A Single Fight Scene Illustrates Edgar Wright’s Scriptural Brilliance in The World’s End

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A Single Fight Scene Illustrates Edgar Wright’s Scriptural Brilliance in The World’s End

For all the time that has been spent dissecting the career of director Edgar Wright in terms of his contributions to such fields as visual kineticism and screen comedy, we sometimes overlook the auteur’s skill as a screenwriter and storyteller. Suffice to say, Wright’s classic comedies and action films couldn’t hold themselves up under the weight of their bombastic action sequences without the rock-solid emotional foundations they pretty much always possess, foundations typically established by Wright early in each film. But no movie in his filmography takes the establishment of characterization more seriously than the perennially underappreciated The World’s End, a film we’ve previously argued may actually be Wright’s magnum opus. In fact, The World’s End focuses so intently on the character relationships of its first third that it ends up pioneering a savvy payoff of not just emotional but comedic catharsis in the rug-pull it eventually unleashes on the audience. Call it intentional tonal whiplash, but Wright delays showing his hand, making the payoff all the bigger when he does.

That magical turning point is a gut-bustingly absurd brawl between five drunk, middle-aged men and five equally belligerent British teenagers, all of whom are revealed to be what Simon Pegg’s Gary King refers to as “robots filled with blue stuff.” Of course, it’s not quite so simple as that–they’re actually vessels for an alien consciousness that has for decades been infiltrating the Earth in numerous small towns, seeking to guide our species’ development and acquisition of the civility we’ll need to be part of a galactic civilization. That is, until those would-be alien mentors run afoul of mankind’s legendarily stubborn nature. What follows is a fight between humanity’s proxy avatars and the more intelligent, more logical, but hopelessly outmatched alien civilization left flummoxed by just how obstinate we’re all capable of being.

But that’s the second and third act of The World’s End, an uproarious blend of sci-fi action and comedy. The first act is something else entirely: An achingly real portrayal of a very specific kind of stunted development, a realistic tragicomedy about one man’s wanton destruction of his life’s relationships and delusional goal to recapture his lost potential. Wright’s greatest trick is the way he allows us time to truly stew in Gary King’s patheticness before he finally springs all the sci-fi craziness on us. I really believe that if the reveal came sooner, it would undermine the emotional resonance that The World’s End eventually comes to possess.

Because you see, we need to really get a feel for what makes Gary tick, and see instance after instance of how the former cool-guy teen rebel has managed to cling desperately to what he sadly sees as his glory days more than 20 years earlier. He drives the same car, now converted into a rolling Ship of Theseus through constant repair and replacement. He has the same high school mixtape perpetually stuck in the tape deck. He clings to the same dated punk fashion, looking like the ultimate psycho poseur as a 40-something man. But more than anything, he reveres the memory of the debauched nights he spent with his high school friends Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Peter (Eddie Marsan), particularly their ill-fated attempt at conquering the “Golden Mile,” a 12-bar pub crawl. Back then, anything seemed possible for Gary, and he no doubt saw life’s pleasures as just beginning. Two decades later, all he wants is that night back, as we immediately see during the film’s open in what appears to be an in-patient hospital alcohol support group. Gary is possessed by a mania to recapture how he felt back then, and Pegg gives all of his obvious caddishness a beautifully melancholic air of tragedy that generates empathy for the character despite what an absolute wanker he truly is.

And for a full 40 minutes, that’s what The World’s End is all about: This manipulative asshole recruiting and cajoling his former friends into putting their real lives on hold for a weekend so they can facilitate his nostalgic fantasy. The subtle sci-fi elements are almost totally hidden, particularly to the first-time viewer. The story lulls you into this dramedy territory where you become fascinated by Gary’s dependence upon false memories of how much better the past used to be, while taking its time in fleshing out the brotherly dynamic (tinged with bitterness) between the old friends who haven’t reconnected like this in decades. You can easily imagine the story continuing on exactly like this for the full 109-minute runtime, and it would be a completely worthy narrative–progressively inebriated old friends must confront their former leader who has become sadly detached from reality, while Gary faces down the wreck he’s become and the lives he’s negatively impacted.

But then … alien replicants! It’s a reveal and a twist that happens so suddenly, and a change in tone that occurs so jarringly, that I can only conclude Edgar Wright calculated exactly how far he could go in the film before suddenly jamming a foot on the gas for maximum comedic shock value. We’re 40 minutes into this dramedy about high school friends and their alcoholic, delusional leader, and then suddenly out of nowhere we’re in the thick of a massive brawl in the bathroom of a pub, and robot heads are popping off, people are being bisected and there aren’t enough Oliver “WTFs” in the world to express the absurdity of the situation. The World’s End‘s one-shot fight scene is so chaotic and unexpected that it shocks the audience into a massive guffaw of disbelief at the way the story has suddenly evolved. And at that point, The World’s End never lets up again.

And yet, everything we learned in the emotional foundation laid in those first 40 minutes continues to serve us well, lending pathos to scenes of the increasingly absurd and zany sci-fi action material that follows. This is true even of the instigating fight itself, in which we see each of the friends essentially assuming their friend-group roles within the context of the brawl. Gary throws himself into the melee with no reservations, beating on the “Blanks” with their own severed arms. Steven holds his own, but at a decidedly second-tier level to Gary, their rivalry continuing on two decades later. Oliver and Peter are bullied and hiding throughout, respectively. And poor Andy, put-upon by Gary’s selfishness throughout his life, finally erupts in a cathartic burst of furious indignation, taking out his frustrations on the goo-filled Blanks in front of him with a variety of seemingly pro wrestling-inspired offense. If you saw the scene without any context, it would just look like furious, frenetic action, but in reality, even the fight scene serves character first and foremost.

This effective characterization tethers the story to reality in a way that still finds time to remind us of the consequences of Gary’s alcoholism and lifestyle, even as the boys are digging into the seamy underbelly of the town’s conspiracy, or eventually tearing down the streets of Newton Haven, pursued by hundreds of Blanks and the giant alien robot they previously took to be merely “modern art.” All the while, we’re benefitting from what we’ve already been afforded on who they were in high school and who they’ve become today–indeed, it’s imperative that we understand the rough mental state of each friend, because the alien consciousness makes concerted efforts to target each one individually by offering them what they really want most. This is why, in retrospect, the audience really should be able to come to a natural suspicion that Oliver has been replaced by a Blank in the second act even without it being clumsily rubbed in the viewer’s face–because we know enough about his temperament that we should realize something seems amiss when he comes back from the bathroom, even if the rest of the characters are too busy to take note of their perennially overlooked friend. Chalk one up for Wright and his use of dramatic irony.

All the madcap action (not to mention Gary’s continued quest to still down a pint at each establishment, despite the fact they’re being hunted by Blanks) eventually culminates in Gary and Andy–and Steven, in a hilariously triumphant arrival–facing down a disembodied alien entity, persevering through sheer, pigheaded belligerence. They succeed in harnessing mankind’s very worst tendencies in service of a declaration on freedom, instinctually objecting to the dystopian process of joining a galactic civilization in order to assert humanity’s right to make its own decisions. And you know what? Their choice may very well be the “wrong” one for the survival of the very species, but it reads as triumph in the moment thanks to Wright’s masterful ability to connect his audience with the heart and soul of these characters, even when they’re up to their necks in sci-fi hijinks and absurdity.

Remember that, when you revisit The World’s End and crack an instinctual smile at the sight of Nick Frost performing a flying elbow drop on a Blank’s head, which explodes in a shower of cerulean effluvia: You’re watching one of our modern filmmaking masters at work.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident genre guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film content.

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