The World’s End [2013]

I saw The World‘s End on Saturday, and I’ve been having a surprising amount of difficulty deciding on how to approach this review. I’ve posted a lot in recent reviews about the interplay between a work setting its own terms of engagement versus importing story formulae as labour-saving devices for both author and reader, an especially crucial interplay for satires. The World’s End, unfortunately comes with the baggage of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, it’s marketting as the third in the “Cornetto Trilogy” implies that it is going to do the same thing that each of those other films did – translate a mass-market blockbuster story formula from American into English. Both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz use their genre tropes quite faithfully, so that their plot structures are familiar. The humour is an overlay on a non-comedic story. Shaun of the Dead is funny… but the terrible “plans” for survival, the break-down of the intra-group dynamic, the exploration of relationships at the point of death, and so on – they are all just as you see in “straight” zombie films. The World’s End doesn’t quite follow this pattern.

The trailer, and the first few scenes, make clear that The Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1956] is competing with The Stepford Wives [1975] as the underlying story concept.

Body Snatchers is a story that emerged out of the paranoia of the Cold War. At the time, J Edgar Hoover and Senator McCarthy were whipping the USA into a state of panic about secret communist sympathizers undermining America from within. Successive iterations of the story have watered down this allegory to the point where in The Invasion [2007] is almost plain text.

Stepford Wives is a story that emerges from masculine insecurity over the so-called Women’s Liberation. When the women of Stepford begin seeking equality, they are replaced by robots, with all kinds of chilling implications. The idea of conformity is also very important to understanding Hot Fuzz, in which disruptive elements are more straightforwardly disposed of.

Identification in these narratives is almost always supposed to be the eliminated, rather than the eliminator. The eliminating force is considered monstrous. In Body Snatchers we identify with those holding out against conversion, who are rapidly becoming the exception rather than the norm, as the state of normality switches from being uninfected to being infected. The moment of change-over is a central pivot of these stories, when we switch over from curiosity to fear, investigation to fight/flight. Later iterations, like The Invasion [2007] try to introduce some ambivalence by portraying the invasion as essentially benign – when they defeat the infestation, they end World Peace ™. The Invasion has this almost as a coda, however… the idea of man’s inhumanity to man being replaced by a peaceful symbiosis is barely suggested or sketched; the narrative emphasis is still the basic template established by the original Body Snatchers.

Enter The World’s End. The official premise of action is a group of old school friends going on a pub crawl that they failed to complete some twenty years before. This is already a major deviation from the main story templates, because rather than a gradual revelation of a society undergoing change, the characters are subjected to a sudden revelation of a society already replaced by invaders. At first, I thought that meant the film was going to go beyond the usual end-point of its obvious progenitor scenarios. A number of possibilities suggest themselves – the begining of a resistance, lead by a devil-may-care protagonist, or a dark satire on how similar the non-people were to the people. The direction the film chooses is to explore the idea of second chances.

Gary King is a character that has spectacularly wasted his life; the premise of the film is that instead of trying to move forward, he wants to recapture but perfect the past. It’s not clear what he expects to accomplish by finishing the pub crawl that was the incomplete best night of his life – I don’t think that he has given that any thought himself. He is, in that way, dramatically inert; an obstacle for other characters to overcome rather than a protagonist per se. His main positive action is to draw his old school friends back into his sphere, and that is a promising premise. His friends are all productive members of society, who play by the rules and perform their allocated tasks. They’ve implicitly acquiesced to the kind of homogenized lifestyle typical of the replacements for humanity.

What we have then, is a narrative that starts to look like it will run counter to the usual general drift of replacement stories: Gary as a contagion of rebellion and remission. He, you suppose, will be opposed by body snatchers that can give him that second chance he seems to want so desperately. Instead, I think both of these concepts can be seen moving around in the background of the narrative that weirdly plays out key scenes from the main track of Body Snatcher narratives, but without the usual prompts.

For example, there’s the scene where their old Principal makes the body-snatching offer: join us, and we can solve your problems. Be reasonable: submit. In even a thin story like The Invasion, we can see two sides to this: world peace is being offered, and Nicole Kidman turns it down only because she prioritizes her son’s life more. The scene in TWE has the same form, but the characters aren’t being offered anything they actually want.

Similarly, we have a lengthy chase through the village, as the heroes try to escape the situation. But there is really minimal reason for the invaders to bother in this case, because the invasion is already sufficiently advanced that they claim to, and demonstrate, a huge amount of infiltration and control over the whole world. As is made clear, our protagonists are now in the minority. It’s too late for them to alert the authorities, which is the fear for the invaders in the early stages. That would seem to completely obviate the kind of basic story motivations that are implicit in either Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Stepford Wives. Those stories are allegories to explore something about the world, and I can’t see a correspondingly on-point interpretation of the basic premise for The World’s End.

The World’s End retains the shape and specific familiar scenes from its progenitor films, but in a post-invasion context, very little of this can stand much intellectual scrutiny, and to me it wasn’t suggestive of deeper possibilities. In terms of depth then, I would compare The World’s End unfavourably with both the previous “Cornetto Trilogy” films, that I think can and do withstand a fair amount of scrutiny, and are suggestive of “meaning” beyond the explicit boundaries of the films themselves.

However, none of that matters. The World’s End is primarily a comedy, and it delivers plenty of laughs. I laughed fairly continuously for the entire film, far more than I laughed at either of the previous two films. They never miss an opportunity for ironic juxtaposition, slapstick, or word-play. All the actors are brilliant, and display the key ingredient of all comedy: timing. I just feel like this humour was generated at the expense of deeper characterization and moral complexity. I can’t see myself re-watching this film the way I do its predecessors, but I will watch it at least once more when it comes out on DVD, because there is enough going on that I am not perfectly confident in this first impression.

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