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Thomas Wolfe was wrong: You can go home again. Just don’t be surprised if home is now populated by blue-blooded robots.
In The World’s End, director Edgar Wright examines the age-old instinct to run back to childhood whenever life as an adult gets too tough. But true to form, Wright’s tale about the seduction and danger of nostalgia comes paired with a higher concept: a secret robot invasion that only a bunch of bumbling drunkards can thwart.
The World’s End centers on Gary King (Simon Pegg), once the charismatic ne’er-do-wrong leader of his childhood social circle, now little more than a drugged-up loser with both eyes on the past. He gets the brilliant idea to bring his four long-lost friends together to reattempt a past failure: the Golden Mile, an epic 12-pub bar crawl across small-town Newton Haven. Gary meets and overcomes mild resistance from old pals Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Steven (Paddy Considine), but faces a harder sell to his one-time best friend Andrew (Nick Frost), who no longer drinks and wants nothing to do with Gary after a shared accident some years earlier.
After some convincing, Andrew joins the group, and the boys are back in town. But Newton Haven is not the place they remember. The distinct pubs and familiar patrons of the Golden Mile are monotonous in detail and flavor, almost as if mindless drones have replaced the town’s population. Funny story about that …
The truth is, not much more needs to be said about The World’s End. In fact, the less said, the better, so as to avoid some clever twists and turns with the characters and plotline. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fans will find a lot to love here: the familiar and fantastic dynamic between Pegg and Frost, a roundup of talented actors in the supporting cast, countless pop-culture Easter eggs, and some incredibly inventive action and creature design. With all of those ingredients in the same blender, Wright can’t possibly go wrong.
But perhaps that’s the one critique to level at World’s End. The movie is almost too familiar. The Pegg-Frost bromance is a storied one, thanks not just to Shaun and Fuzz but also Spaced and Paul. Sometimes, there’s a sense that the movie is covering old ground: fractured friendships healed through the apocalypse, broken bastards finding their true purpose against heightened adversity, using the same two actors who’ve played versions of these characters over and over again. Is there any new territory left to cover using these familiar figures?
Ultimately, that’s a lot of what The World’s End is about — the trappings of nostalgia. Not that there’s anything wrong with continuing childhood passions and pursuits, or looking back fondly on triumphs and tragedies of yesteryear. But there’s danger there, too, a sense that one can’t truly move forward if he or she is always looking back. Gary and friends’ beer-fueled glory days are not a universally relatable experience, but their longing for a simpler time is. That concept — the dangers of clinging to the past, as well as the upsides — works so well in The World’s End precisely because the Wright-Pegg-Frost team is so well-worn and familiar, not just with each other, but with the audience. It’s an instantly recognizable way of cutting to truths that everyone faces at some point in their life.
Pegg and Frost are the core of The World’s End cast, but they’re surrounded by extraordinary talent that pushes the story and the message forward. Considine is the standout as Steven, drunk and mournful of a long-lost love, ready to give up everything for a second chance at the girl of his dreams. Freeman and Marsan are great and goofy as Oliver and Peter, the group’s beta-males. Rosamund Pike delivers a solid turn as Oliver’s sister Sam, the object of Gary’s lust, even if she’s a bit underused. And then there’s the matter of the uncredited cast members — other than “amazing,” mum’s the word on those folks.
Character aside, it doesn’t hurt that Wright knows how to tell a human story through a super-human lens. The
robots Blanks of The World’s End are a fantastic addition to 2013’s many movie monsters and menaces, with eyes and mouths aglow, their body-parts like limbs on an action figure — yet another wink and nod to the toy-smashing days of long ago. The story behind the Blanks is a fun one, too, leading to what just might be the best ending in the entire Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy.
Indeed, The World’s End is a fitting conclusion to that saga, a worthy successor to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. It’s a nostalgia-fueled cautionary tale about nostalgia, a welcome reminder that familiarity can inspire greatness, but it can also lead to disaster. If (and when) Wright, Pegg and Frost reunite for another film down the line, they would be wise to remember the message of their latest effort.
The World’s End opens Friday.