This post discusses plot points from The World’s End.
There’s something fabulous and charming about the fact that one of the climactic action sequences in The World’s End is in defense of happy marital life. If the message of Hot Fuzz was that firing two guns whilst jumping through the air was not incompatible with the ability to settle happily in the routines of small-town life, The World’s End goes a step further. A traditional action movie might suggest that the point of punching a hole through a robot who’s attempting to seduce and kill you is to impress a sentient female, probably younger than yourself, who will be impressed enough to have sex with you after the battle. But Andy (Nick Frost), one of a group of friends unwillingly recruited into reliving a pub crawl of his youth lead by his former best friend Gary (Simon Pegg) instead strikes a such blow in the service of his marriage and as a sign of commitment to his estranged wife. She’s wanted him to be more present with her, and Andy’s willing to reach into the innards of a lethal robot that swallowed his wedding ring, snatch that bauble back, and restore it to its rightful place on the third finger of his left finger with a jaunty “Cheers” to demonstrate his willingness to give his wife what she wants. In The World’s End, to prove your manhood is to make clear that you’ve got what it takes to be a good, emotionally engaged partner.
It’s a sequence in keeping with the movie’s slyly subversive approach to the incentives of action, and its emotional intelligence. The World’s End may be the least funny of Edgar Wright’s Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy of action satires. But it more than compensates with a deep meditation on what it means to be a grown-up, and what sorts of friendships succeed, and which flounder as we grow up.
In the post-apocalypse of The World’s End, the life to be desired is a domestic one, rather than a grand adventure. Andy and his wife reunite and go “organic in a big way,” something she’d suggested that turns out to be a smart approach in a world without electricity and industrial agriculture. Other than the occasional nostalgia induced by a Cornetto wrapper floating by on the polluted breeze, it seems like a good life. Sam (Rosamund Pike) and Steven (Paddy Considine) find bliss in a rustic cabin lit by candle-spangled trees that would make an Anthropologie decorator proud. The sight of the two of them standing in each other’s arms, bundled against the cold in heavy sweaters and warmed by their love for each other, is more intimate than most movie sex scenes. Even replaced by a robotic duplicate, Peter (Eddie Marsan) retains his instincts as a father and a husband, amusing his children by sending his detachable hands skittering over his own head.
But the movie is too emotionally intelligent to suggest that everyone has a soulmate, or that everyone’s suited for the kinds of happiness that Andy, Steve, and Peter achieve, and that the movie sets up as a grand achievement on par with defeating an alien invasion. The emotional climax of the movie is less the friends’ repulsion of the invaders than Gary’s confession that the place where we first saw his adult self was rehabilitation, and that his attempts to restore his youthful greatness are really a cover for what he feels to be profound deficits elsewhere in his life. When Gary cries to Andy that “You’ve got your perfect job and your perfect house and your perfect life,” explaining that all he has remaining to him is the ability to drink, it’s a profound rebuke to the idea that the road to any kind of lasting happiness or self-actualization is paved with excess. “They told me when to go to be! Me!” he protests of his time in rehabilitation. “How can you tell if you’re drunk if you’re never sober?” Andy, revealed to have gone teetotal after he crashed a car while attempting to get an overdosing Andy to the hospital, and being arrested after serious surgery as a result. “I don’t want to be sober,” Gary explains to his old friend in a profound expression of self-hatred.
The movie is also honest about the fact that people who choose family life and people who choose to stay unmarried, or child-free, or both, may drift out of each other’s orbits. The events of The World’s End may cauterize the old wounds that initially sundered Andy and Gary’s friendship. But as the scars of each others’ loss healed over, the two men took off in different directions. And the decade and a half since, their divergent branches have grown strong enough that they can’t be twined back together. After the apocalypse begins, the men are separated, and in the aftermath, it seems that they don’t bother to track each other down again. In the life Andy’s chosen to lead with his wife and children, there’s little room to be drawn into the kind of peripatetic adventures in which Gary’s found a sustainable combination of sobriety and excitement. Sometimes, the best outcome former good friends can hope for is the same as that available to old lovers: a peaceful parting, cleansed of ill-will and old pain.
All of the films in the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy deal with the same kinds of emotional difficulty, the lovely and painful imperfections of true adulthood. In Shaun of the Dead, a zombie apocalypse forces the question of how to deal with the emotional and physical needs of an aging, and ultimately ill, parent. Hot Fuzz asks when an attempt to assert control over your life, particularly in response to a loss, leads you to cause considerable pain to others. These are tender and subtle inquiries in the midst of a great deal of extremely creative and well-choreographed violence, a bit of rich, bittersweet chocolate ice cream with a taste that penetrates even a sea of zombie-infected blood or blue robot ooze.