quite proud of the fact that he’s dating his 26-year-old fitness instructor. Meanwhile, he’s still in love with Sam, the woman he loved as a teenager. Similarly, Peter remains a coward, working at his dad’s new car lot, hiding from his wife and children behind the morning paper the same way he once hid from bullies in the toilets. And Andy has spent the past 19 years unable to forgive King for an accident he instigated, since which time Andy has been teetotal.
The difference is that those other men, unlike Andy, have masked their stunted growth with outward signs of adulthood and maturity: houses, spouses, children, jobs. Laser surgery, suits. … We might recall here the lament offered by the narrator of Donald Barthelme’s story “Me and Miss Mandible“:
I believed that because I had obtained a wife who was made up of wife-signs (beauty, charm, softness, perfume, cookery) I had found love. Brenda, reading the same signs that have now misled Miss Mandible and Sue Ann Brownly, felt she had been promised that she would never be bored again.
Even the Network turns out to be obsessed with preserving the past. Its blanks can never be truly defeated, since they return ad infinitum, rejuvenated, with no sign that their body parts were severed or smashed.
King, by way of contrast, refuses to hide his innermost desires; he remains decked out in a trench coat and a Sisters of Mercy tee. “You haven’t changed a bit,” the others tell him. “But I still like the Sisters of mercy,” he protests. Viewed in this way, he’s the only honest one in the lot.
But that’s what makes one a king. One is born to royalty, and cannot stop being such.
13. Note, however, that the film’s structure, while cyclical, is not entirely repetitive, because its components change each time they recur. Even King understands this: he returns to Newton Haven in order to change things—to finish the failed pub crawl. Meanwhile, others comment on how the town, while in some ways the same, is also different. And while key story events recur—King’s attempt to shag Sam in the loo, the appearance of “the marmalade sandwich,” King’s punch at a bathroom wall—it all goes down differently this time.
The film’s larger patterns of repetition function the same way. The film closes similarly to how it began: with a narrator sitting in a circle, telling others what happened on one fateful night. But in the end, it’s a different narrator, a different circle, and a very different recounting of what actually happened.
14. Initially, I didn’t understand why The World’s End seemed to be cribbing at times from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. King’s desperate attempt to reach the final pub, I thought, recalled Shaun and his friends’ attempt to reach the Winchester. The conspiracy of Newton Haven was a tad too similar to the sinister plot lurking at the heart of Hot Fuzz. And I thought that those retreads made The World’s End the weakest of the bunch. But now I can see that the repetitions are deliberate, and essential to the film’s (and the trilogy’s) design.
A case in point. Pierce Brosnan’s character, the patronizing school teacher Guy Shephard, might seem at first like just another version of Timothy Dalton’s smarmy Simon Skinner. And . . . he is, and he’s meant to be. Just think about it for a second. What does the Network do? Well, it replaces you with a younger version of yourself. And what famous character did Brosnan follow Dalton in portraying?
. . . That is how clever Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg are. They are indeed reworking material from the earlier films—and from other earlier films—but they are repurposing it.
15. Along similar lines, we are no doubt meant to detect in The World’s End echoes of other works:
- The Network and its blanks recall Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos.
- There are overt references to Casablanca and Aliens.
- Peter’s attack on the bully with a tree branch is a clear reference to the “damn good thrashing” that John Cleese gave his stalled car in Fawlty Towers.
- The ending around the campfire hints at the ending of Mad Max 2.
- And, of course, the film ends with a loving nod toward Star Wars (the bartender won’t serve robots).
This aspect of the film—what we might call its nostalgia—would prove problematic if we read the film as a critique of not growing up. But I hope that I’ve been able to show here how the film is not simply saying that—or not only saying that.
16. Certainly King is not an ideal protagonist—in fact, he’s pretty pathetic, for the most part, for all the reasons already detailed. Watching him fumble around, I think we find ourselves hoping he really will grow up and join society (as others don’t refrain from advising him).
But at the same time, the film doesn’t portray adulthood as being that great. None of King’s childhood friends have gone on to particularly wonderful lives—they’re mostly sad sacks who’ve resigned themselves to their fates (and who are also less mature than they initially appear). As Andy finally concedes to Gary, “It’s not all that perfect.”
The Network further complicates our notion of progress. Speaking in corporate euphemisms and using simplified infographics, it represents a parody of today’s business world, where progress amounts to Starbucking. The Network envisions progress as conformity, removing any markers of individuality and experience. (Meanwhile, our heroes prove that they’re still human by displaying their battle scars.)
