not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
I haven’t been looking forward to this one, not since Film Crit Hulk wrote what I believe to be the definitive analysis of The World’s End a year ago, but I said I’d finish this off, and dammit, I’m going to do it. The fact that I’m writing this blog mostly for my own amusement gave me the mistaken notion that I could put it on the back burner, and I’ve certainly had plenty going on in the last year to keep me away- qualifying exams, graduation, figuring out what to do after graduation, teaching, moving, working on a political campaign for the past few months- and as I write this, it’s still a week to election day, and the campaign is eating up every available minute of my life, so I’m going to post this in fits and starts, get a sentence here before collapsing in bed, a paragraph four hours later when I have to wake up and go to work again, and I’m going to try to wrap everything up that I said in the last few posts. So let’s get started.
The first thing I can touch on regarding The World’s End is how it looks back to the previous two Pegg/Frost/Wright movies. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are centered on two unique moments in a young adult’s life: Shaun, in that period of time after you’ve left college but before you’ve really got your life together, when you’re willing to trade dignity and passion and even healthy relationships for the relatively stable life of a steady paycheck and a consuming videogame habit. Hot Fuzz is set after you’ve got your career more together – you’ve found what you want to do, you’re doing it, and generally having a good time – right at the point where you realize that professional satisfaction, absent any other type of fulfillment in the form of friendships, relationships, hobbies, etc. is never going to make you entirely happy. The World’s End fast-forwards to the midlife crisis, but in doing so manages to encompass the entire series in its range of characters.
First, you have Gary King, who’s been stuck in a Shaun of the Dead headspace for the last twenty years, and doesn’t seem to realize how sad and pathetic that makes him. The first time we see him, he delivers a monologue about the time he and his high-school friends tried to hit all the bars in town in one night, and the kicker is that, twenty years later, he still thinks that night was the best night of his life, and… no, wait, the real kicker is that he’s telling this story in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, one that he is certainly not attending of his own volition. Most recovering alcoholics in movies are generally stuck around Step 7 (the need to make amends), but it’s rare that we encounter one who hasn’t even made it to Step 1. Gary King is Simon Pegg’s first real chance to do some big acting in an Edgar Wright film, and Pegg gleefully bites into the characters hopeless delusion and utterly unjustified narcissism with an energy that almost tricks you into admiring King. If the bonsai plant in Hot Fuzz acts as perfect representation of Nicholas Angel – an admirably simple organism, unnaturally circumscribed in an unfamiliar place – then Gary King’s representative object (or objective correlative, as T.S Eliot would have it) is his Sisters of Mercy tape from high school that remains in his car’s tape deck, pathetic in its continued presence, but borderline miraculous in its continued existence.
But Gary King’s continued existence is a dark miracle, and as the tape deck is the only remaining part of his car that was actually a part on the original car (only Edgar Wright would slip a “Ship of Theseus” joke into his pub-crawl comedy), the people in Gary King’s life have changed themselves into figures that only bear a passing resemblance to the school friends he still imagines them to be. In most cases, particularly the case of Nick Frost’s Andy, their changes have been directly predicated on their involvement with Gary King, particularly with that fateful pub crawl that he remembers as the best night of their lives. The others remember it… differently. Quite differently.
Looking at this previous paragraph several days later, it occurs to me that the Ship of Theseus, and more specifically the issues of entropy which are at its heart, are also at the heart of The World’s End. The question Socrates poses – if you replace all the parts of a ship, is it still the same ship? – is similar to the question of the supernatural bad guys in The World’s End, who kill their victims and then make perfect replications of them, right down to the replications having the same memories and emotions as the people they replace. Of course, the replications are filled with blue goo and can still walk and talk if you slam a soccer ball through the top of their head, but when Martin Freeman’s Oliver is replaced, the robot-alien version of him fits into his life as easily as the original version. If everyone else sees the same guy walking around, does it really matter if the consciousness of the original has been obliterated? And of course the Ship of Theseus holds for human aging too – it’s an oft-repeated bit of trivia (albeit probably false) that the human body replaces 99% of its cells every ten years: the you that exists now shares practically no actual matter with the you that existed ten years ago. Are you the same person?
Well, yes and no. You share a kind of continuity with yourself, remembering things from your past and using those memories to make decisions in your present. And certainly everyone else sees you as a single continuous being. If a person has known you your whole life, they can look at a picture of you when you were 6, a picture when you were 16, and a picture when you were 60 and say “yes, that’s the same person.” But even if you kept all of your original matter, and the cells that were in your body as an infant were still rattling around in their a hundred years later, you would still in many respects be a different person. The changes in desires, worldview, self-knowledge, and brain chemistry between most people’s 10th and 16th birthdays are so drastic that the 10-year-old and the 16-year-old might as well be completely different people, no matter whether they have the same DNA sequence.
It’s this fact of entropy that motivates all the major action in The World’s End. Gary is in outright rebellion against this entropy, and has focused all his energy on trying to keep himself, and the world around him, exactly where it was on the night he was 18 and finally out of school. Andy has disappeared into it, becoming an entirely different person with so little of a relationship to his past self that he refuses to even acknowledge Gary (I know there are plot-specific reasons he doesn’t talk to Gary, but I like how his refusal to even engage with the classmate still stuck in high school shows how much he has divorced himself from his past). Neither of these strategies are sustainable, and the movie gradually reveals how much damage these characters’ decisions have done to them over the years. But it’s not a major downer, because the corollary to the idea that we’re constantly changing is that we can eventually change into someone better.
Oh, and there’s also an invasion of the body-snatchers by aliens filled with goo, one of the most impressive single-shot action sequences I’ve ever seen (just above Hard Boiled, just below Children of Men and Gravity), and the phrase “Oh fuck off, you big lamp!” which in context was the funniest line of 2013. Oh, and the requisite Bill Nighy cameo, so good that I wouldn’t dream of describing it. The singular gift of this movie is that it gives you all the kinetic excitement of an extremely well-done action/comedy, but any time you discuss it you end up at the wistful undercurrents: the transience of life, the short-lived joy of raging at the dying of the light, the acknowledgement that everyone who matters most to you now will probably matter a bit less to you in ten years. I tend to catch Cornetto films a few years before they become relevant to me: I watched Shaun of the Dead in college, and laughed at the zombie jokes without any idea how poignant and true it would all feel five years later, and I watched Hot Fuzz deep in the middle of my Shaun of the Dead phase, when I would spend my free time going to Blockbusters that were closing down and buying 5-10 movies, and every night after getting home from a sales job that was slowly killing me inside, I’d pick up two and watch them both, then go to bed and then wake up and go to work again. I couldn’t imagine Nicholas Angel’s single-minded commitment to his work, because I was committed to not being committed to anything. And now I’ve watched The World’s End, well before my mid-life crisis is scheduled to occur (I have it penciled in for 2025, but might push it back if something comes up). But the great strength of the movie, the thing that makes it in my opinion the pinnacle of the Cornetto Trilogy, is that the deeper meaning seems desperately relevant no matter your age or experience.