The World’s End is a success on a whole bunch of metrics. As a conclusion to the loose “Cornetto trilogy” alongside Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, it’s as well-written, acted and directed as you’d expect; Edgar Wright’s kinetic, eclectic style ensures the film is a treat for the eyes. Each of the earlier films succeeded through abundant ambition: Shaun of the Dead managed to succeed in cleverly and lovingly parodying zombie films while succeeding as a zombie film in of itself, combining social commentary with real emotion. Hot Fuzz was a more obvious mash-up of two halves, shifting from a very British small-town mystery to a balls-out action fest, embracing American action movie clichés with an enthusiastic grin. The World’s End is no different, pairing its two disparate halves – an intelligent sci-fi tale with a high-school-reunion-via-pub-crawl – together with panache.
The link between these two might seem tenuous, but one of the best things about The World’s End is the way it manages to use the alien (whatever they are, don’t call them “robots”) takeover of a small England town to comment on the alienation and nostalgia that typify the experience of returning to an abandoned childhood locale; the intermingled desires to reject what felt oppressive during teenage years combined with a desire to return to simpler times. The film is cleverly constructed throughout – not only in the way these two stories intersect, but in the way snatches of dialogue are repeated and reinterpreted throughout the film (a characteristic it shares with the rest of the trilogy, Hot Fuzz in particular).
So if the film is so successful in so many different ways, why did I walk away from the cinema feeling vaguely dissatisfied? Perhaps it’s in part due to my astronomical expectations: Hot Fuzz is one of my favourite films of all time, and Shaun isn’t far behind, so I was probably going to be unhappy with anything short of unadulterated perfection. Probably. But I think The World’s End’s failures are more substantial than an inability to match up to its forerunners. Watching a good comedy in a packed theatre should leave you out of breath from laughter, but The World’s End has plenty of wry chuckles but is bereft of belly laughs. A good action film should have you clutching your armrests in rapt excitement; The World’s End’s action is imaginatively directed with a fluidity and kineticism that never sacrifices coherency … but they’re also weightless, with no sense of danger. Of course, the film doesn’t have to be exciting and funny simultaneously, but there are too many stretches where it’s neither.
These are hardly ruinous complaints, but the critical issue is they stem from a weakness at the core of The World’s End: insubstantial characterisation (an accusation that certainly can’t be directed at either Shaun or Hot Fuzz). Of the five blokes trekking along the “golden mile” – a stretch of twelve pubs running through Newton Haven – three are one-note: Peter (Eddie Marsan) is a meek nobody who’s never really recovered from bullying in high school, Oliver (Martin Freeman) is a conceited yuppie and Steven (Paddy Considine) is defined by his simmering lust for Oliver’s sister, Sam (Rosamund Pike). Nick Frost’s character, Andrew, is given a little more shading with a last act reveal … but it doesn’t really change the fact that his primary attribute is that he’s angry. At everything.
Gary “The King” King (Simon Pegg) gets the lion’s share of the character development: he was the big man on campus in his youth (or, possibly, in his head), but has been in a state of arrested development since then; the pub crawl is his idea, a vaguely-realised attempt to reclaim former glory. He has a rich backstory, with the details gradually revealed across the course of the film (though none of them should really come as a surprise. His whole bit is actually weirdly similar to Rob Corddry’s arc in Hot Tub Time Machine, if anyone else saw that film). The character is a perfectly-sketched self-obsessed git – so well-sketched, in fact, that it’s essentially impossible to have any sympathy for the character because he’s so incredibly annoying. The one attribute The World’s End really lacks is a likeable character, and it’s this deficiency that all these complaints stem from. I really wanted a counterpart to Pegg in Hot Fuzz or Frost in Shaun; someone flawed, self-involved – but hard not to root for, when worst comes to worst. Without such a linchpin, the film’s comedy and action can never quite reach the heights they yearn for.
Let’s clarify: The World’s End is not a bad film. Put your money down and you’ll certainly enjoy yourself – just don’t go in expecting something on the same level as its precursors.