the world's end 1

(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: The World’s End is Edgar Wright’s best movie. By far.)

This week at the movies represents an oasis in the summer-movie desert, with the arrival of Edgar Wright’s latest film, Baby Driver. This new action film represents a slight change for Wright, who’s a) never made a film set and shot in America before and b) hasn’t been the sole writer of any of his past projects. He’s best known as the co-writer and director of the Cornetto Trilogy, comprising Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End, all genre hybrids co-starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

Now that Baby Driver is headed to theaters, there will no doubt be various (justifiable) appreciations written of Edgar Wright’s films to date; as a still-young filmmaker, he’s only now made six films (including A Fistful of Fingers, which, until recently, hadn’t been released in the United States in any form, so I’m excluding it from this essay). At the top, I want to emphasize something before I delve into the Unpopular Opinion at the core of this piece: I’m a big fan of Wright’s filmography, including the delightful, exuberant, and intense Baby Driver. Each of his films is remarkably assured and confident, hybrids that all feel singular instead of like carbon copies of their forebears.

But I feel now as I felt the moment I walked out of the theater in 2013: The World’s End isn’t just the best of the Cornetto Trilogy. It’s Edgar Wright’s best film, period.

A Character Study in Disguise

Each of Wright’s films are showcases for, among other things, his deft ability to balance genres and ideas without toppling over into self-indulgence. Shaun of the Dead is a zombie movie, but it’s also the kind of doofy romantic comedy that would become the bread-and-butter of Judd Apatow and his ilk a few years later. (Films like The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up are very funny and shrewd, but Pegg’s Shaun got to the “Well-meaning dude eventually appreciates that he has to grow up a bit so that he can remain in a relationship” plot first.) Hot Fuzz is a delicious blend of testosterone-y action movies like Point Break and cult horror like The Wicker Man. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is another high-wire act that balances romance and video-game-style action in such a way to make the stakes feel impossibly high. Baby Driver blends a car-centric heist film with a big, splashy musical romance.

Then there’s The World’s End, a film that, in its first third, is something like a modern version of The Big Chill, as a quintet of old friends reunite in their old stomping grounds to relive the glory days. The script, co-written by Wright and Pegg, tips its hand in more ways than one in the breathless opening sequence. (“Breathless” is the best word to sum up the headlong pacing in every one of Wright’s films.) The World’s End doesn’t start with a group of middle-aged men or the teenagers they were in the British hamlet of Newton Haven; it starts with just one of those men, Gary King, as he recounts those wonderful days of his youth in the middle of a support group. King, as played by Pegg, is the key to what makes this film Wright’s best; he’s the most nuanced, multi-dimensional, selfish, and notably repulsive so-called heroes in any of the Cornetto Trilogy.

This, in effect, is why The World’s End is so remarkable: it’s unrelenting in its presentation of narcissism and desperation, as filtered through its protagonist. The more we learn about Gary, and why his other friends from childhood aren’t exactly excited about reliving the Golden Mile (in which they have a pint at 12 different neighborhood pubs, climaxing with The World’s End), the more apparent it becomes that Gary’s potentially good intentions are massively disastrous, on both a personal and worldwide level.

The World’s End takes a bit longer to fully reveal itself as more than just a character study of a self-destructive alcoholic; roughly 40 minutes in, Gary and his friends realize that their old home of Newton Haven feels different for reasons aside from just “We haven’t been back in years and the neighborhood is changing the way that all neighborhoods change.” The small town has been invaded and its citizens have been replaced with lifelike androids. By the end of the film, Gary’s reaction to this discovery (as well as the drunken reactions of the only two friends he’s got left who haven’t been assimilated) brings about a literal apocalypse, making it so Gary and his buddies must traverse a blown-out world that’s gone back to the Middle Ages in the absence of electricity.

Shaun of the Dead, like The World’s End, uses a seemingly apocalyptic backdrop for a character-based story, but at least it has something closer to a happy ending. Pegg’s title character patches up his relationship with his girlfriend Liz to the point where they’ve moved in, and the zombie outbreak has been stemmed. But the final gag of that film hints to the (literal and figurative) darkness at the core of The World’s End: Shaun isn’t fully able to let go of his past, in the form of his best friend-turned-zombie Ed (Frost), who’s shackled in a backyard shed so the two buddies can play video games whenever Shaun wants. On its face, this is a sly punchline, but it teases at the idea of male characters who can’t truly move forward.

