Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, September 6, 2015

Director Report Card: Edgar Wright (2013)

5. The World’s End

After the break-out success of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” Edgar Wright was a hot talent. Suddenly, his name was attached to several projects. There was “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” which he would make next. Another comic based property Wright was supposed to direct was “Ant-Man,” a movie he would eventually exit among much fanboy outcry. Briefly, his name floated around “Them,” a comedy based on a book about conspiracy theories that would’ve starred Jack Black. During this time, hidden at the margins of his IMDb page, was a third movie. “The World’s End” would be the conclusion to the Cornetto Trilogy. For a long time, that was all we knew. What would this fabled film be about, we wondered? Would “The World’s End” be a throwback to eighties post-apocalyptic action flicks, the way “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” homaged zombies and buddy cops? An image that entered my mind was of Simon and Nick walking down a bombed-out road, carrying crossbows. “The World’s End” wasn’t this, not quite. The final film may be the weakest of the Cornetto Trilogy. Which means it’s still an amazingly funny and incredibly well made film.

Back in their high school days, Gary King and his gang of friends were really close. A day he still remembers is when the five of them attempted to complete the Golden Mile, a pub crawl of 12 bars. The group didn’t complete the crawl then. Now, as an adult, Gary wants to reunite with his bros and reach the World’s End, the final pub. Unlike Gary, who still holds onto his youthful partying ways, his friends have all moved on. Yet he manages to talk everyone into returning to Newton Haven and taking on the bars. Upon returning to their childhood home, they start to notice something mysterious. An alien conspiracy is rooted in their home town. Despite this, Gary insist they complete the pub crawl, becoming increasingly more sloshed the further their adventure goes on.

“The World’s End” is the darkest of the Cornetto trilogy, a trio of films that began with the zombie apocalypse and continues with a cult committing murders. Beyond featuring the end of the world, the film addresses death, suicide, irrelevance, depression, divorce, and drug and alcohol dependence. A reoccurring theme throughout the Cornetto Trilogy has been arrested development: Men who still think and act like boys. Coming long after the man-child has entered the comedic lexicon, “The World’s End” shows the souring of the archetype. Gary King is funny and fun to be around. He’s also a screw-up, a drug addict, a thief, entirely irresponsible, suicidally depressed we discover, and hopelessly stuck in the past. Recovering his friends is a rough road because he burned all those bridges years ago. We laugh at Gary’s antics but, odds are, we wouldn’t want to actually be his friend.

Each film in the Cornetto Trilogy fits snugly within a pre-existing genre. I was so ready for “The World’s End” to be a throwback to post-apocalyptic flicks, that I was slightly disappointed when it wasn’t. Instead, “The World’s End” homages British sci-fi of the fifties and sixties. John Wyndham and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” have been pointed out as influences. The nature of the alien conspiracy recall the Quatermass films. The title may even been taken from an early Doctor Who episode. Mostly, the idea of alien robots replacing people, in a bid to take over the world, is inspired by the creeping paranoia of these films. For the record, Wright still throws in a little bit of post-apocalyptic action at the very end.

“The World’s End” benefits greatly from Wright’s typically layered script. The events of the present pub crawl mirror the one Gary and his friends went on in the eighties. Both feature an important “bump” in a bathroom. Another character exits the crawl during the same times. Moreover, the accurately British names of the pubs reflect the events that happen in them. The Famous Cock is where Gary is banned, for his cockish behavior. While at the Mermaid, the men are seduced by villainous females. A scrambling, chaotic fight happens inside the Beehive. A vehicle drives through the walls of The Hole in the Wall. One guess what happens at the World’s End. A reoccurring joke about the Three (Or is it Five?) Musketeers pays off nicely. Once again, Wright’s clever love of foreshadowing only becomes visible on a second viewing. The recurrences, callbacks, and call-forwards make the film a delightfully rich viewing experience.

Discussion of the man-child trope isn’t the only thing that has escalated as the trilogy went on. The action has gotten bigger too. It’s evident that Wright has applied the lessons he learned from “Scot Pilgrim vs. the World” to his British films. “The World’s End” is an explosively energetic action flick. From the first scuffle on, the movie is full of balletic fight scenes. The action begins when Simon dive-bombs a robot into a urinal, taking its head off. This explodes into a frantic battle, which features bisection via sink, machines being pile-drived onto knees and receiving atomic elbows to the head. A fight with two twins gets weird when the one blank replaces its arms with a pair of legs. The fight inside the Beehive is the action highlight of the film. Nick Frost grabs two stools, using them as tonfas, bashing Blanks’ heads in and tossing them around the room. Drunk middle-age men diving, kicking, and grappling like expert martial artist would probably push disbelief in a lesser film. The humor and kinetic energy of “The World’s End” allows the viewer to overlook this.

The zombies in “Shaun of the Dead” and the Sanford Neighborhood Watch in “Hot Fuzz” didn’t allow for much personality. The shambling hordes of undead and hooded assassins naturally wouldn’t. In “The World’s End,” Edgar Wright gets to create a more personable collection of baddies. The Blanks are an interesting variation on the killer robot idea. When wanting to intimidate their enemies, their eyes and mouth emit a blue light. After being knocked to the ground, they slither upward at odd angles. Their movements aren’t quite human, creating a disquieting affect. Their blue, ink-like blood splatters fantastically during the action sequences. Their heads tends to shatter like porcelain, when they aren’t popping off like bottle caps. They seem designed to make an impression on viewers while also coming apart spectacularly during fight scenes. For shits and giggles, Wright throws in a traditional robot too, in the form of an angular piece of modern art that comes to life.

