The World’s End is my answer to the question “Why not?”
This movie released in America in late August 2013 – little more than a week after I had started film school, proper, and a year into my college career overall. I love all of Edgar Wright’s films, and had been long anticipating this “conclusion” to his and Simon Pegg’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy. I was there on day one, of course.
I did not in my wildest dreams expect that this movie would be so critical to my life going forward, but I truly believe that The World’s End changed my life.
It was in many ways what I expected – a deeply layered, intricate comedy with surprisingly high dramatic stakes and a certain blasé attitude toward genre convention. Even with the high concept sci-fi trappings that show up about an hour into the film, it did feel remarkably more subdued than Wright and Pegg’s previous efforts. Both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz leaned into their respective genres early; Shaun gets the zombie apocalypse rolling practically during the opening credits, and Hot Fuzz opens with a hard-boiled montage of Sergeant Nicholas Angel’s career exploits. By contrast, The World’s End plays at being a straightforward dramatic comedy about friends revisiting a stomping ground of their youth, and commenting on the way things change and how toxic nostalgia can be.
What’s remarkable, though, is that it isn’t actually playing at that at all – that’s absolutely what this movie is. Wright’s films have always been subversive dramas wrapped up in genre conventions, but The World’s End takes this to a new extreme. The science fiction elements – the “Blanks,” the Network, the entire invasion angle – are weirdly given a backseat to the core group of friends and their efforts to, at first, complete the Golden Mile, and then to escape the hometown that they are now trapped in. It’s refreshing to see genre in the sidecar and serious dramatic heft driving, and while maybe that shouldn’t be a rarity in the industry, it’s still something worth celebrating.
It really is worth celebrating here, too. This movie has so much on its mind, thematically, that the genre stuff almost feels like an afterthought (though it is important to note that it super isn’t an afterthought, it’s actually a core component of the film’s thematic statement, as this FILM CRIT HULK piece over on Birth.Movies.Death. makes clear). This film has a lot to say about the dangers of nostalgia, and for where I was in 2013, that was something I needed to hear.
The film attempts to deconstruct the cult of nostalgia from two fronts: one, by addressing the fact that the days one longs to revisit were not as golden as they seemed (“You remember the Friday nights. I remember the Monday mornings.”), and two, by showing that the places and things you once did are often no longer there anymore (the Old Familiar pub, for instance, is very much neither old nor familiar to the group, the pub having been renovated and bought out by some Starbucks-esque pub corporation).
Throughout their apocalyptic evening, the group meets a number of people from their past and few of them are as they remember. The Reverend Green is a reformed businessman with a job and responsibilities, rather than the carefree pot dealer he once was. The “Marmalade sandwich” (this movie can be a little gross about its women characters from time to time, but given that it’s filtered through the lens of these characters who are probably just actually gross about their fellow humans who happen to be women, it’s understandable) are turned into tempting sirens who lead the men to forget about their then-current relationships. Peter Page is visited by his childhood bully, and finding that the bully doesn’t remember him at all devastates him. The past is not a friendly, comfortable presence in this film, it’s a dangerous one that presents our heroes with challenges in their present.
This is all really potent thematic stuff! Once the sci-fi angle comes in and the boys are faced with the “Blanks,” which act as sort of physical manifestations of their past insecurities and present needs, it all takes on additional resonance. Peter gets the chance to beat in the skull of his childhood bully, and it’s cathartic for him if ultimately destructive. Oliver gets to actually accompany the group further along the Golden Mile, but it’s at the cost of his actual life. Gary is offered his youth back – the promise of nostalgic temptation made explicitly literal – but it would be at the expense of his free will and independence. These twisted, Faustian deals abound in this film – all in the service of making nostalgia the double-edged sword that Wright and Pegg believe it truly is.
But as powerful as that thematic concept is, it’s the other reading of this film that makes it so important to me. This movie, for as much as it’s about the toxicity of nostalgia and glamorizing the past at the expense of the present, is about alcoholism.
Throughout the film, Gary King’s one goal is to finish the Golden Mile. His constant objective is that next drink, wherever it happens to be. There’s a moment where he finishes a set of three half-empty (half-full?) pints left behind, that the film plays as a joke – he really wants to do this Golden Mile, but since he’s barred from this pub, he resorts to grossly drinking leftover pints from strangers – but is also keenly aware that this is a dark character beat. Gary is so desperate for a drink that he will drink leftover pints.
It’s a terrifying portrait of a man completely consumed by alcoholism. It comes into sharp focus when, late in the film, Gary’s suicide attempt comes to light, giving clarity and context to the entire film’s events. More than any high art drama that I’ve seen, this film made me understand and empathize with a deeply broken alcoholic.
I mentioned that this movie came out near the beginning of my time in college for a reason. Everybody knows and understands what college culture is like in America these days. Campuses and institutions frequently look the other way in the name of providing necessary safety services to prevent students from driving under the influence, or from overconsumption and poisoning. Maybe they shouldn’t, maybe they should. Regardless: alcohol is obviously and incontrovertibly a significant part of the college experience.
I have no moral compunctions about alcohol. It’s fine. Drink if you want to, make sure you’re doing it responsibly, and don’t be a jerk about it to other people. Otherwise, go nuts. For whatever reasons, though, up through 2013 I had never really been in a position where I was offered alcohol (being under 21 did contribute, I’m sure). That said, I had no real opinion about it – I don’t know and can’t say what my response would have been had I been offered any.
After seeing The World’s End, though?
I didn’t drink. I didn’t have any alcohol of any kind until I was 21. Even after, I didn’t drink at parties and would usually stick to small amounts of whatever I would drink. And when I did, I always felt a slight pang of guilt. Gary King was always running through my mind.
I have a compulsive personality. I’ve played video games for years and have always had a frighteningly easy time getting absorbed into them for longer than I should. I get obsessed with certain subjects and spend long hours reading all that I can find about them. For the most part, these compulsions aren’t destructive, and in some cases are good for me, in the long run. But I knew this about myself even back in 2013. And that compulsive streak in me terrified me in this regard.
So, with Gary King always on the brain, I didn’t drink. People would offer, and I’d politely decline. Many people would often follow up (respectfully, not forcefully!) with, “Why not?” I’d say something about diabetes, about being uncertain how my blood sugar would respond, and so on. Fortunately they’d never connect the dots to our mutual friend who was also diabetic and was able to control it just fine, and they’d accept that answer and move on.
But in my mind, the answer was always Gary King. The answer was always The World’s End. A comedy film that awoke a deep terror in me about what I could become.
It’s one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. It’s the reason I don’t drink.