One of the most depressing things about this summer’s crop of disappointing blockbusters, other than the movies themselves, was having people act like you’re some kind of killjoy, fun-police art snob every time you point out how bad they are. “Turn your brain off and enjoy the ‘splosions, art fag!” “Whoa, sorry you were expecting Plato there, Nietzche! Why don’t you move to France!”
Thank God for The World’s End, a summer movie that makes me feel like maybe I don’t have to move to France. It stands on its own, but it’s also especially timely, the kind of movie I can point to and say “See? A popcorn movie can still be about something.” It’s silly and breezy and fun, but not in a way that requires willfully endumbening yourself. Smart people can enjoy cheap thrills too, can’t we? “It made me feel like a kid again!” is the go-to fanboy apology for loving a crappy genre movie, but The World’s End is a film that finally achieves child-like mirth without requiring child-like naivety.
For the past few years at least, the gyroscope of cyclical nostalgia has frequently come up “eighties Spielberg movie,” as countless directors have blown their budgets trying to recreate E.T. or Back to the Future. But without much of a point beyond “remember that?!” their films devolve into a litany of hollow references. The World’s End is a film that understands that impulse, only it goes one better: it takes those same reference points and uses them to build a light critique of our nostalgia lust itself. It may not be Love and Death or Lost in America, but it takes a certain amount of balls to threaten to bite the hand that feeds this way. The artistry of it is that it’s deft enough that the hand may not even notice. Without spoiling too much (which is really difficult with The World’s End, where the the thrust of the plot switches substantially about 30 minutes in), the Soylent Green-esque bad guys use the carrot of nostalgia to try to create a more technologically-connected, homogenized world. And I don’t think it requires too much reading between the lines to see reference to Buzzfeed listicles and Star Wars mash-up memes there. Saying it “holds a mirror up to internet man-child culture” might be a bit strong, but it’s at least a winking armpit fart in its general direction.
That’s not to say The World’s End is a satire or even a send-up, it’s a stand-alone popcorn movie through and through. It just gives you enough semi-allegorical subtext to make it more than a funny-guys-run-from-supernatural-threat-while-cracking-wise story, if you want it to be.
The humor in The World’s End isn’t cutting edge, and there’s a certain hamminess to it at times, where it’s perhaps too reliant on winks and catchphrases. Martin Freeman’s character is fond of exclaiming “WTF!”, while his sister, played by Rosamund Pike, prefers “Oh, crumbs!” (Maybe it’s a family thing). It borders on kitsch, but Wright/Pegg/et al have a way of weaving those kitschy jokes back into the plot as constructive story elements, where they become more like edible garnish than pure gilding. It edges toward shrill and camp at times, but it’s done elegantly enough that you forgive it.
There are movies funnier and more insightful than The World’s End, but few that represent such a fully-realized vision. You don’t normally get that in a comedy, probably because people with good comedic sensibilities tend to be quite lazy. The plot of, say, This is the End (to compare World’s End to this summer’s other solid studio comedy) feels more like an outline to fill with jokes. With The World’s End, there’s a clear attempt to create its own mythos, which is what gives movies a staying power beyond just being a fun two hours in a theater. There are 12 pubs in the Golden Mile, for instance, and the name of each can be read as a subtle reference for what happens there. Secrets about the town are revealed in “The Trusty Servant.” Simon Pegg’s Gary “The King” King gets a whack on the head in “The King’s Head,” and so forth. You could accuse Wright and Pegg of perhaps being too linear with it, but it’s that kind of meticulous world building that makes people want to watch a movie like, say, The Big Lebowski over and over, beyond the total number of laughs.