In “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” Simon Pegg played the more responsible man while Nick Frost played his slovenly, child-like best friend. “The World’s End” switches this around. Frost’s Andy holds down a nice job and has a seemingly steady marriage. Alcohol hasn’t touched his lips in two decades. Pegg’s Gary, meanwhile, never let go of his partying lifestyle. His tendency to imbibed frequently has made his life a mess. Moreover, “The World’s End” breaks up the unshakable Pegg/Frost friendship. The two characters are not on good terms at the beginning. Andy is unwilling to forgive Gary for a life-threatening mistake years ago. He only goes along on the pub crawl out of pity. Casting both actors against type is a nice move. As Gary’s carefree and confident personality start to crack apart, Pegg plums pathetic depths fantastically. Frost, meanwhile, is excellently employed as the comedic straight man who becomes more free-willing the drunker he gets.

Gary and Andy are only the two most important members of the gang. The rest of the squad are filled out with impressive talent. Martin Freeman, graduating from the cameos he had in the previous two films, makes the most noticeable contribution as Oliver “O-Man” Chamberlain. Oliver is the member of the group who seems the least willing to put up with Gary’s bullshit. Freeman’s exquisitely dry wit and skill at insincere glad-handing really come in handy. Paddy Considine has some of the most fun as Steven Price. Likewise, Steven is frosty towards Gary. However, he gets in the fun mood awfully quickly. Once intoxicated, he’s one of the most entertaining members of the group. As a kid, Peter Page was the awkward, bullied member of the group. As an adult, he’s still at the whims of his rich dad and has a fidgety, uncomfortable appearance. Eddie Marsan captures this very well and watching him cut loose as the night goes on is especially entertaining.

A supply of talented names round out the supporting cast. Rosamund Pike plays the lone woman along for at least part of the trip. Pike’s Sam is positioned as a love interest between Gary and Steven, not really being that interested in either of them. How this plays out, and Pike’s interaction with Pegg, are amusing. Pike’s delivery of a series of lines about the boy she crushed on in high school are nicely delivered. The film makes good use of David Bradley – the guy from “Harry Potter,” not the B-list action hero – as Basil, the town eccentric. Bradley’s odd looks and great crazy eyes make him an ideal choice for the part. Pierce Brosnan shows up as the voice of reason for the Blank invasion, formerly the boy’s “cool” teacher. Brosnan’s coldly logical voice is used well. (It’s a shame there wasn’t a former James Bond in “Shaun of the Dead.” Edgar Wright could have had a theme going.) Speaking of voices, one of the best small parts in the film is only a voice. Bill Nighy voices the leader of the Blanks, represented as only a fluttering set of lines. Nighy’s voice has the regal, superior quality you’d expect from an alien leader. His increasing bafflement with the human heroes provides some great comedy.

“The World’s End” is really funny. Wright’s dialogue is as quick and humorous as ever. Early discussions about houses, drug slang words, and who wrote the Bible stick in my mind. Like the rest of the Cornetto Trilogy, the film is not only a riotous comedy and an energetic action flick. In its last act, the movie reaches a surprisingly affecting level of emotion. The rest of the group seemingly whittled away, Gary and Andy have a confrontation in the last bar. The details of Gary’s life are shown, as well as the current status of Andy’s marriage. The emotion in both actor’s performances is stunning. This moment is the key to the film’s big sloppy heart. Gary holds onto his teenage years because his life hasn’t gotten any better since then. There’s a desperation to his nostalgia. The entire story is a panicked attempt to hold onto his childhood. The confrontation between the two characters reveals the film as a very sad, very human story.

Another theme in “The World’s End” is about the strangeness of returning to your home town after being away for years. Seeing chain restaurants and businesses leaking into a formally isolated small town must be startling for anyone who has been away a while. The script refers to this as “Starbucking,” which is evident when the characters notice that all the pubs look the same. This may be the result of an alien plot but it’s a very human emotion. The Network’s desire to reduce everything to something same-y and boring seems to represent the world’s crushing desire for conformity and mediocrity. Even though he’s a screw-up, Gary King becomes an unlikely symbol of human individuality. He refuses to conform, to accept the Network’s ideal society. It’s notable that the hero doesn’t bring down the evil extraterrestrial plot with kung-fu or explosions. Instead, a bracing monologue about people’s right to chose, even if they choose to fuck up, defeats the Network’s inhuman utopia. It’s an impressive blending of the film’s plot and its’ themes, pulled off in an eccentric and funny manner.

Which entry in the Cornetto Trilogy you like best depends entirely on taste. My favorite will always be “Shaun of the Dead.” One friend of mine loves “Hot Fuzz” the most while another most prefers “The World’s End.” They are all excellent, hilarious and fantastically constructed. Each strive for greater things beyond making their audience chuckle. Each are smart subversions of established genres. “The World’s End” may be the most mature of the three, darker and more introspective then the proceeding chapters. Yet it doesn’t sacrifice the fun or the laughs either. Don’t be shocked if, in time, this trilogy is held in similarly high regards to other beloved three part stories. [Grade: A]

It didn't take long for Edgar Wright to recover from the "Ant-Man" fall-out. Not long afterwards, he announced his next film, "Baby Driver." A crime film starring the kid from "The Fault in Our Stars," that one is set for 2017. Wright is also attached to "Grasshopper Jungle," an off-beat sounding YA adaptation, and "Collider," a mysterious sci-fi project. (I haven't heard any news about that Johnny Depp-starring reboot of "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" in a while though. That probably shouldn't be made anyway.) Whatever he does in the future, it's apparent Wright is someone I'm a big fan of. If any of his future projects are even a quarter as good as his last four films, they'll still be great.

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