Shaun of the Dead was clearly a take on zombie movies, and Hot Fuzz took direct aim at action films, even calling out Michael Bay by name. According to star and co-writer Simon Pegg, the third film in the loosely connected Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (named for an ice cream treat that makes an appearance in all three films, which itself serves as a metaphor for the light treat aspirations of the individual works), The World’s End, is a spoof of science fiction films. It’s easy enough to see how that’s the initial inspiration, but the newer film is a lot more, not just because it carries the same sort of allegorical weight as the previous installments. The sci fi influence is clearly present, but there are elements of the film that are indebted to horror and action genres as well. It’s as if the planned final installment in the extended collaboration of this particular favor–which owes quite a bit to Spaced, the U.K. TV series that first brought Pegg and director Edgar Wright together–has to carry the burden of conveying absolutely everything the two men love in popcorn pop culture. If The World’s End is actually they’re final statement together (and it’s hard to accept that it will be), it makes for a grand bow and a graceful exit. It is funny, clever, smartly crafted and slyly wise. It’s everything the previous two films were and that much more.
Pegg plays Gary King, a layabout whose still clinging to his high school past, the last time he truly lived up to the billing of his last name. He still dyes his hair black and wears the same Sisters of Mercy t-shirt that seemed crazy cool and tough twenty-five years earlier. In a last ditch effort to hold onto his beloved past, he reassembles his high school buddies to embark of the fabled hometown pub crawl that they couldn’t complete in their youth. Now middle-aged at at various levels of middle class respectability, the remaining members of the quintet agree to this nostalgic plan reluctantly, although there are hints that they two are fleeing from their own unsatisfactory presents. This is a smart and funny enough premise. When Pegg and Wright introduce a more fantastical element to the proceedings, it becomes uproarious. Importantly, it also becomes more profound. There’s a purpose to the added elements, a gratifying press into metaphorical explorations of conformity and the subsuming of identity. If their previous collaborations were inspired pastiches–films that simultaneously embraced and deconstructed the most well-worn tropes of their respective genres–Wright and Pegg find a way to slide The World’s End into an entirely different lane. It is inspired lampoonery, but it has something to say about modern life as well. That was also true previously. Now, though, Pegg and especially Wright have developed the skills and wisdom to make their deeper points more expertly.
Wright is particularly turning into a remarkably skilled director, with an admirable command of the grammar of narrative storytelling. His films are kinetic without being hyperactive (even in the wildest action sequences, clarity is the prevailing principle), and he labors mightily to make sure that everything is there for a reason, or at least that every detail has a payoff. That Sisters of Mercy t-shirt conveys valuable information about Gary, but it also provides entryway to inspired use of the band’s most famous song, “This Corrosion.” An inane conversations about mislaid shorthand between friends leads to one of them later getting an extremely funny proclamation of forthright glory after downing five shots. I will forever treasure the line delivery of Nick Frost (himself an important third wheel in the extended creative partnership of the Cornetto trilogy) in that absurdly stirring moment.
If anything, The World’s End can sometimes be a shade too ambitious, packing in so many theses that the thread of the narrative can ultimate waver too much. That mild issue is exemplified by the lengthy coda, which smacks of prolonging the film for little other reason than a reluctance to leave the whole endeavor behind, like Peter Jackson tacking a half-dozen endings onto The Return of the King. As with Jackson’s transgression, it’s hard to assign too much blame. Then again, that urge to call for one more for the road can lead to a nasty hangover, leaving one clutching a skull that feels so fragile it may as well be made of crystal. Raise those pints high and proud, boys, but also be ready to settle up. Let the night be over and it’ll be happy memories all around.