Joni Mitchell was right that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone , but the flip side of that is you don’t always know what you need until you get it. Edgar Wright’s The World’s End delivers one of the best films of the summer by combining non-stop hilarity, pulse-pounding action, and a heart that beats with a purpose. Wright’s cure for this recent season of mediocre and lackluster films is a boozy British affair filled with great jokes and, obviously, impressive robot fights. However, the film isn’t content to simply entertain or make you laugh; it also has something to say about the perils of nostalgia and how to embrace the responsibilities of being an adult.
In the film, high schooler Gary King (Simon Pegg) and his four friends attempted the legendary Golden Mile pub crawl in their sleepy suburb, Newton Haven, but were defeated by the herculean effort to drink a pint at 12 different pubs in one night. Twenty years later, Gary reunites his estranged group of friends (Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, and Eddie Marsan), all of whom have grown up and moved on with their lives, while Gary remains clothed in the all black uniform of his angsty teen years. After various lies and manipulations, Gary gets the gang to return to Newton Haven to finally complete the Golden Mile. Amid the reappearance of old tensions and habits, it becomes clear that the simple townsfolk aren’t what they seem. In fact, they are humanoid robots intent on wiping out the imperfections of humanity. Mechanized chaos ensues as the friends try to survive the night and make it to the titular pub.
One of the most damaging cycles to fall into might be “shoulding oneself to death” — constantly comparing oneself to some imagined ideal or feeling anxious because of not following some phantom lifeplan that everyone else is supposedly adhering to. With The World’s End, Wright (and co-writer Pegg) demonstrates the destructive nature of chasing illusory ideals. Gary waxes nostalgic over his past, trapped in reliving his former glories while oblivious to how pathetic and corrupting his arrested development has become. By never changing his clothes, his attitude, even the mixtape in his car, he’s desperately holding on to an identity that was obnoxious as a teenager and self-destructive as a man in his thirties. The automatons, on the other hand, reveal the pitfalls inherent to adhering to a more futuristic ideal, forsaking humanity to behave the way you “should;” the few humans in Newton Haven are kowtowed out of fear of assimilation and not doing anything to make a fuss. These machines lack the passion and excitement that comes from occasionally being a mess. Both mindsets are chasing after the way things should be, and neither is a tenable existence or one worth living. Meanwhile, those trapped in the middle are merely trying to survive catastrophe when disillusion inevitably sets in.
All of this would be interminable if it were presented as a dour sermon or maudlin tour through Gary’s tortured psyche. Luckily, it’s an Edgar Wright film, which means style, energy, and nods to all of the great geeky things you thought only you loved (exposition scene lit with the garish blues and pinks of a Giallo movie? yes, please!). Wright and Pegg pull from the vast arsenal of their comedy utility belt, with running gags, impressive pratfalls, clever references, and fun wordplay seamlessly mixing the profane and the profound. Meanwhile, the action sequences rank with the best films of recent years like The Avengers, The Raid, or Undisputed III: Redemption. The fights are impressively choreographed, immaculately executed, and captured perfectly, so everything appears as effortless as the banter. Pegg and Frost flip their usual dynamic with Gary being the immature fool to Frost’s calm and capable Andrew, and real honesty comes from the characters’ interactions, examining how people can change as they grow up while some traits and bonds never fade away.
In the end, what we should do is not be so concerned with “what we should do.” The central question of The World’s End is control: Total control is destruction of the self — what Gary fears most, later personified by the blue-blooded androids. No control is being a twat — Gary is an annoying jerk that steamrolls his way to get what he wants over the feelings of his best friends. Somewhere in the middle lies the state we all aim for as we grow older and hopefully wiser: a sense of self-control that is mindful of others but allows us to indulge in our simple pleasures, as well. Wright makes this point well in his heartfelt film, all delivered with a few pints, punches, and laughs.