The Review: Remember a time when British comedy films either had three or four Pythons in them or Richard Curtis’ name on the front of the script? That is, if you were lucky and you weren’t watching yet another tired attempt to extend the Carry On franchise past its normal lifespan. British comedy was alive and thriving on TV, and covering every demographic, but it wasn’t until Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg made the transition from their cult TV hit Spaced to their cult film hit Shaun Of The Dead that successfully combined a host of geeky film references with a strong plot and a parade of familiar faces. They returned three years later with Hot Fuzz, and replaced the world cult with the word massive, finishing in the top 10 of the year for the UK. Wright is headed to the Marvel cinematic universe and Pegg now has roles two major Hollywood franchises and the likes of J.J. Abrams and Tom Cruise on speed dial. But ever since Hot Fuzz, they’d been promising a third entry in their loose trilogy, and The World’s End now provides the answer as to whether it was worth a six year wait.
Except closer examination reveals that the similarities between the three films run very deep. Each is bolted to a high concept (Romero zombie homage, buddy cop action film, and the sci-fi trappings of The World’s End) and examines a different core relationship dynamic: the relationship breakup of Shaun and the father / son conflict of Fuzz give way to the forgotten childhood friendships and the difficulties of raking up the past. But each also holds up a reflection to modern British life, from the struggles against the encroaching apathy of the
youth of today zombie hordes to the pressures of conformity and the sheltered attitudes of middle England prevalent in Sandford. The World’s End gives us Newton Haven, and when five school friends (Pegg, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine and Martin Freeman) return to attempt to finish an epic pub crawl from their youth, the nature of their friendships and their willingness to accept change are called into question. Marsan still works for his father, Considine is dating a woman fifteen years his junior and Frost is clinging to the end of a failing marriage, but it’s Pegg’s Gary KIng who seems to have been trapped in a time warp. When they stumble across Newton Haven’s dark secrets, the seeming alienation of the town’s inhabitants and the homogenisation of its finest watering holes turn out to be just a metaphor for what’s really troubling the town, but even that doesn’t get in the way of the Pegg / Frost dynamic.
Each of the films in this decade-long triptych have concentric circles of the finest of British acting. On the periphery here are cameos from old familiar faces such as Rafe Spall and Mark Heap. Peeling away at the layers sees stronger supporting turns from the likes of Reese Shearsmith and David Bradley, before the core ensemble (which also includes Rosamund Pike as the sister of one and the object of teenage affection of two others), but as with their predecessors the key relationship is between Pegg and Frost. Where they have looked to vary things up is in the nature of that relationship, and here Frost is the straight man to Pegg’s unlovable loser. Neither Pegg nor Wright seems afraid to make Gary King anything other than outwardly lazy and contemptible, the friends who don’t seem to suffer fools gladly at least willing to suffer this one out of a sense of misplaced loyalty, but the drawback is in losing any one of the main characters to really root for when the trouble comes. The Shaun / Ed and Nicholas / Danny pairings from earlier films may have had their drawbacks, but there was a warmth to their double acts that’s deliberately absent here and it inevitably makes the viewer have to work harder to engage with the group. It also doesn’t help that the second layer of Freeman, Marsan, Pike and Considine feel more one dimensional than they have in previous efforts; you long for a Dylan Moran or a Timothy Dalton to really energise proceedings.
So that’s the similarities covered, and indeed thematically and tonally The World’s End does feel part of a trilogy, but there are differences too, not just in the core relationship but in the nature of the story itself. Where Shaun is a creeping dread and Hot Fuzz a gradual escalation, The World’s End pivots on a scene in a gents toilets and instantly goes from five guys on a pub crawl to a pending apocalypse in a shift that may prove too sudden for some. It’s fair to say that The World’s End isn’t as funny as its predecessors either; it’s not that the jokes fall flat, rather that they’re sidelined in favour of a darker tone and a more sombre approach which once again prioritises story over everything else. The other marked difference is that the references to the source material feel less prominent – possibly due to Wright and Pegg feeling slightly less confident in, or in love with, the genre than they did with zombies or buddy cop movies – and if you can put aside the need for big belly laughs, the story works well. It’s still littered with references to itself, which may prove a distraction on first viewing (when you hear the young pub crawl described in the prologue, it’s impossible not to want to look for the references later in the film, but it’s best to pick up these aspects on later viewings) and the sheer level of detail may be a little overwhelming. But The World’s End is a fitting trilogy capper, and it’s not afraid to explore some different territory in a familiar manner. If you’re prepared to adjust your expectations as you follow Wright, Pegg and Frost to the end of the world, then your faith should be reasonably rewarded.
