As funny and kinetic as his films have been, director Edgar Wright has never topped Shaun of the Dead, which is his only movie as emotionally and thematically engaging as it is intensely watchable. In that terrific horror-comedy, some pals (led by Shaun, played by co-writer Simon Pegg) battled a group of nasty zombies, but the film was also a touching commentary on friendship and getting out of the rut of permanent adolescence. You didn't have to notice that to dig Shaun's hip, propulsive apocalyptic energy, but it sure added an unexpected depth to everything that was happening: when people got killed in Shaun, you really felt the loss. (Shaun's stepfather's death in particular just kills me every time.)
Since then, Wright has made Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World—similarly fun, pop-culture-crazy movies—but they haven't had those deeper layers to them. His latest, The World's End, does somewhat, which probably explains why it's his best since Shaun. Unfortunately, it essentially repeats the Shaun formula—laughs and scares mixed with feelings and male angst—to less success. So thank goodness it's pretty damn hilarious, too.
The World's End is set in the present, but its main character is trapped in the past. The supremely unhappy Londoner Gary King (Pegg) has reached 40 convinced that his life peaked in his teens when he was the leader of his group of chums. Now a jobless, alcoholic screw-up, Gary decides he wants to reunite his far-flung pals to complete a task they failed to accomplish in 1990: hit 12 pubs on one night in their sleepy hometown of Newton Haven. His buddies—construction supervisor Steven (Paddy Considine), realtor Oliver (Martin Freeman), car salesman Peter (Eddie Marsan), and attorney/estranged best friend Andy (Nick Frost)—all have adult responsibilities now and have long since moved on. But because of nostalgia or sympathy for their pathetic friend, they all agree to travel back to Newton Haven with Gary for this pub crawl.
At first, their reunion merely serves as a reminder that Gary hasn't grown up. (He even unconvincingly dyes his hair black to pretend that he's immune to the aging process.) But his former pals' exasperation with his man-child antics quickly fades when they discover that the townspeople have been replaced by androids. Scared but not sure what to do, Gary and his crew decide to act normal and finish their pub crawl, hoping that by not arousing suspicion they'll be able to get out of Newton Haven alive.
The World's End was co-written by Pegg and Wright and serves as the third film of their so-called "Cornetto Trilogy" that included Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. (There are no overlapping characters in the three films, but they're all set in the U.K., co-written by the two men, star Pegg and Frost, and feature at least a passing reference to Cornetto ice cream.) Like Hot Fuzz, The World's End portrays sleepy towns as places where seemingly nothing happens but are, in fact, hotbeds of frightening behavior. And like with Shaun of the Dead, the new movie is all about Pegg's character realizing that he needs to change his life while surviving inhuman terrors.
Incorporating several actors who have been part of Wright's earlier movies, The World's End has many of the same charms as This Is the End, this summer's other apocalyptic comedy about a bunch of buddies hanging out and making jokes about oblivion. The setups are fun, but the enjoyment really comes from the cast being in the same room riffing off each other. Gary's desperate, bug-eyed enthusiasm plays nicely off of everybody else's beaten-down, deadpan resignation, and the soundtrack is filled with euphoric songs from early-'90s U.K. bands like Suede, Happy Mondays and Pulp: a constant cruel reminder that these once-happy lads used to be flush with excitement about the future.
Wright's hyperactive visual style reached its apex with Scott Pilgrim, so he's relatively restrained (for him, anyway) with The World's End, but nonetheless the fight scenes between our heroes and these menacing robots are pretty dazzlingly done. (And they're funny, too, since Wright never bothers justifying why a bunch of 40-year-olds can suddenly flash such acrobatic fighting skills.) What's missing, though, is the truly inspired storytelling that helped elevate Shaun. There are a few moments where The World's End seems to be making the soulless small-town robots a clever personification of city dwellers' condescending assumptions about dead-eyed, conformist suburbanites. And there are attempts to intertwine the action and comedy with more poignant concerns about aging and forgiveness. (Real-life friends Pegg and Frost are perfect at segueing between humor and pathos.) In the end, though, like a lot of reunions, The World's End is based on memories of past glories, when all of this seemed a little more fresh and exciting. Still, wasn't it nice to see everybody again after all this time?
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.