That inability to leave behind one’s childhood is at the heart of The World’s End, all the way to its final shot. By the finale, Gary has changed himself…somewhat. He now proudly enters a pub and asks for a glass of water, much in the same way that his true best friend, wild-man-turned-teetotaler Andy (Frost again, in a reverse of his earlier roles as the more strait-laced character) did when they initially re-lived the Golden Mile. Gary’s clean-shaven, too, a visual cue that makes it clear that he’s apparently battled his alcoholism and won. But he hasn’t beaten his past. Gary is flanked on both sides by the android versions of the friends he had as a youth. The adult versions of the characters (played by Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, and Eddie Marsan) are all far-flung, two of them are androids, and none of them know what happened to Gary after the night when they set the world on fire. Gary’s last moment is doubly sad because his order – five waters, one for him and four for his android compatriots – suggests he’s trying to successfully complete a new, non-alcoholic Golden Mile.

The Visual and Verbal

The multi-faceted characterization of Gary King (and, to a slightly lesser extent, his four friends, Andy, Steven, Oliver, and Peter) is a large part of why The World’s End stands slightly taller than Edgar Wright’s other films. An equally large part is that, as with Shaun, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim, and Baby Driver, the visual and verbal wit of the film is the right mix of clever and hilarious.

The pre-title scene of The World’s End doesn’t just hint at the darkly comic finale, but it carefully and cleanly lays out exactly how each sequence at each of the twelve pubs Gary and his friends revisit will unfold, with the rest of the story eventually mirroring the 1990-set prologue. Examples include the quintet visiting Michael Smiley’s Reverend Green after the first five pubs (as kids, for hash; as adults, for information on all the so-called “blanks” in Newton Haven), Freeman’s character being put “out of action” and turned into an android at the sixth pub, and Gary, Andy, and Steven sitting on a hill, overlooking their town post-Golden Mile.

The film’s deliberate choice to echo what happens in that opener is one of those rewarding elements unique to this one film of the Cornetto Trilogy. Other Wright films have similar echoes and payoffs (whether it’s Hot Fuzz quoting its action-movie predecessors or the shootouts in Baby Driver aligning perfectly with the percussion in a song playing on a soundtrack), but none quite so carefully layered.

And then, of course, there’s the wordplay. The dexterous wit that goes all the way back to the first collaboration between Pegg, Frost, and Wright, the cult TV show Spaced, is apparent as soon as Gary begins tracking down his now 40-year old friends to recruit them to travel the Golden Mile once more. The headlong pacing is reflected in dialogue-heavy scenes, like when Gary tries to revive an old catchphrase:

Gary: “Come on, let’s boo-boo.”

Steven: “Boo-boo, what is that?”

Gary: “You remember? ‘Let’s boo-boo.’ On the wall of Mr. Shepherd’s classroom, it used to say ‘Exit, Pursued by a Bear,’ y’know, from the Shakespeare play?”

Steven: “‘A Winter’s Tale’.”

Gary: “Yeah, what was it called?”

Steven: “‘A Winter’s Tale’.”

Gary: “That’s it. When we needed to make a quick getaway, we’d go ‘Exit, Pursued by a Bear,’ then ‘Exit, Pursued by Yogi Bear,’ then ‘Let’s Yogi and Boo-Boo,’ then ‘Let’s Boo-Boo.’”

Steven: “So you’re saying we should go?”

Gary: “Yeah, it’s shit here.”

Or there’s Gary’s comparison of the group to the “Five Musketeers,” which, within seconds, turns into him clarifying who wrote the Bible: “Don’t be daft, it was written by Jesus!” Even in the post-script that Andy provides to a group around a literal campfire, there’s wit, like when he tells everyone what happened to Steven and his old paramour, Sam (Rosamund Pike): “They shacked up outside of London. It’s a pretty nice shack, too.”

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