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“The World’s End” is the third in Edgar Wright’s oddly named “Three Flavors Cornetto” trilogy, the previous two being “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” But despite the joke, the British ice cream cone is not really the thread that ties these films together. Nor is the apparent predilection for sending Simon Pegg through garden fences rather than over them. No, each of these films features what seems to be a wholly British antagonist, one that can be found across British horror and fantasy cinema: the hollow man.
Hollow men have many names, but defining characteristics of vacant stares, dead eyes and empty souls. There seems to be a running theme of emptiness, of absence and stagnation, across the “Cornetto” trilogy, betraying its comedic roots with surprising depth and foresight. “Shaun of the Dead” uses zombies and adolescent arrested development as the competing adversaries. “Hot Fuzz” uses a vacuous town bent on maintaining a meaningless status symbol poised against heroes deluded by self-importance. The newest entry into the Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg filmography is “The World’s End,” which examines the trappings of adulthood set against youthful optimism—and soulless automatons from outer space. While the each film in the “Cornetto” trilogy is essentially a send-up of a specific genre (zombies, cop movies, sci-fi) they are all generally well done. Unlike other makers of spoof films, Edgar Wright focuses on telling a story, rather than combining a series of rapid-fire jokes in a series of loosely connected sketches a la “Airplane” or “Scary Movie.” This is largely why the films are so successful. “The World’s End” is basically an extended “Doctor Who” episode—minus The Doctor. The effects and silliness of the villains are more reminiscent of Cybermen or Autons than anything from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
The story itself involves a man named Gary King (Simon Pegg) who wants to recreate a pub crawl from his youth with his four best friends from high school. His friends have all moved on to marriages, jobs, and children while Gary has maintained his “freedom” through addiction to drugs and alcohol. None of his friends are especially keen on the idea, but Gary is persistent and they all return to their hometown to pacify the needs of a man who has nothing of substance in his life. Of course, throughout the course of the film we find that working mindless jobs in London is no more fulfilling than drunkenly blundering through life in the smaller and quieter Newton Haven. The metaphor is then compounded and driven home by the presence of “blank villagers” replaced by an alien consciousness.
While “The World’s End” doesn’t have quite the same amount of charm found in “Shaun of the Dead” (neither did “Hot Fuzz,” for that matter), it is still better by leaps and bounds than any comedy released this summer. Wright creates characters that are believable and honest, not caricatures or stereotypes. The characters have plausible reactions to their extraordinary circumstances, like concern and worry rather than snark and sarcasm. Of particular note is Nick Frost, a familiar face from the past films, cast here as the straight man. He and Pegg have essentially switched roles from “Shaun of the Dead” and Frost carries the part well, showing quite a bit of range. The film clips along a good pace, gaining a good amount of traction before the first alien creature makes an appearance. Part of me would have enjoyed seeing the action of the film without the sci-fi angle—there’s more than enough dramatic and comedic material to flesh out the film without it.
But it’s the themes of hollowness that intrigue me more than the juvenile jokes about pub crawls and debauchery (although those are certainly welcome when applied so intelligently). The fears found in American culture are wildly over represented in the entertainment industry. We are afraid of sex and violence, of conspiracies and foreigners. This film is all about fearing the person we are and the person we may end up becoming. It’s fairly serious subject matter for an unserious movie. Obviously, Hollywood films are going to cater to American audiences by representing their values and personas on screen. But films like “The World’s End” open me up to different experiences and ideas, even if it’s only on a minor level. Here’s hoping that Wright and Penn continue making films like these.