Why see it at the cinema: So much going on in terms of details that the cinema screen is your best option to catch it all. There’s also half a dozen big laughs and plenty of smaller titters to keep you entertained. But the close choreography of the fights and the sheer kinetic energy that Edgar Wright seems to have carried over from Scott Pilgrim at those moments will also best be absorbed on a larger canvas.
What about the rating: Rated 15 for very strong language and strong sex references. Edgar Wright’s exchange with the BBFC about that language gives a fascinating insight into the modern relationship between film maker and film judger.
My cinema experience: I’ve so far managed to see The World’s End two and a half times at the cinema, oddly a feat that I also managed to perform on both Star Trek (2009) and Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer (don’t ask). The first one and a half times were both at Friday night late shows at the Cineworld in Cambridge, and both were very sparsely attended and moderately received, my early departure from the second viewing enforced when Gary jumps off a roof in order to pick up Mrs Evangelist from work. A third viewing, this time on an early evening Friday showing, confirmed that people are more inclined to laugh when in large crowds.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: Great comedy double acts of the cinema used to be common, from Laurel and Hardy to Abbott and Costello, from Hope and Crosby to Prior and Wilder, but nowadays we have to put up with the likes of the Wayans brothers or Harold and Kumar. Also, Laurel and Hardy aside, there’s never really been a British pairing to compare; at least until the 21st century, when the unlikely geek stylings of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have been brought together on worldwide cult hits including Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz. With a Spielberg movie (admittedly a motion capture one) also in the can, the pair have taken off the Edgar Wright-shaped stabilisers and have written and are starring in their latest adventure, this time with Greg “Superbad” Mottola behind the camera. The pair gained inspiration from their time spent hawking their various other wares at events like Comic-Con, so this sees them start at that very event and get drawn into a road trip with a small grey friend they inadvertently pick up along the way.
It’s testament to how far special effects have come that Paul is a fully realised and integrated character in the story. Even ten years ago, he’d have either been some form of puppet or Muppet with possibly the occasional CG shot and a midget running around in the costume, filmed from a distance, but he gets plenty of screen time and he’s far and away the best thing in the film, thankfully, not only for the remarkably conveyed emotions in his well animated face but also for Seth Rogen’s stellar voice work. It’s also fair to say that Paul gets the vast majority of the best lines, almost as if he’s wandered in from a much funnier movie. His story, as such, is fairly linear but it does take an occasional detour, and along the way manages to pick up additional stragglers, including Kirsten Wiig’s one-eyed Christian and a succession of shady government characters including Jason Bateman and Bill Hader trying to capture Paul before he can reach his goal.
It’s a stellar supporting cast, many of whom get reduced to barely cameos, and some of them do serve to take you out of the story, if only briefly. However, they pretty much all manage to make an impact of some sort, which leaves only two characters who struggle to truly engage, which strangely are Graham and Clive, a.k.a. Pegg and Frost. They have somehow not recaptured the chemistry of their Wright collaborations and end up both playing the straight man in the comedy double act to Paul’s broader laughs. Consequently the movie is as flat as a pancake until Paul arrives, and also nearly gets derailed with the ham-fisted subplot around Kirsten Wiig’s beliefs. While the kinetic energy that Edgar Wright brings might have been too much for this more casual road movie, there’s still a lack of drama or tension at many points in Greg Mottola’s more restrained direction and the eventual outcomes are all signposted a mile off.
That’s not to say there’s not a lot to enjoy, because there is. As well as the titular alien lighting up the screen, Wigg, Bateman and Hader all fill out their roles well and Sigourney Weaver relishes her role as the boss trying to stop Paul’s progress. The whole movie is a love affair to Spielberg, so there’s plenty of nods, nudges and winks and even an appropriate cameo, and if you’re as geeky as the lead characters you’ll have a whale of a time spotting all of the references. Somehow the special magic of the Pegg-Wright collaborations gets missed here, as the references feel more obvious, possibly because of the setting, and drama and pathos are also somewhat lessened. Crucially, it’s just not as consistently funny as Shaun or Fuzz, and so ends up being a movie you’ll probably like rather than love, but it doesn’t stop you wondering what this comedy double have in store for us next.
Why see it at the cinema: The wide open spaces of the US of A get a good airing on the cinema screen, and the giant viewing area will allow you to take in the amazing detail of Paul’s animation at its best. There’s just about enough laughs to warrant the communal viewing experience as well.
The Score: 7/10