This summer’s action blockbusters have all relied heavily on the cinematic appeal of blowing things up. Big budget action flicks usually have their fair share of destruction, but this year in particular it seemed like every summer weekend our movie theaters have been filled with an endless stream of debris. Even some of the stronger blockbusters, like Pacific Rim or the sadly underappreciated White House Down, succeeded not because they avoided the cliches of devastating set-pieces, but because they inserted a heavy dose of humor to offer some variety. Coming at the end of the summer, The World’s End is an antidote to this problem, an action movie that emphasizes characters and relationships over explosions. To be fair, it has its own modest set of explosions, but the film’s creators know that action is more satisfying when the audience is emotionally invested in the outcome, rather than when they are simply expected to marvel at the spectacle on screen. Spectacle is only effective when it unique.
The World’s End is the final film in the loosely-connected “Blood and Cornetto Trilogy,” so named for its focus on comedic violence and a running joke featuring a British ice cream snack. Like the previous movies in the series, 2004’s Shaun of the Dead and 2007’s Hot Fuzz, this film is written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, directed by Wright, and starring Pegg and Nick Frost. Each film in the trilogy has offered these three men the chance to explore and update one of their favorite genres of film: in Shaun, it was the zombie flick, in Hot Fuzz, it was action movies, and with The World’s End they turn to science fiction. More specifically, the film follows in the tradition of social sci-fi, films like Invasion of the Body-Snatchers or the more recent District 9, which use highly metaphorical sci-fi conceits to provide commentary on contemporary society.
The film begins by introducing us to Garry King, played by Pegg, a man who has never been able to move past his teenage years. The plot is kicked off by his attempt to reunite his old university friends, including Frost as now-successful businessman Andy, for a reenactment of their last pub-crawl. For the first third of the running time, that is the entire scope of the film. The supernatural element doesn’t pop up until the end of the first act, so that the film can take its time getting to know these characters. It’s a premise that could have devolved into cliched humor about trying to relive your youth, but the script avoids that problem by making it eminently clear that King is the only person in the group actually interested in the nostalgic trip; everyone else is just happy for an excuse to catch up. These characters aren’t superheroes or action stars, they’re all fairly normal, and, as such, their relationships ring true. Old grudges push past the initial awkward politeness, and we gradually learn how each character has been shaped by their time together, especially since not everyone had such a grand time as King seems to have.
Because the film takes its time grounding those characters in reality, when the supernatural side of the story appears, the audience actually cares about what happens to them. Discovering the exact nature of the invading force is part of the movie’s fun, so I won’t go into too much detail, but I will say it ties elegantly into the film’s main theme of the corrosive influence of nostalgia. King idealizes his youth, and the movie doesn’t take the easy way out and reveal that he’s only remembering the best parts, and blocking out the negative side. As far as we can tell, his youth actually was just as fun as he remembers. His constant attempts to recreate his memories are the true problem. For a group of filmmakers best known for creating homages to the movies they loved in their youth, that’s a remarkably self-aware theme, and that emotional honesty gives the film the underpinning it needs to succeed.
Of course, in addition to that emotional and thematic strength, the film is also uproariously funny. Pegg and Frost swap their usual roles as quiet and loud characters to excellent results, and the supporting cast is filled with veterans of British comedy. Wright continues to find new and engaging ways to stage action, and his kinetic style keeps the film’s pace moving at a good speed. One of the few major problems with the film is the lack of a female voice. Rosamund Pike has a perfunctory role as a character’s love interest, but she isn’t given much to do. Happily, the film doesn’t fall into the trap of making her slower to adapt to the introduction of a supernatural element, as Shaun of the Dead did, which shows some development. In fact, the filmmakers has stated in interviews that they intend to continue working together, just not in the structure required by this trilogy of a using genre films as a lense to explore male friendships. Hopefully, in the future, they could invite a female voice into the creative process, as they did on their sitcom Spaced, which was written by Pegg and co-star Jessica Stevenson. Despite that flaw, The World’s End is still an enjoyable experience, a film that knows it doesn’t have to sacrifice its characters in order to be an entertaining action movie.