The Spool / Anniversaries
The World’s End at 10: a look back at Edgar Wright’s most poignant work
The final movie in the Cornetto Trilogy successfully merged comedy, sci-fi horror & Gen X pathos.
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The final movie in the Cornetto Trilogy successfully merged comedy, sci-fi horror & Gen X pathos.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the works being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Though their core plots aren’t similar, all three movies in Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy share the common thread of emotionally immature men clinging to the relics of their youth, often to the detriment of their friendships and romantic lives. Specifically men of Generation X, who tend to glorify their younger days, and the pop culture associated with it, at a level that borders on delusional (and as a Gen X woman I can tell you we’re not much better about it).

In Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, that obsession ultimately comes in handy (literally in Shaun, when the heroes use a cherished record collection as a weapon against a zombie), and both movies end on the knowledge that it’s possible to strike a balance between living in the past, and being present in the now. In the trilogy’s third and final film The World’s End, however, that knowledge comes with a dark and bittersweet edge. While predominantly about an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-like takeover of a remote English village, that’s actually less interesting than what brings those who end up saving the day (more or less) together in the first place: an awkward reunion between former high school pals for the sole purpose of getting blind drunk.

The movie opens with Gary King (Simon Pegg) regaling what we soon learn is a group therapy session with a colorful story from his youth, rattling off the details in a way that suggests he’s told it many, many times before. On the last day of high school, more than twenty years earlier, Gary and his best mates Andy, Steven, Oliver, and Pete got together to attempt “The Golden Mile,” a legendary pub crawl in their tiny hometown of Newton Haven. Though they weren’t able to complete it, falling short of all twelve pubs, even now pushing forty Gary still considers it the best night of his life. “I remember sitting up there, blood on my knuckles, beer down my shirt, sick on my shoes, seeing the orange glow of a new dawn breaking,” he says, “Knowing in my heart that life would never feel this good again. And you know what? It never did.”

Blissfully unaware of how sad that is, telling the story of the Golden Mile for what’s likely the fiftieth time in his life inspires Gary to reunite with his old friends and try it again. That they haven’t seen or even spoken to each other in years is little consequence to him, as is the fact that it takes Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Pete (Eddie Marsan), and especially Andy (Nick Frost) a great deal of coaxing to agree to it. Surely they hold that night in as high regard as Gary does, and are aching to experience that kind of freedom again, even if they’ll regret it the next day.

The World'S End
The World’s End (Focus Features)

The truth is, they already regret it, even before the pub crawl actually begins. When Gary shows up to drive them to Newton Haven, a town none of them remembers fondly (save for Gary, because it was the last place where he felt important), he’s wearing the same clothes, driving the same car, and listening to the same mixtape Steven made for him two decades earlier. Time stopped for Gary in 1990, and rather than being charmed by it his friends are concerned. Not only does he not seem to have any discernible life in the present, he’s uninterested in any details about theirs, content to talk about nothing but the good ol’ days.

The sour feeling continues when, instead of the hero’s welcome Gary expected upon their return to Newton Haven, not only is no one impressed by his announcement that they’re going to revisit the Golden Mile, no one seems to recognize them either, not even a childhood bully who tormented the meek Pete throughout all of their school years. There’s a sinister sort of blandness to everything, where many of the pubs on the Golden Mile have been stripped of their character, and it’s obvious from the very beginning that Gary and the others no longer belong there.

Though a few drinks ease their discomfort with the situation (and each other) initially, it quickly becomes apparent that Gary’s insistence on living in the past is part of a much bigger, much more toxic problem, as illustrated by the fact that he mocks Andy for having quit drinking years ago (and evidently forgot why), and is a serial liar, passing himself off as Pete during an encounter with a highway patrolman, and falsely claiming that his mother has died as a sympathy ploy. Most frustratingly, he’s incapable of having a serious conversation, or behaving and reacting to things like a mature adult. But before Andy and the others can confront him, however, Gary gets into a fight with a teenager in a pub bathroom and discovers that most of Newton Haven’s residents have been replaced by androids working under the orders of a malevolent otherworldly being.

Though it’s fairly obvious what movies inspired the sci-fi plot of The World’s End (the aforementioned Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Attack the Block, a touch of Village of the Damned, with some of the creepy small town vibe of Hot Fuzz), the human elements of it feel so personal that it seems almost a little rude to try to find out what (or rather who) inspired them. Though there are plenty of “we’re getting the gang back together for one last hurrah” comedies, few capture the unique sorrow of spending time with a friend you no longer have anything in common with. Even before the secret of Newton Haven is revealed the evening was well on its way to becoming a depressing flop. It’s not just Gary’s childish shenanigans casting a pall on everything, it’s the fact that none of them know each other anymore. It’s that they’re all there under duress, looking at their watches, checking their phones, counting the minutes until this whole ridiculous thing is over.

Though there are plenty of “we’re getting the gang back together for one last hurrah” comedies, few capture the unique sorrow of spending time with a friend you no longer have anything in common with.

And who can blame them? Gary is exasperating and exhausting to be around. His barely concealed resentment over what he perceives to be Andy and the others’ perfect grown-up lives comes out in petty digs and jabs, and he never wastes an opportunity to remind them that, once upon a time, he was considered the cool guy, and they the losers who rode his duster jacket coattails. 

Even when it would be in their best interest to leave Newton Haven immediately, Gary insists on continuing with the pub crawl. He claims it’s so they’ll draw less attention (which isn’t entirely a bad idea), but it’s mostly because, by any means necessary, he’s finally going to finish this fucking thing. As he tearfully admits to Andy, after a life of dashed hopes, unfulfilled promise, and a very recent suicide attempt, it’s all he has.

It’s frankly surprising that Gary doesn’t give in to the temptation of eternal youth in exchange for his allegiance to “the Network,” the mysterious entity behind the takeover of Newton Haven. But, in the end, nobody tells Gary King what to do, and his obstinance so frustrates the Network that it simply gives up, leaving Newton Haven and causing a global power surge that plunges the entire planet into darkness. 

An epilogue narrated by Andy reveals that in the aftermath he and the others tried to return to normal, but as far as they know Gary disappeared, never to be heard from again. In actuality, he stayed in Newton Haven, the only place that ever felt like home to him. He quit drinking but is still able to happily relive his teenage years, acting as mentor and protector for the android versions of his young friends, who will never grow old, and won’t ever expect him to grow up.

That may seem like a happy ending at first, like Shaun keeping his best buddy as a gaming partner despite his being a zombie in Shaun of the Dead. But the thought of Gary living in stasis forever is really more of a poignant tragedy. The androids don’t need him, he needs them, to maintain this eternal Peter Pan and the Lost Boys fantasy, which is evidently more inviting to Gary than trying to make something of the second half of his life. What’s even sadder is understanding how many of us would agree.

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