Skip to main content

We are here to get annihilated.


The World’s End
(2013)

(SPOILERS) It’s perhaps inevitable that The World’s End should be the Pegg/Wright/Frost film where the hype finally catches up with them. They’ve been in the vanguard of can-do nerds for a long while based purely on past glories; the third part in their Cornetto trilogy has assumed a status of legendary anticipation. And, for many, they can do no wrong (hey, as a collective they had a three-for-three success so I was buying into it). The problem with that assumed weight is that they’ve decided they’re not just funny guys but artists too, so they need to make sure there’s a commentary in their movie; it’s about something. It can’t just be a witty genre riff with lip service to an emotional undertow. So they find themselves testing their mettle like never before, and the result is a bit of a mess.


The ever-expanding status of Wright and Pegg as uber-geeks du jour in the States has embedded them in fan consciousness as a duo that can do no wrong. Their every pronouncement is nursed as the most sage erudition ever on any given (geek) subject and they will concordantly be forgiven the gravest of sins as they’re “one of us” (Scotty, anyone?) The cult appeal of Shaun of the Dead across the Pond ignited a retrospective slavering over Spaced, which felt not a little tiresome for anyone who’d caught it at entrance level more than five years earlier. Then Hot Fuzz came out, just as Pegg (in particular) was on the receiving end of fledgling endorsement from the geek empire builders (Tarantino, Abrams, Spielberg). In the six years since, there’s been Star Trek and Wright’s confirmation as cult miracle-doer in the everybody-loves-it flop Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Frost had to make do with ever-so-slightly-grumbling third man status, lacking the creative flair of Wright or the easy-going charisma of Pegg. Still, he co-wrote Paul with Pegg; a crude, fellatory love letter to the country that has taken them to its bosom. The irony is that Paul, as lacking in flair and wit as it is, may be a more satisfying movie than The World’s End. At least it knows what it wants to be, and firmly rests on those self-congratulatory laurels. Wright’s new film strains to make a serious point so ends up looking faintly ridiculous, guilty of the same lack of self-awareness that the trio used to mock.


And surely going to the sci-fi well twice in a row was a sign of creative drought? It doesn’t matter that E.T. isn’t Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or that the violence inflicted on not-humans recalls Shaun. There’s a sense that they aren’t really trying very hard. There’s nothing wrong in writing what you know (ask Woody Allen), but there’s a danger that eventually it may expose you as having very little to say. Probably Wright and Pegg are aware of this; they’re nothing if not savvy. So World’s End is really about recognising (or not) that you’re growing up.


We’ve heard their sound bites about 40 being the new 30, and commenting on man-child comedies that fail to make their hero pay a price. But I don’t really think that Gary King (Pegg) is such a break from that. The norm is that the protagonist will eventually learn that he needs to take responsibility, and reflect the felicitations of his long-suffering (would-be) amour. He might even endorse the idea of starting a family. Wright and Pegg make King an out-and-out jerk; he’s not a faintly loveable schlub, even though he comes out with many of Pegg’s usual one-liners. He’s a tiresome twat. One might argue that’s a bold move, and it can work if you’re a charm machine beneath it all (Nicholson in As Good As It Gets) who just needs a bit of poking to show his good side beneath it all. Even bolder, one might argue, to include no such journey. But where does that leave the audience?


Again, Pegg and Wright must be aware of this to some extent, which is why they turn Gary into a hero despite himself. Not an anti-hero of the Bruce Campbell Evil Dead variety; Gary has neither the self-awareness nor the screwball charm of Ash (though he’s clearly the goal, as the epilogue shows). It doesn’t compute; if it all ended in self-sacrifice it might give him validation. Instead, the fantasy apocalypse of Garyreliving his youth nurses two opposing impulses. Look, say Pegg and Wright, Gary can’t grow up; how sad is that? But visually they are saying the opposite. Look, Gary can’t grow up; how cool is that? I don’t think this is born out of great cleverness on their part, it’s because they fumble the ball they’re attempting to run with. It was too much for them, and they retreat to a safer ground.


