We’ve seen the world crumble dozens of times in this, the summer of mass destruction movies. We’ve watched Kryptonians destroy major cities (“Man of Steel”), Brad Pitt battle his way through a zombie-pocalypse (“World War Z”), behemoths rise from beneath the sea (“Pacific Rim”) and the Rapture ruin an otherwise killer party at James Franco’s house (“This Is the End”). But we haven’t seen the breakdown of social order depicted with as much wit — that’s right, apocalypses can be fun! — as director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost bring to “The World’s End.”
This British trio first broke out stateside with 2004’s “Shaun of the Dead,” a cult favorite that invented a new cinematic category, the zombie rom-com. “The World’s End” pulls off a similar cross-tonal trick by merging the overplayed Armageddon genre with the equally overplayed arrested-male-adolescent trope and creating the sci-fi, coming-of-middle-age, apocalyptica-comedy. “The World’s End” understands that entering one’s 40s often feels like the end of the world, so it asks, “Hey, what if after hitting 40, it turned out the world actually was ending?” It’s a twisted, boozy, tongue-in-cheek window into the early-’90s-nostalgic soul of Generation X.
No Gen Xer is more nostalgic for the early ’90s than 40-something Gary King (Pegg), the severely alcoholic misfit at the heart of “The World’s End.” Gary has not moved beyond the night that he and four of his closest school buddies attempted a pub crawl but failed to make it to their final destination, a bar called the World’s End. More than two decades later and still wearing his uniform of a trench coat and Sisters of Mercy T-shirt, Gary persuades his now older, more mature friends (played by Frost, “Sherlock’s” Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan) to return to Newton Haven, England, and complete the crawl. But in the middle of their malty, hoppy trip down memory lane, something alarming happens; they get attacked by unanticipated forces and quickly realize their home town is no longer what it once was.
To say much more about “The World’s End’s” version of Armageddon would drain the movie of its ability to giddily blindside its audience. Let’s just say those unanticipated forces are robotic and kinda goopy when decapitated. Besides, this movie’s pleasures are less about its villains and more about the interplay between Pegg and Frost.
After serving as the childish dimwit to Pegg’s more responsible grown-ups in “Shaun of the Dead” and its follow-up, the buddy cop/action parody “Hot Fuzz,” Frost finally gets to play the straight-lacer, and Pegg, the infantile, manic pint-chugger. It’s clearly a blast for them to flip the script, especially for Pegg, who liberates himself physically and vocally. To catch every word in some of his rat-a-tat sentences, one may need to see “The World’s End” three times. When an insane barroom brawl repeatedly thwarts Gary’s attempts to sip a cold one, Pegg hurls himself into exasperation mode with an energy reminiscent of John Cleese during a Basil Fawlty fit.
Wright, who wrote the screenplay with Pegg, directs with the same wry zip he brought to the trio’s previous collaborations, as well as 2010’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” He keeps the pace quick and lets the jokes fly (“It’s like seeing a lion eating hummus!” Gary gasps as he watches Frost’s Andy sip water instead of beer).
“The World’s End” marks the final installment in the loosely defined trilogy that included “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” But let’s hope Wright, Pegg and Frost concoct more wild doomsday scenarios together. Their work makes for a good time at the movies and, in the case of “The World’s End,” closes this year’s apocalyptic summer movie season on a destructive yet pleasing note.
Chaney is a freelance writer.
R. At area theaters. Contains pervasive language, including sexual references. 101 minutes.