Filmmakers these days seem hell-bent on destroying the world. Either the planet faces obliteration or the future is portrayed as a crummy place where half of humanity is dead and all functioning technology is trying to kill us. Most of these films have come to nothing, so it is exciting to report that writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have taken this apocalyptic idea and made a movie that is entertaining, touching and very funny.
Their offering is “The World’s End,” which like their previous efforts “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” begins as a good-natured pub comedy about a couple of blokes facing eminent disaster, but not letting it get in the way of having a pint at their favorite watering hole. The previous films have been straight-forward comedies, but “The World’s End” is a little deeper. The characters are better defined and their personal idiosyncrasies make them pathetic and somewhat lovable.
The story centers on Gary King (Pegg), an irresponsible beer-swilling jerk who fancies himself a party animal and a genuine prince among men. Back in 1990, when he was 18, Gary and his best mates from school had the greatest night of their lives, pulling off something called “The Golden Mile,” a one-night pub-hopping excursion in which they attempted to have 12 pints of beer each in 12 legendary pubs in their hometown of Newton Haven. Yet, they failed to reach the final pub, a grand old tavern known as The World’s End. Nearly a quarter-of-a-century has passed since that glorious night. The mates have moved on to marriage, kids and successful careers, but Gary maintains a permanent state of arrested development.
Now, Gary is an irresponsible albatross teetering on the edge of 40 who has refused to grow up. He still drives the same car, wears the same clothes, listens to the same cassette tapes, and still holds on to the same foolish dreams that have always held him back. If you could buy shares of immaturity on the stock exchange, Gary would be a billionaire.
Gary is determined to finish The Golden Mile by getting the boys back together. They include Peter Page (Eddie Marsan), Oliver “O-Man” Chamberlain (Martin Freeman), Steven Prince (Paddy Considine), and Andy Knightley (Nick Frost). Despite their repeated refusal to get involved, they eventually give in when a wave of nostalgia convinces them that it might be nice to see the old gang again. They’re happy to see one another but they want nothing to do with Gary’s Golden Mile – especially Andy who hasn’t had a drink in 16 years (at the pub he orders tap water).
The rest of the story is difficult to discuss while remaining spoiler free, so if you’re inclined to see the film fresh, read no further.
What is amazing is that up until this point, the movie gives no indication of what is to come in the second half. The plot kicks into gear when it takes a hard right turn and turns into an end-of-the-world special effects comedy on par with “Ghostbusters” or “Men in Black” (It’s that good). What is amazing is that Nick Frost and Simon Pegg don’t set the movie up to be a special effects comedy. The plot backs into the supernatural half of the story so it comes as a shock as much to us as it does to the characters. What’s interesting is that as the group fight for their lives, they never lose their individuality. The second half of the movie basically turns into an Invasion of the Body Snatchers plot if it were directed by John Carpenter. To our surprise, the sci-fi plot never gets bored with itself, nor does it go on autopilot. Nor does the screenplay get bored with the characters. It is wise to set up these guys before the film’s left turn. That way we care about what happens to them and we care about what they learn.
The movie does not go where we expect. That’s refreshing at a time when most movies are dead-set on giving us our money’s worth and never taking chances. Director Edgar Wright loves making movies and here he isn’t afraid to linger over long shots of the boy’s favorite drink being poured into a glass. He isn’t afraid to let his film be quiet and thoughtful even in the middle of an action scene. And he isn’t afraid to go for broke when it comes to throw-away lines. How many movies like this take time out for a perfectly observed one-liner about a Crazy Straw?