The establishing forty-five minutes or so of The World’s End perpetuate an unpleasant cinematic trend that’s unfortunately all too common nowadays, namely taking innately dramatic material and forcing it into being funny. The central character is a man named Gary King (Simon Pegg), who, despite being forty years old, continues to live his life with the same reckless abandon of a rebellious teenager. He remembers with intense longing the summer of 1990, when he and his four best friends celebrated the end of school by going on a one-night pub crawl through their sleepy U.K. hometown of Newton Haven; although they achieved their goal of getting thoroughly wasted, they fell short of visiting all twelve pubs in their town, the last of which supplies the film with its title. In Gary’s mind, this was the best night of his life. He now wants to relive his past by going on that crawl again, this time with greater determination to drink at all twelve pubs.
The more we get to know Gary, the more obvious it becomes that he’s a sad case – a man whose hedonism masks, rather poorly, a desperate attempt at clinging to his youth. Unlike his friends, who have gone on to build lives for themselves in one form or another, he has no prospects, no sense of responsibility, and worst of all, no self-respect. If he were in his twenties, one would say that he simply doesn’t want to grow up. But he’s in his forties, which tells me that he’s incapable of growing up; rather than a relationship, a job, or even a purpose, all he has are his memories of his teenage years, none of which mature people would willingly choose to remember. He’s a pathetic soul, and yet director Edgar Wright, who co-wrote the film with Pegg, believes that he’s a comedic figure, someone who will deliver a vulgar line for a cheap laugh. I think the filmmakers had their priorities all mixed up. Audiences need to empathize with this character, not laugh at him.
But confusion over the emotional tone is only part of why The World’s End doesn’t work. The film begins as a rather irreverent character study; having just finished a group therapy session in London, Gary gathers his four friends – Andrew (Nick Frost), Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (Martin Freeman), and Steven (Paddy Considine) – and takes them back to Newton Haven in a shoddy-looking sedan with the hope of giving the pub crawl another try. And so they do, even though Andrew has abstained from alcohol ever since an event he hasn’t quite forgiven Gary for. But then, without any warning, the film transitions into a comedic science fiction thriller, one that crosses elements of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with The Stepford Wives. The population of Newton Haven, the men soon discover, has been replaced with robotic clones, which are not only lubricated within by a blue goo but also have the ability to repair themselves after being brutally beaten with their own detached limbs.
What happened to the real population? Why have they been replaced by robots? Where did the robots come from? The answers to all of the above are given, although at no point did anyone creatively involved with the film stop to notice that Gary’s story and the story of the robot clones have absolutely nothing to do with one another and at no point seamlessly converge. The astounding thing is that, even though it’s apparent that Gary and his friends are in danger, they still feel it necessary to continue their pub crawl and see it through to the end. Call me crazy, but if you were being pursued by a hive-minded mob of robots, who, like the Borg of Star Trek, have every intention of assimilating you into their collective against your will, would your first thought be to make it to the next pub on your list? I know films like this require a great deal of suspension of disbelief, but without some grounding in reality, there’s no way an audience can invest in it.
There are select scenes between Pegg and Frost so sincere and emotionally raw that one wonders if they were copied and pasted from the screenplay of a compelling drama, one that explores in painful detail the heartbreaking complexities of friendship. Frost’s character, Andrew, harbors deep bitterness towards Gary, not only for something he caused in the past, but also for the fact that he swooped back into the lives of his former friends without any regard for their feelings. Were there moments in the writing process when Pegg and Wright forgot that their movie was intended to be a comedy? Did they not realize that the transitions from laughter to tears were anything but smooth? The more serious scenes are so successful that it only reinforces my belief that the entire film – at least, the parts that didn’t involve the robots – should have been treated as a drama.
In the spirit of fairness, I must admit that select scenes and even more select lines are very funny. To describe them in this review would only do you a disservice; you should laugh at them while you’re sitting in the theater. The problem lies not with those individual moments. The problem with The World’s End is actually twofold: (1) The filmmakers couldn’t find a way to balance the comedy with the drama, and this will become more apparent when Gary accidentally reveals something about himself near the end; (2) there’s no clear connection between the story of Gary and his friends (which includes an underutilized Rosamund Pike) and the story of the Newton Haven robots. The two genres are in fact so disparate, it’s almost as if sections from two entirely different screenplays were cut and pasted together. Why anyone involved thought the end result would be successful, I have no idea.
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