The Cornetto Trilogy’s Most Maligned Film Deserves More Respect
The World’s End is perfectly imperfect — and perfectly British.
When Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy closed with The World’s End 10 years ago in 2013, it quickly got a reputation as the worst of the trilogy. But for this Brit who once felt deeply at risk of becoming an eternal fuckup, Simon Pegg’s quixotic turn as delusional loser Gary “The Once and Future” King took the trilogy to an unexpectedly resonant conclusion.
Nine years after Shaun of the Dead had brought Wright, Pegg, and Nick Frost’s zombie siege to the masses, the trio’s 2007 bombastic follow-up Hot Fuzz was even better, delivering a buddy-cop action parody on par with Mel Brooks’ best. But after Hot Fuzz upped the ante, The World’s End dialed things back. Its unlikely pairing of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a blokey mid-life crisis drama (as well as Wright’s trademark wit, helter-skelter editing, and a delightful avalanche of knowing movie parodies) resulted in the most low-key and poignant entry in the series. While its alien invasion sci-fi premise went grand, it held its focus on the inane chatter of Newton Haven’s boozy bullshitters.
As ultimate never-has-been Gary King, Simon Pegg plays against type, dropping the boyish enthusiasm for manspreading arrogance with desperate melancholy. He’s joined by a standout cast of reluctant drinking companions on a quest to drink themselves under the table, in attempt to recapture their lost youths. There’s Andy, a teetotaler success story, played by Nick Frost (relishing his chance to be the responsible one). Peter (Eddie Marsan) is the childhood wimp who never grew braver. Oliver (Martin Freeman) is the officious bore with a bluetooth headset. And Steven (Paddy Considine) wipes away recent memories of regal dignity in House of the Dragon with his fierce, immature rivalry with Gary over childhood crush Sam (Rosamund Pike, slightly wasted here — and I don’t mean because of the alcohol).
Just like Andy’s battered Ford Granada, the plot takes its time to rev into action. But when it’s in full gear there’s plenty of moments that hold their own as some of the trilogy’s best. The World’s End shows Wright’s mastery of the frantically inventive fight scene with the delightful pub bathroom brawl with the “blanks” (seemingly human machines who replaced Newton Haven’s inhabitants). The jokes in Pegg and Wright’s script are as on-point as ever, and by 2023 we all know Edgar Wright simply doesn’t miss when it comes to soundtracks.
So why hasn’t this film become a cult classic like its predecessors Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz? It’s Simon Pegg’s favorite, with the actor explaining, “it’s the least audience friendly. It’s the darkest of the three. It’s the most challenging, and I love the idea of actually putting the audience in a position where they have to feel a little bit uncomfortable and not necessarily cozy into the familiar.”
For us who grew up with the series, it still feels strange to talk about The Cornetto Trilogy as history rather than the ever-beating heart of nerd and cinematic culture today. But history, it is. And the key to understanding the film’s oddly maudlin sense of loss and decline is when it was released.
There’s one major difference between the time of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. By 2013, we were post-financial crisis and the Conservative party had taken power. After the “Cool Brittania” days of New Labour, the rise of Britpop and edgy directors like Danny Boyle and Edgar Wright, Britain’s booming youth culture and economy were replaced by austerity and an alarming sense of shrinking horizons and public services. The financial crisis may have ended in 2013, but Britain’s limp recovery has left us feeling that everything was diminished, just a bit, well, shit. Even Oasis were suddenly naff. The buoyant ‘90s cultural wave that gave us Wright, Pegg and Frost was long gone. The World’s End, and its themes of elusive former glories set in the most dead-end of British commuter towns, is utterly inseparable from that period of fading optimism.
Ten years on, I return to the film very differently too. The first time I saw the film was a weekday afternoon, in a gray, blustery humdrum town very much like Newton Haven. I was a victim of England’s sluggish recovery from the financial crisis too; after graduating with an English degree I was persistently unemployed, and a rare comfort in my fortnightly Jobcentre unemployment benefit trips were cheap midday film screenings. I saw a vision of what I might become in Andy King, hung up on past glories and thwarted dreams. Today, that’s not the case (I’d never believed I’d be a copywriter and entertainment journalist then). I just wish I could say the same for my country, still waiting to recapture its ‘90s swagger.
Brexit especially makes the film hit differently. When the gang’s former schoolteacher Guy — played by Pierce Brosnan, a villain matching Timothy Dalton’s enigmatic charisma in Hot Fuzz — offers Andy and the pubcrawlers the opportunity to join their peaceful, harmonious society with the tantalizing promise of “It’s not about conflict, it’s about togetherness,” it’s hard not to see the mutual benefit offered by the European Union. After we stuck our middle finger up at a continent, Andy and co.’s defiant, willfully stupid resistance feels as relevant, and utterly, intrinsically British as ever. When told our planet is the least civilized in the entire galaxy, Andy’s retort “it is our basic human right to be fuck ups!” may as well be carved into the white cliffs of Dover.
And when Andy rips his younger clone's head off with a nonchalant “nah” it’s the perfect cathartic embodiment of British plucky defiance. It makes a virtue of Britain’s imperfect, plucky, and honestly frequently obnoxious nature. Gary, Andy and Steven see off the aliens with sheer exasperation. Intelligent life from outer space met the Brits, and were left deeply disappointed.
It’s got heart in spades, embracing human imperfection in a way another of my favorite British humorists, Terry Pratchett, would be proud of. Okay, I’ll admit it: it is the worst of a trilogy that maintained ludicrously high standards throughout. But it’s a memorably unique sendoff for a series whose laddish, irreverent, immature tone was committed to being as thoroughly British as it gets.