17. But is the answer to the Network simply individualism? I don’t think so. For one thing, we’ve already seen that Gary King’s hedonistic assertion of self isn’t all that wonderful. The answer has to lie somewhere else.
This is where we can try bringing together the film’s structure with its detailed critique of the self. Gary King doesn’t want to play by the modern’s world’s rules. But at the same time, he isn’t just playing by his own. He abides by a code: the code of companionship, of loyalty. His morality is arguably a medieval concept: the group identity of the band. Without his fellows, he’s lost—the archetypal melancholy wanderer of Anglo-Saxon poetry. But once everyone’s been reassembled—”Even Andy?” “Of course Andy!”—then King has a purpose, as does everyone else.
King, in other words, is not entirely selfish, not entirely concerned with what he himself wants. Instead, his preoccupation is with the group. Each time he’s asked Just what is it that you want to do?”, he quotes the intro to Primal Scream’s “Loaded,” itself a sample of from the 1960s biker film The Wild Angels:
We wanna be free
We wanna be free to do what we wanna do
And we wanna get loaded
And we wanna have a good time
That’s what we’re gonna do
(No way baby lets go)
We’re gonna have a good time
We’re gonna have a party [emphases mine]
King is using the royal we, and speaking for all of his companions (his party).
18. The Network is also a group, but it’s a modern, bureaucratic group, in which every member is anonymous and disposable. (Not for nothing does Brosnan’s Guy Shephard lay out the situation at the Beehive.)
The World’s End, then, is an attack on the modern world, and a model of adulthood that necessitates replacing authentic youthful companions with corporate ones—friendships born out of career advancement, and the outward signs of progress, rather than genuinely liking someone, and therefore protecting them.
19. While the film doesn’t condone drunkenness as a solution, it also complicates what it means to be sober. When King first gathers up his friends, they are awkward, stiff—even hostile. Their politeness toward one another is the politeness of networking (they even exchange business cards, not unlike Patrick Bateman and his colleagues). But as the crawl progresses, everyone loosens up, becomes jovial—more likeable.
20. So if the film is an elegy for lost time (and it is—as King puts it, “It never got better than that night!”), then it’s an elegy for the authenticity of childhood.
King doesn’t want to sober up, and that is indeed sad. There’s something pathetic about the guy who’s greatest night was some drunken teenage night. But at the same time, King stands firmly opposed to the phoniness of adult life—to the pretense of appearance. That is the way in which he’s heroic: he’s the only one who calls out getting older as “a big lie.” He’s fearless in his honesty, wearing his devotion to his childhood passions proudly.
21. This is why the Network can’t seduce King. It offers him exactly what we might think he wants—“The chance to be young again, with selective memories”—but King already has that.
22. The film is open in its fear of aging. Newton Haven’s gang of five taciturn youths obviously represent replacements for King and company. Elsewhere, characters and places are bought out, Starbucked, replaced by the Network. The Network also reveals that it’s behind the past two decades of technological progress—and I think we’re meant to think of planned obsolescence essential to that technology (or at least the business model that’s driving it).
23. King’s final response to the Network is to behead his would-be usurper: “There’s only one Gary King!” Following this, he is addressed by the Network as “Gary King of the Humans”—he’s finally recognized as majesty, and thereby becomes entitled to speak for everyone (which he does).
24. The end of the film sees the arrival of a second Dark Age—not necessarily a return to the past, but definitely an interruption in the Modern idea of technological progress. Time goes backward to go forward (just like King and Sam and the others do when driving away from the explosion).
25. A second Dark Age, or an Era of Authenticity Regained? It depends on how one looks at it.
This ending neatly inverts the film. At the outset, King was the man out of time, living an unsuccessful, medieval life in the modern world. But in this second Dark Age—when all humans have been left to their own devices—we see the others attempting to live modern lives in a medieval world. Oliver remains a realtor—he’s even depicted showing a house to the same couple from the beginning. Steven builds a (drafty) new house. Peter and Andy reunite with their (nuclear) families.
Only Gary King thrives in this new environment—not because he’s changed, but because the situation has. The past overtakes the present and becomes the future, the proper place for one such as him.
Given the proper sunrise, he finally finds himself free to do what he wants to do, in all his sober glory.
[Update 1: If you liked this post, check out all my cinema writing!]
[Update 2: I corrected Gary King’s speech in point 7, thanks to a comment below.]