Is a week and a half too soon to talk about plot of The World’s End? I hope not. Let’s just say that there are going to be major spoilers here. Major, major ones. In fact, we are going to talk about the whole end of the movie. So if you haven’t seen it yet, you probably should stop reading here. Frankly, if you haven’t seen the film, most of this probably won’t make a whole lot of sense anyway. You’ve been warned.
I quite liked this poster. Even if it was misleading.
I feel like I say this before almost everything I write: I write from a place of love. I had a good time watching this movie. I adore Nick Frost and Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright and Jessica Hynes (okay, she wasn’t in this movie1). I like their work. The movie was a lot of fun. It was a fine couple of hours.
But. (There’s always a but.)
I think good movies can be better…
Edgar Wright is well known for being a bit of a detail oriented director (that’s the biggest understatement of the year!) so I was really surprised when a major continuity error didn’t just show up, but was written into the script.
Martin Freeman’s character, Oliver, came back to life at the end of the movie just like all the other "blanks" (alien duplicates of humans) – but without his head (because Andy (Nick Frost) had punched it off). Except that, like all the other blanks, he had been healed/fixed (no matter how badly they had been injured/destroyed) before the final scene at The World’s End secret clubhouse.
His head was complete.
So to have him come back again, totally injured – with the exact injury that he sustained from Andy – didn’t make any sense.
Once I noticed that, other things started not working. You could rip the head off of the blanks, and they’d still be moving, but smashing their heads seemed to properly stop them (at least temporarily). When Andy smashed the blank version of Oliver’s head (and it exploded), why didn't it stop moving?
And then my thinking started snowballing.
I got on to the major plot points.
It’s not like this is a new story. That’s what these guys do really, really well. They take old stories and retell them in an interesting way. This was just Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But their twist – that is, the “Network” (run by aliens, intent on taking over the world) – has been done so often recently (I feel like I’ve seen at least three instances of it on Doctor Who in the past few years alone), that it’s really not new or different anymore.
So that felt, well, lazy. Which is not a term I would ordinarily apply to these guys.
Even letting that go, I don’t understand why aliens who were so intent on peaceably taking over would blow everything up when they left.
Basically, even if they did pull out their technology, then if they landed in 1990, electricity was still a human invention, so the lights shouldn’t have gone out, as was the telephone, and, frankly, the internet. And reverse engineering doesn’t take nearly as much work. I have a hard time believing that humanity would have been without that stuff for very long.
All of these are little quibbles. But they lead me to the big problem, with a meandering through the next point.
It was sort of implied, although not particularly convincingly, that somehow the alien invasion was connected to the guys’ first attempt at the Golden Mile. If the guys had completed the golden mile the first time, it would have had some impact on the alien invasion – stopped it somehow. And so this second attempt was a chance to redeem themselves. I wish that had been better explored, or even explored at all.
The real issue with this film – the crux of the problem, if you will – is that it lost sight of its plot halfway through.
Remember how I said this movie was just an update of Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Well, forget that. It’s wrong. I mean, it’s correct, but it’s only correct for the secondary plot of the film.
The actual story of the film, the actual conflict/mission, was to complete the Golden Mile. From the very beginning, from the opening sequence, this film is about how the failed first attempt at the Golden Mile put all of these characters on to a different path than the one they should have been on – leading to them losing each other and their dreams, primarily dreams of freedom.
Don’t believe me? Here’s the rundown of the adult characters when we first meet them: Peter (Eddie Marsan) lives under his father’s thumb. Oliver is a real estate agent, but doesn’t appear to be a very good one, or particularly happy. Steven (Paddy Considine) never got the girl. Andy is an unhappy high powered executive whose wife has left him. And Gary (Simon Pegg), the leader of the bunch, is dealing with depression and suicide attempts.
Somewhere, something went really wrong for these guys. And, the film implies it was at the moment that they didn’t finish the happiest night of their lives. The ritual of the Golden Mile was the only thing that could fix them now.
So the alien invasion – the blanks – that only showed up more than a third of the way through the film, is really a secondary plotline, certainly impacting the first one, but not the main point.2 They needed to do both (triumph in the Golden Mile and save the world) for the characters to be fulfilled.
As SM said while watching the movie: It’s all about the beer.
And in the end, the movie failed at doing that – Gary didn’t get that last pint, so they didn’t actually complete the Golden Mile this time either.
Personally, I think the whole movie would have been a whole lot stronger without Andy’s voiceover at the end (which was nonsensical, since he wasn’t telling the story at the beginning, Gary was) and all the “where they went stuff.”
Instead, it should have been the five of them, at the wreckage of The World’s End, after everything, having the last drink. Completing the Golden Mile, saving the world, and themselves at the same time.
But that’s not what we got.
We got the voiceover,3 and the news that all of the friends went off back to new versions of their old lives – Peter to his wife and kids, but diminished because he was now a blank. Oliver, maimed and back to trying to sell houses. Andy, back with his wife, but he doesn’t seem all that happy about it (and we have no idea why she returned to him). Steven, with the most success of all, living in the middle of nowhere, but he at least got the girl.4 And Gary, who regressed the most, leading the teenage versions of them in a new gang.
So this ending tells us that they didn’t move forward, change their lives for the better, or become real heroes at the end of their quest.
And maybe that’s the point – that just like the aliens can’t force the humans to embrace the alien version of progress, complete with hive mind actions, neither can the filmmakers compel their characters to give up their mundanity. Just as the aliens cannot turn all the humans into blanks, the storytellers, The World’s End suggests, cannot manipulate their antiheroes into the role of heroes, even if they did save the world. These characters still have the autonomy to choose the recursive instead of the progressive. The filmmakers cannot force them into a traditional narrative mold.
But that doesn’t negate the fact that, while The World's End may be classified a comedy, it is, in fact, a tragedy.
And if that is their point (and I'm not totally convinced it is), then it is, perhaps, too subtly executed. Because it suggests that the film is character driven - that is, humanity driven - but because these characters never evolve, never become more than who they were at the beginning of the film - this audience member is left, after the explosions and awesome fight scenes fade away, with a faint, lingering, nagging feeling of "So what?"
1 But she should have been. And that’s a post for another time.
2 It’s been awhile since I’ve seen either Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, but I think this is also true for them – the supernatural stuff is really a secondary plot to the more humanity driven main plot.
3 Goodness, I hate voiceovers. So freaking lazy.
4 Don’t get me started on that.
The World's End. Directed by Edgar Wright. Focus Features, 2013. Film.