It's no doubt an honourable intention to mix things up by having Pegg play the dickhead and Frost the straight man, but in Shaun of the Dead Frost wasn't playing the central character. You could get away with him being an obnoxious arsehole as comic relief. In theory, the first half of the film should have been the best part as it's all relationship comedy, but Pegg is such an (intentional) annoyance to be around that much of it falls flat. I could feel the scenes stretch out deathlessly. We, the audience, are put in the position of his reluctant childhood friends, wondering why on earth we’ve spent good money to sit in his company. It’s not that this kind of ingratiating comedy can’t work, but if all the character amounts to is a cock (as Frost’s Andrew Knightley puts it) it’s difficult to cast about for a rich vein of comedy. If you’re Mike Leigh, aiming for a bittersweet™ affair, that’s one thing, but maudlin character dissection isn’t this duo’s forte. The movie finds itself caught between two stools; it isn’t clever or insightful enough to be affecting (Gary is a much less intricate character than Bradley Cooper’s in the no less fantasyland but much more charming Silver Linings Playbook) and not funny enough to really lift off.


Many of the ripostes to such naysaying will be that I don’t want Wright and Pegg to try something different, that I just want Shaun, or the Paul dynamic between Pegg and Frost, reheated again and again. But it’s not that; I want them to play to their strengths, and it’s very clear that they have a very narrow field to play in outside of the straightforward geek-matey comedy that made them such successes. Indeed, I increasingly suspect that the lack of Jessica Stevenson/Hynes in the creative mix spotlights all their shortcomings. She brought an emotional sincerity to Spaced (at its best) that is absent from everything the lads together have done, even when it’s a straightforward paean to the value of friendship.


So, when the plot switches to science fiction (at a point beginning with a replay of the “Too orangey for crows” scenario from Spaced), Gary’s aptitude for genuine heroics feels wrong. Suddenly he’s a fully equipped and capable action man. Yes, he’s a dick, but he’s a dick to get behind. Is that what Pegg and Wright are saying? Many of the "real" moments during this section just don't play because they are shoehorned in with shocking lack of finesse. Quite apart from doubt over whether Andrew has progressed to the point where he would forgive Gary, the climactic heart to heart between the two falls flat because Frost isn't nearly a good enough actor. And there’s a repetitiveness to the arguments and labouring of the sci-fi tropes (the obligatory “Are you one of them?” scene is an opportunity for comedy gold, but falls curiously flat, even aside from the need to undercut it by telling us –yet again – how fucked up Gary is). Both gags (Gary’s mum) and emotional beats are overly telegraphed (the bandages; but without provoking empathy for Gary along the way) and the fight between Gary and Andrew over the final pint is tiresome and pointless (is it supposed to be a homage to They Live!)?


If there were any real substance to the characters, or progression, there'd be no need for the sci-fi hook at all. But the result is that the mid-section, with full-on dismemberments and blue lubricant flying everywhere, is by far the most entertaining. Wright achieves a sense of breathless escalation even if there’s never the claustrophobia of Shaun. He even muddies his usual clean, precise shooting style by opting for Bourne-esque handheld camera (the stunt work, from Brad Allan, is delightfully choreographed, but you want to be able to see it clearly). Maybe he thinks he’s maturing by becoming less distinct (although you couldn’t argue that of Scott Pilgrim, a visual feast) but often Wright lacks the playfulness and wit with his visual grammar seen in earlier work. Has he cast off childish things? If so it’s a shame, as he frequently resembles one of the crowd here. Even Bill Pope’s cinematography is variable, while the climactic effects extravaganza is unnecessary and unconvincing.


Frost's at his best during the midsection, becoming a one-man war machine, and his action set pieces in particular are frenetic and invigorating. The other main players are all good fun; it’s particularly nice to see Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan in such sympathetic roles, but they’re only really filling out walking clichés (the guy who could never tell the girl he love her, the bullied boy who takes revenge – and is then punished for it, or is he?) Martin Freeman has some fun with his anal estate agent and Rosamund Pike fits in well with the lads, even if she has little to make her character distinct. There are some nice little guest spots from regulars of Pegg & co (Mark Heap, Michael Smiley) and Pierce Brosnan and David Bradley make the most of their guest spots. I was amused to see that no attempt is made to disguise the fact that Pegg’s younger counterpart is considerably taller than him.


If the Body Snatchers-on-a-pub-crawl section elicits a consistent run of chuckles and hoots, it all falls apart in the final act. The writers settle for a Douglas Adams-on-the-piss confrontation with the alien infiltrator (voiced by Bill Nighy) that only succeeds in producing a tiresomely familiar but uncouth version of the “gloriously individual thing about humans” speech we’ve heard a thousand times before (usually from Captain Kirk).  It’s resonant of a bad episode of Red Dwarf (not hard to find) and has a disappointingly “That’ll do” quality.


