As pleasant as the memories of it can be, the past is often a terrible burden. It exists in this perfectly unsullied place in our minds, forever catching the golden moments that grow even more lustrous with the passage of time. Some of us spend our entire lives trying to recapture even a glimmer of those glory days, and bemoaning the fact that we can’t. New experiences fall by the wayside in our mad grasping at the ones we remember fondly, ignorant of the fact that they’re unobtainable, their import inflated by our distance from them. We either realize this and put those memories in their proper context, or remain unable to reconcile past and present, forever trapped in a nostalgic haze.
It’s that haze that permeates much of The World’s End, the new film from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz team Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The pub crawl that provides the film its narrative spine comes about in no small part from the desire of its organizer, Pegg’s Gary King, to recapture a moment in his life when his future seemed laid out before him. His disappointment with the path his life has taken since then — something that has clearly put him into some kind of rehab as the film opens — drives Gary to reassemble his teenage cohorts for another go at what Gary sees as the greatest night of their lives. While he couches his urging as a desire to reconnect with old friends, his real motive is to go back to a time when his life held promise, a mixture of nostalgia, denial, and desperation.
Like Wright’s other two films in this loose trilogy, the real life themes are dressed in genre trappings. Instead of zombies and over-the-top action films, this time the trope is an alien invasion that would feel right at home in a 70s-era episode of Doctor Who: a subtle alien invasion that has actually made humanity worthy of inclusion in the greater galactic civilization, albeit at the cost of free will and individuality. The sterile sameness of Gary and company’s old stomping grounds is due to this slow infiltration, but it’s also a thematic shorthand for the idea of the actuality of our pasts not always living up to the idealized versions in our minds. Gary literally can’t go home again because that home technically doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been subverted, subtly altered into something bearing the semblance of nostalgia but in actuality different and dangerous.
Gary’s friends respond differently to their reintroduction to their pasts. One seeks to pursue a love he regrets having let go in his younger days. Another finds the way an old bully fails to recognize him almost worse than the original abuse. Yet another, faced with the reality of their situation, regresses from sixteen years of sobriety into a figure of unleashed frustration and anger. Everyone is forced to come to grips with their past in some way thanks to the threat of the alien invasion. And in one of the films delicious ironies, it’s Gary’s very squandering of the potential of that now mythologized night of his youth that simultaneously saves and dooms the human race: humanity’s capacity for error both prompts the aliens to give up on trying to assimilate us and consigns us to a new Dark Age when the departure of the aliens short-circuits our modern electronic networks.
But don’t get the impression this is some serious-minded exploration of these themes. While the ideas are given weight, The World’s End is a comedy at heart. In fact, it’s working remarkably well as a straight character comedy until the aliens make their shocking appearance, and had Wright chosen to simply continue on with the story of the pub crawl, I think he still would have had a winner. Pegg, Frost and the rest of the cast have the easy chemistry of old friends falling back into familiar patterns even after many years apart. And while all get a chance to shine comically, it’s Pegg who’s the real star here. His Gary at first seems like your typical man-child, his humor coming from his addled obliviousness. But Pegg finds the poignancy behind Gary’s reckless irresponsibility as well; it’s not that he’s not making anything of his life, he’s wondering if there’s anything to be made of that life. He’s not just trying to relive the past, but trying to find some reason to have a future.
Wright’s previous two films were a matter of halves for me. Shaun of the Dead, like many zombie films, shines during the initial confusion of the zombie outbreak then loses steam. Conversely, Hot Fuzz meanders for a bit before finding itself in its gloriously madcap finale. But The World’s End feels complete, fully integrating its disparate elements into a cohesive whole. While it might seem at the end that Gary hasn’t learned his lesson, still dwelling in his past, it’s clear that what he’s doing is forging a new version of it, trying to lead himself down a path to a more worthwhile future. He’s using his past to look forward.