“Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” were cleverly referential, skillfully made comedies, but the final installment in Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost’s so-called Cornetto Trilogy, “The World’s End,” is in another league because it adds a rich human element to the equation. There’s plenty of the previous fun—popular allusions and action tomfoolery—but also a newfound emotional weight. In fact, before the alien robots, extensively advertised in the previews, entered the picture around 40 minutes in, I forgot they were even coming. That’s a testament to how engaging the characters and their internal conflicts are, all by themselves.
Pegg plays forty-something alcoholic protagonist Gary King, who has so little going for him, he must find happiness in remembrances of his pub-crawling youth, when his narcissistic cockiness was endearing and he had friends to drink with. So desperate to relive the glory, Gary lies about his mother dying to guilt-trip pals Andy (Frost), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), and Peter (Eddie Marsan) into returning to their quaint hometown of Newton Haven to reattempt a failed effort to guzzle 12 beers at 12 different pubs in a single night.
Gary’s old pals are all more successful than he is and, to some degree, archetypes of uptightness: Andrew, the buttoned-up lawyer; Oliver, the workaholic real estate agent; Steven, the construction executive who’s dating a girl half his age; Peter, the runt who’s still selling cars for his father. But most groups of friends would fit archetypes, and despite the film’s exaggeration of their interplay for (successful) comedic effect, these guys come across as a credible reunited posse. And it’s in this credibility that “The World’s End” finds its emotional truth. Gary attempts to dodge his pain by escaping into his 20-year-old self rather than confronting the one that exists now, a strategy which doesn’t work because, well, he isn’t his 20-year-old self, a reality he confronts upon discovering that the first two pubs on the crawl aren’t what they used to be, either, bought out by a corporation. The other guys are likewise forced to reflect on their assorted shortcomings as adults when recalling how different (or similar) they were as lads.
This is all good stuff, but what’s most impressive about “The World’s End” is how it builds on these character elements in its action-packed second half, rather than abandoning them in favor of pure climactic chaos. Little do the guys initially know, Newton Haven has changed even more drastically than they have over the years: it’s now populated almost entirely by the aforementioned humanoid alien robots, who seek to take the guys’ bodies as vessels. Soon enough, they’re fighting off these aggressors to retain their humanity—an on-the-nose but apt metaphor—all while, in the comedic tradition, continuing the pub crawl at Gary’s insistence. Sure, the action takes the characters in some expected directions—when forced to work as a team, Gary’s four reluctant brethren realize that their long-ago friendship still does mean something to them—but Wright and the actors navigate the journey gracefully enough that it feels true.
And the action itself is pretty rousing, as well — the perfect blend of ’80s-style cheese and technically superlative staging and shooting. Unlike his protagonist, Wright doesn’t wallow in nostalgia—a tendency of filmmakers of this type of material—instead paying tribute to the genre films he loves by putting a new spin on them. It’s not easy to effectively blend comedy, sci-fi, and action, but the Cornetto team has done it again here, with added humanity acting as the tasty chocolate bonus at the bottom of the cone.