Things get worse with an epilogue that's not only a cheap rip-off of the best of the two endings of Army of Darkness but makes Pegg’s character even less sympathetic. As noted, it could be read as an admirable break from the standard move on one level (his emotional journey is one of retardation) but it actually serves to make him reprehensible for the sake of a cool endnote. What, are he and his robot chums going to slaughter a bar full of humans and we’re supposed to think it’s great? And if we’re not, what was the point of shooting it in such an exulting fashion? In general, the epilogue fails through trying to wrap everything in a bow. It provides closure to even the “fallen heroes” in a way Steven “Everybody lives” Moffat would be proud of, but confirms how shot away any attempts at depth are (it shouldn’t need to be a conversation in a Pegg-Wright comedy, but they’re inviting the brickbats this time). That said, Freeman with half a football on his head is hilarious.


A few other aspects gave me pause. There seems to be a slightly queasy undercurrent of revelling in the excuse to beat up (blue-juiced, robot) women that reaches its peak point when the doppelganger of Andrew’s childhood lust object invites him to stick it in her and he pushes his fist through her guts. It’s a celebratory moment that leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. Further adding to the lack of sound judgement is Steven Price’s score, which has all the subtlety of Murray Gold Overdrive. It floods over every scene, making the meaningful exchanges unbearably cloying and false. It’s as if Pegg and Wright have been possessed by the lowest common denominator of the broadest US comedies, where every intention has to be broadcast loud and clear. Compared to the lightness of touch they started out with, it’s alarming to see them weighed down by the self-importance of assuming they are saying something profound.


If you’ve reached heady heights, it can only be all the more disappointing when you falter. It just happens to be Pegg and Wright’s turn. Nothing in The World’s End quite feels spontaneous; there’s never a sense that they really want to be telling this story. Purely conceptually, the science fiction plot never fits as seamlessly as the zombie one did in Shaun. Maybe because the alienation one is so obvious (both Pegg and Pike come out and say it) that the writers didn’t spend enough time making it stand on its own two feet. And, in terms of the lead protagonist, having everyone recognise what a tool he is only goes to underline that his antics are fairly insufferable. This may all sound churlish, as there are a lot of good laughs in the pot they’ve brewed. And it may knit together better on repeat viewing. But The World’s End takes a far distant third place in the Cornetto Trilogy.

***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Only an idiot sees the simple beauty of life.

Forrest Gump (1994)
(SPOILERS) There was a time when I’d have made a case for, if not greatness, then Forrest Gump’s unjust dismissal from conversations regarding its merits. To an extent, I still would. Just not nearly so fervently. There’s simply too much going on in the picture to conclude that the manner in which it has generally been received is the end of the story. Tarantino, magnanimous in the face of Oscar defeat, wasn’t entirely wrong when he suggested to Robert Zemeckis that his was a, effectively, subversive movie. Its problem, however, is that it wants to have its cake and eat it.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Basically, you’re saying marriage is just a way of getting out of an embarrassing pause in conversation?

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
(SPOILERS) There can be a cumulative effect from revisiting a movie where one glaring element does not fit, however well-judged or integrated everything else is; the error is only magnified, and seems even more of a miscalculation. With Groundhog Day, there’s a workaround to the romance not working, which is that the central conceit of reliving your day works like a charm and the love story is ultimately inessential to the picture’s success. In the case of Four Weddings and a Funeral, if the romance doesn’t work… Well, you’ve still got three other weddings, and you’ve got a funeral. But our hero’s entire purpose is to find that perfect match, and what he winds up with is Andie McDowell. One can’t help thinking he’d have been better off with Duck Face (Anna Chancellor).

Stupid adult hands!

Shazam! (2019)
(SPOILERS) Shazam! is exactly the kind of movie I hoped it would be, funny, scary (for kids, at least), smart and delightfully dumb… until the final act. What takes place there isn’t a complete bummer, but right now, it does pretty much kill any interest I have in a sequel.

Do not mention the Tiptoe Man ever again.

Glass (2019)
(SPOILERS) If nothing else, one has to admire M Night Shyamalan’s willingness to plough ahead regardless with his straight-faced storytelling, taking him into areas that encourage outright rejection or merciless ridicule, with all the concomitant charges of hubris. Reactions to Glass have been mixed at best, but mostly more characteristic of the period he plummeted from his must-see, twist-master pedestal (during the period of The Village and The Happening), which is to say quite scornful. And yet, this is very clearly the story he wanted to tell, so if he undercuts audience expectations and leaves them dissatisfied, it’s most definitely not a result of miscalculation on his part. For my part, while I’d been prepared for a disappointment on the basis of the critical response, I came away very much enjoying the movie, by and large.