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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

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…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

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…

This is very cruel, Oskar. You're giving them hope. You shouldn't do that.

Schindler’s List (1993)
(SPOILERS) Such is the status of Schindler’s List, it all but defies criticism; it’s the worthiest of all the many worthy Best Picture Oscar winners, a film noble of purpose and sensitive in the treatment and depiction of the Holocaust as the backdrop to one man’s redemption. There is much to admire in Steven Spielberg’s film. But it is still a Steven Spielberg film. From a director whose driving impulse is the manufacture of popcorn entertainments, not intellectual introspection. Which means it’s a film that, for all its commendable features, is made to manipulate its audience in the manner of any of his “lesser” genre offerings. One’s mileage doubtless varies on this, but for me there are times during this, his crowning achievement, where the berg gets in the way of telling the most respectful version of this story by simple dint of being the berg. But then, to a great or lesser extent, this is true of almost all, if not all, his prestige pictures.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

There’s nothing stock about a stock car.

Days of Thunder (1990)
(SPOILERS) The summer of 1990 was beset with box office underperformers. Sure-thing sequels – Another 48Hrs, Robocop 2, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Exorcist III, even Back to the Future Part III – either belly flopped or failed to hit the hoped for highs, while franchise hopefuls – Dick Tracy, Arachnophobia – most certainly did not ascend to the stratospheric levels of the previous year’s Batman. Even the big hitters, Total Recall and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, were somewhat offset by costing a fortune in the first place. Price-tag-wise, Days of Thunder, a thematic sequel to the phenomenon that was Top Gun, was in their category. Business-wise, it was definitely in the former. Tom Cruise didn’t quite suffer his first misfire since Legend – he’d made charmed choices ever since playing Maverick – but it was a close-run thing.

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).