The world’s end comes, or gets averted, about once every two weeks. Apocalyptic fatalism is like one of the n billion common, everyday, household products that could potentially give you cancer; you can’t get away from it, like you couldn’t get away from paranoia in the late 1960s. We’re a bit more self-actuated these days—we like to delude ourselves into thinking that gun ownership or CrossFit training will save us from global warming—but we keep superheroes in our back pocket, just in case. If there are means by which we can hinder mass suicide, and I think there are, they aren’t “cinematic”; and if something can’t be reduced to a soundbite, a trailer, or a click, then it can scarcely be said to exist. Pop culture aims to herp-derp us out of existence. But if end-times tropes are to be critiqued strictly as tropes, there are few people better equipped to do so than Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost. I sadly missed the Apatowpocalypse, in This is the End, but The World’s End really delivers the cynicism that doomsday consumerism deserves. It’s not the trio’s best, but it is their most caustic.
A lot of filmmakers try to mingle Larry David-style social crabbing with surreal, genre-satire waggery, but Wright is head-and-shoulders above the rest—at least above the lot that specializes in comedy. His style is like MENSA Michael Bay, with American energy and British literalism; things pop in and out of the frame like they do in old Polanski, Spielberg, Bogdonavich, Welles. Because they are made to conspire with the visuals, the Tarantinoid aperçus lose their smugness in the rush, but sneak back and snowball in the end. Wright’s movies are built. I have little doubt that much of the writer’s-room credit goes to Frost and Pegg (the latter shares screenplay credit with the director); but without Wright, the material doesn’t sing. Perhaps he gets his edge from not treating the surreal casually when his peers are still contriving to show off their hipster blasé. Pegg’s Gary King treats extraterrestrial intelligence as N.B.D. in The World’s End, but his jadedness sets him apart from his friends. There’s both a satiric point and character logic to fortify the joke: Gary’s totally misspent whatever fucks he had to give.
Actually, the movie wouldn’t work if Gary weren’t so single-minded and delusive. As it was in The Descendants, his surname is a royal joke—all claims to glory are deep in the past. Gary’s is in a pub crawl through his provincial hometown that ended prematurely when he was in high school; his posse never made it to its final destination, a bar called The World’s End. He cons the gang back together, which, with the exception of his black-duster-clad self, is homogeneously composed of London professionals. Most wary of (and wounded by) his chicanery is Andy (Frost)—a Teddy bear in a tie. In Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the previous installations of the Frost / Wright / Pegg “Cornetto Trilogy,” Pegg played the straight man to Frost’s village-idiot lumpkin, so the turnaround is refreshing without violating the team dynamic. The warmth and potential that Andy’s nostalgia projects onto his old hero prevents the audience from taking Pegg’s beautifully heartless performance at face value. I don’t know how much of this comes from the two being besties in real life; but it makes perfect sense that, after the world has ended, it’s Andy at the campfire in Mad Max garb captivating the youngins with tales of Gary. The unrepentant alcoholic is the successful suit’s muse—his personal Peter Pan. Gary graduated with Andy and yet, despite his near global failure as a human being, succeeded in never-never growing up. Though they squeeze in some growing pains for Gary, it’s Andy who ultimately represents the filmmakers’ point of view—reluctant maturity.