In the years since its release, Shaun of the Dead has become something of a minor modern classic. It seems almost universally beloved now and launched several careers (It took Simon Pegg from being a British TV comedy actor to co-starring in blockbusters with Tom Cruise). The Pegg/Edgar Wright/Nick Frost team produced the excellent Hot Fuzz soon afterward but then headed across the Atlantic and split up, with Pegg and Frost producing Paul and Wright directing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, both fun but underwhelming films. It does seem they work better together though, as The World’s End finds them back on home turf, with a fitting conclusion to their unofficial ‘Cornetto trilogy’.
The ‘rom-zom-com’ Shaun of the Dead took a basic storyline that didn’t have to feature fantastical elements – a down-on-his luck man trying to sort his life out and win back his girlfriend – and made it unique by having it take place during a zombie apocalypse. The World’s End opts for a similar approach, but this time utilises sci-fi instead of horror. The set-up finds Pegg’s character Gary King attempting to recruit his old school friends to return to their home town and recreate a pub crawl they tried and failed to complete as teenagers in 1990, but soon there appear to be some aliens present.
It was a sensible decision by Wright and Pegg to not try to make direct sequels to Shaun, while there are clear tonal and thematic links (not to mention the fence-hopping sight gag and appearance of a Cornetto) between the three, the characters the leads play are very different. Gary King is miles away from the lovable Shaun or stern super-cop Nicholas Angel from Hot Fuzz. He was the coolest kid in school, rebellious and carefree, but hasn’t grown up at all, still clinging to his glory days, wearing the same clothes, listening to the same music, even still driving the same car. Meanwhile, his friends have all long since moved on and grown up. The obnoxious, manipulative and immature King is a deliberately unlikeable lead for a comedy, but he’s a totally believable character that never grates, and allows Pegg to show a new side to his acting. The same can certainly be said of Nick Frost too, who plays a much more sensible character, and really gets a chance to demonstrate his range. The pair is backed up by an excellent set of cohorts, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan (playing against type), occasionally Rosamund Pike, and many brief appearances of familiar faces from all previous Wright/Pegg works.
The World’s End trumps its predecessors in one respect by really having some depth to it, the friends all have detailed backstories which lead to some vital character moments, some amusing and some really quite serious. In the midst of its alien invasion, it finds genuine things to say on the nature of male friendship, nostalgia, growing up, and returning to your hometown.
Wright and Pegg have clearly put a lot of effort into this aspect of the screenplay, but unfortunately, this appears to have come at the expense of the laughs. The World’s End has plenty of jokes in it (a scene of Pegg fighting whilst trying to not spill his pint is quite brilliant), but it mostly lacks any really big laughs, which its predecessors had in spades. They would have perhaps felt inappropriate during the film’s more thoughtful moments but the first half could have packed them in. Also the delightful movie in-jokes and references, a staple of their work dating back to Spaced, are in short supply this time around, a few obvious ones aside. I do hope and expect that repeat viewings will reveal more, as is usually the case with them.
One area Wright seems right at home with is action. He directs the whole film in an inventive, speedy manner, but he really knows how to handle the inevitable bar fights, which are wonderfully shot and choreographed.
Unlike their leading man, The World’s End shows clear signs that Wright and Pegg are maturing as filmmakers, tackling bigger themes and succeeding at doing so. Shaun and Hot Fuzz managed the rare feat of being great comedies, and great examples of the genre’s they were revering (horror and action respectively), The World’s End is a great human story, but it’s not a great Sci-Fi one. Still though, it’s an essential work from one the most exciting film teams to emerge in the last decade. It may be the last Cornetto film, but let’s hope it’s not the end of their collaborations.