The accidental so-called “Cornetto trilogy” reaches a dazzling conclusion in The World’s End, hitting theaters today: a paranoid sci-fi capper to a sequence of films that began with zombie rom-com Shaun of the Dead and continued with buddy-action flick Hot Fuzz. Of course, there’s more linking these movies than big laughs and genre thrills—there’s also a lot of heart, an emotive power that can knock you out when you least expect it.
There’s much ado about British drinking culture, too, especially in The World’s End, which follows an ill-fated pub crawl. In that sense, it’s not merely fanboy catnip—it’s a dead-serious alcoholic odyssey, as director-writer Edgar Wright, co-writer and star Simon Pegg, and co-star Nick Frost made clear in our interview.
“There’s a reason there’s twelve pubs on the crawl,” said Pegg, who once more takes on the duties of flawed protagonist in Gary King, a man whose life peaked in high school. “When it seems the world’s about to end, you go to the most important thing,” he explains of the character, who’s determined to finish his pub crawl despite an alien invasion, “and for him that’s lager. He’s an alcoholic.” Indeed, from the first shot of pints—struck with holy light by cinematographer Bill Pope, bubbles trickling to the top—you’ll wish American cinemas served beer. “That and at the end are the only time it’s real lager,” Frost, who plays Gary’s estranged friend Andy Knightley, dragged along for the ride, explains. Throughout the rest of filming, they had to drink a brown sugar-water concoction “with cream soda on top for the head. Lot of bathroom breaks.” “There was talk of having us catheterized,” Pegg puts in, affecting an old-man voice: "Clean my bag!"
So where did the idea of a pub crawl during the apocalypse come from? Actually, the kernel of the story is nearly twenty years old: Edgar Wright in his youth filmed a short about friends attempting an epic night of drinking, only to be undone by their own enthusiasm. “That’s the first five minutes of this film,” Wright says—in the opening of The World’s End, a teenage Gary leads Andy and three other school chums on a debauch called “The Golden Mile,” at least one pint each at a dozen pubs in their suburban hometown. They never make it to the final station, The World’s End, and twenty years later, Gary is determined to rectify that with another attempt (the idea occurs to him at an alcoholics anonymous meeting).
Gary’s old crew are all responsible adults now, however, played by the endlessly talented actors Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan. They and especially Andy, who has suffered for Gary’s addiction in the past, are reluctant to return to the site of their former lives, but follow their former leader. After a few pints, it occurs to them that there may be something amiss. But what? Are they just older? Are they the ones who have changed? Or has the town itself? “We wanted to take ‘alienation’ to its literal extreme,” Pegg says.
Alienation, substance abuse, the drifting apart of friends—that’s what gives The World’s End the weight of Oscar-worthy film, all packaged in the eye candy of a sci-fi blockbuster. Training and choreography for the relatively short 12-week shoot were intense, and it shows: no comedic team has ever staged fight scenes so convincing, in large part because they’re edited together in just a few takes, rarely use stunt doubles, and rely on the characters to determine combat style. Frost is a particular delight, boasting what Pegg called an “Incredible Hulk” performance. “He’s just so full of repressed rage,” he says. Again, something serious, just under the entertaining surface.
To say much more about the adventure that unfolds would be to spoil the charm of the movie, which does a lot of winking—the names of the pubs, for example, tend to correspond to what happens plotwise within them. The music, too, culled from a 200-song playlist of Edgar Wright’s encompassing the period of 1988-1991 (around when the original pub crawl takes place) is very on the nose: we hear The Sundays’ “Here’s Where The Story Ends” on a jukebox, and The Stone Roses’ “Fools Gold” when Gary decides to drink the dregs of some abandoned pints.
As for the nature of the invasion, ultimately the story hinges not on the aliens’ plans but the bizarre and frustrating riddle of human nature. Why do we behave this way? Is there something fundamentally wrong with us? Pegg, Frost and Wright admit they don’t know, only that it’s good fodder for a cerebral romp through a mélange of their own childhood memories and fevered imaginations.
Have they ever attempted a pub crawl themselves? Naturally. This last time, though, they got through just four bars. “Edgar’s a terrible drinker,” Frost explains. “We had to carry him home.” “I’m a terrible drinker,” Wright agrees. I ask what name he’d give a pub of his own, and he wracks his brain before deciding. “The Lightweight & Blackout,” he says.