The World’s End is a surprising movie. See, it starts out as straight comedy, with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost inverting their typical division of labor on straight versus funny. And Pegg is absolutely brilliant playing a forty year old obnoxious alcoholic burnout. But as the movie moves towards the absurd, with the reveal of aliens, the deterioration into flights and fights, the film also ramps up the pathos.
The appeal of genre movies comes not just from a love of the gilded wrapping, the rocket ships and broadswords, the aliens and monsters, but because of how that level of the story can act as a metaphor for other emotional triggers. And so pod people are scary not just in a literal reading of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but become forces of terror when a cultural context of paranoia is poured like rocket fuel into a camp fire.
The World’s End takes four strands that intertwine with each other. At a structural level, it’s an alien invasion movie that riffs on the old standard of pod people and the Stepford Wives. On a metaphor level, it’s deftly playing those themes against the creeping generic chain stores and franchises, the beige sameness annihilating places that used to be unique. And then it runs a third strand on top of that, making it a classic Edgar Wright comedy to top it off. So far so good, we’re looking at Shaun of the Dead still.
But what takes the film over the top, and makes it a much better movie than Shaun of the Dead is the layering of a fourth strand into that rope. It takes a very sad and dark story about addiction, the betrayal of friends, and being unable to grow up and let go of the glory days of eighteen, and then wraps that around the comedy and pod people set up. And so the pod people take on a second more melancholy meaning: they do not change. And so even while they represent this gentrified destruction of the past from one point of view, they also provide an opposite foil for Pegg’s character: they are the unchanging eternal youth that has been both his aspiration and the destruction of his adult life.
And the ending of this film does not shy away from this. Most movies that aspire to comedy overlaid on genre tend to shy away in the final act. There is a solution that essentially allows the sitcom reset to happen. Whatever bad happened gets wiped away. Remember the beautiful final scene of Shaun of the Dead in which Shaun is caring for Nick Frost’s zombiefied character? The World’s End takes that same melancholy, adds a fully formed epilogue based on the same logic of consequence, and in retrospect the tendrils leading up to that consequence twine back through the entire movie.
The nuance of the story sneaks up on you. The film starts as a straight comedy, and maintains it all the way up until the first reveal of the aliens. The comedy continues throughout to be sure, it’s a damned funny movie right until the end, but it’s only after the film has finished that you start to appreciate that the darkness of the film really is present from the beginning. It’s just that Wright throws jokes at you so that you don’t realize that you’re watching a tragedy until the final act.
The bottom line is that this movie is fantastic. It is a combination of funny and tragic in a way that reminds me of what might be the result if Joss Whedon tried his hand at making a comedy instead of an adventure.
I expected a quality entertaining movie given the cast and director. It never occurred to me that it would also be something to make one ponder.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.