Life's a long old game, and we all move on, to new places, new careers and new people. It's hard to believe that Shawn of the Dead was released almost a decade ago, and that its sitcom precursor Spaced began in 1999. With Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright moving on to bigger and better things, some of us wondered if the legendary 'Cornetto Trilogy' would ever be completed. Now, six years after Hot Fuzz, the trilogy is finally complete, and it's fitting that The World's End centres on a group of friends whose lives have drifted apart, returning to the site of their former glories.
Like the five former schoolboys who return to their hometown of Newton Haven, The World's End sees many familiar faces together again. Every actor who appeared in both Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz appears here, either in a major role or a cameo, and there are more favourite actors besides. Even the opening montage, in which we meet our five heroes during their raucous school years, the film shows off its impressive cast, practically shouting "Look - we've got Pierce Brosnan!" Michael 'Tires' Smiley has a decent role at last, with Mark Heap and Julia Deakin showing up in due course. Only Katie Carmichael and Jessica Hines missing from the old Spaced line-up.
Simon Pegg, as expected, takes centre stage, but unusually in an anti-heroic role. While Shawn and Nicholas Angel were likeable, if flawed characters, sympathetic from the outset, Gary 'The King' King is an utter dickhead. A barely recovering alcoholic clinging to the glory days of his youth, Gary is the sort of kid everyone both loved and hated at school, the guy who always got away with whatever shit he played and pulled all the girls. Perhaps there's a little cheeky vengeance from our geeky creators here, as the popular pack-leader returns as a washed-up drunk. Pegg is, as usual, excellent, totally inhabiting his character and slowly gaining our fondness and sympathy.
The remaining four friends occupy different facets of the 'sensible one' character, but it takes four well-balanced men to keep Gary under even a semblance of control. Nick Frost is predictably brilliant as teetotal Andy, with Paddy Consadine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan all creating likeable, if terribly sensible, characters. With his charm and inability to take no for an answer, Gary manages to persuade each of them to return to Newton Haven to recreate, and finally complete, the 'Golden Mile' - a mighty twelve-venue pub crawl, ending at the legendary inn, The World's End. As they return to their home town - filmed primarily in amusingly bland Welwyn Garden City - they find a town that has moved on only in its increased corporate conformity.
It's a joy watching these five men together - friends in real life as much as in the film - swapping stories and gradually growing back into their friendship, even if Gary is as much of a prick as he ever was. These are faces I grew up with, with Spaced in particular offering my fifteen-year-old self a taste of almost tangible young adulthood. The central tragedy of the film is that Hollywood superstardom is a distant fantasy for most of us. Simon Pegg may have gone on to become the king of the geeks and the toast of ComicCon, but the rest of us moved on to regular jobs and general disappointment. As Gary's unhappiness becomes clearer, we can probably feel for him more than Pegg can.
As the night roles on and the group become gradually drunker, the fantasy element finally makes itself apparent. In a scything satire on corporate buyouts and the 'Starbucksing' of our culture, the conformity of the pubs is revealed to extend beyond their identical menus and furnishings. Riffing on such classics as Quatermass II, The Midwich Cuckoos and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the town is revealed to be in the thrall of an alien intelligence, with anyone who refuses to conform being replaced by a blue-blooded 'blank.'
Edgar Wright stated at ComicCon that he considered The World's End to be a sort of drunken Doctor Who, and there's definitely an element of that. The mix of the extraterrestrial and the quintessentially British brings to mind Doctor Who's contemporary-set episodes (where's UNIT when you need them? They turned up in Shawn of the Dead). Gary King, with his poncy coat and swagger, certainly has an air of the cocky modern Doctors. You could imagine David Tennant rocking up hammered for a fight in a pub with a shout of "It's a fucking Auton!"
After taking on the zombie horror and buddy cop genres, Wright and Pegg simply had to end with an alien invasion. Once the truth is out, the tone shifts into one of stealthy intelligence gathering, interspersed with bouts of shocking violence (although the inky blue blood of the blanks softens the impact greatly). Wright's fight direction is better than ever, having had the involvement of Jackie Chan's fight coordinators, and the drunken brawling is a definite step-up from the Winchester pub battle of Shawn of the Dead. Throughout all this, however, the characters remain centre stage, with each of the five friends getting their moment to shine. Pegg and Wright excel in creating characters that we come to care about, and Gary, Andy, Peter, Steve and Oliver the O-Man are no different.
There are some missed opportunities. Rosamund Pike, as Oliver's sister Sam, does what she can with quite a shallow role, and her presence as a love interest seems unnecessary. She drops out of the plot when not needed, popping up again when required. The same can be said of David Bradley's UFO-nut character Basil (except the love interest part). The final act changes gear once again, upping the pace to a frenetic charge before settling back for the finale, at which the sci-fi trappings take over completely.
While possibly better than Shawn of the Dead, The World's End is a weaker film than Hot Fuzz, less focussed in its parodying of a genre. The humour is broader than in the previous two films, and there are fewer laugh-out-loud moments. The central cast holds it together though, creating five characters we care about throughout the film, and Gary and Andy's reconciliation over past mistakes provide a greater emotional payoff than in either Shawn or Fuzz. Whatever happens, Pegg and Frost's characters always end their films as best friends. Any other result would not sit right.
Through a medley of nineties hits on the jukebox, The World's End takes us on a crawl we'll never forget. That it doesn't quite measure up to Hot Fuzz is a minor criticism; this is still a contender for the finest film of the year. Sit back, grab a pint and unwrap a Cornetto for this trilogy's marvellous finale. Here's hoping that Pegg and Wright work together again in the future. Maybe they should be the ones to bring Doctor Who to the big screen...