It’s July in Camden Town, but it’s not too warm and, anyway, the air conditioning is going strong inside this pub where I’m staring at the way a seemingly infinite supply of amber bubbles make a hasty vertical exit against the side of a third-round pint glass. The place is filled with familiar faces and, all around, spirits are high.
“Hello gentlemen,” says a friendly voice, just arrived. “How are you all enjoying The World’s End?”
The friendly voice belongs to Edgar Wright and the familiar faces to the small group of online journalists that he’s invited to the premiere of his “Cornetto Trilogy” grand finale, The World’s End. We’ll be seeing the film in a few hours but, in meantime, have assembled at the movie’s namesake for a few drinks.
Although Camden’s “The World’s End” isn’t the same bar that concludes the film’s Golden Mile, it is a place from which Wright took inspiration. A proper British pub (they refused to host the premiere’s official after party because they didn’t want to lose a night of business), it wouldn’t be hard to picture Simon Pegg’s Gary King sitting at a corner table. Camden, as Wright puts it, “is exactly where you might go to purchase a Sisters of Mercy t-shirt,” and, he explains, it exits from one side into the alleyway where he shot the epic finger gunfight from “Spaced”. Suffice to say, it’s not long before we’ve filed out into the alley and are all posing with our imaginary firearms.
The World’s End is a film that has stuck with me quite a bit since the premiere that evening and, as I’ve tried to gather my thoughts, I’ve realized that it’s a film that I need to discuss as a whole. To that end, this piece contains extensive spoilers with a particular focus on the very end. My hope is that you’ll continue reading only after having caught the film yourself on the big screen.
To fully appreciate The World’s End as the finale of a trilogy is, I think, to recognize that each entry has to a large degree been about a man finding his place in society and of maintaining his individuality in the face of all-consuming conformity. In Shaun of the Dead, we find that force in ever-growing zombie hordes and in Hot Fuzz in the quiet totalitarianism of Sandford’s secret society. In both cases, the protagonist is forced to look within himself and confront the same faults he has with the world on a personal level. It becomes necessary for Pegg’s Shaun to confront his own zombie-like routine to save his relationship and his Nicholas Angel ultimately learns that, by opening himself up to other people, his adherence to keeping laws absolute is its own form of fascism.
Who among us hasn’t found the Blanks of The World’s End in our own lives? The friends who, although they used to hang out and have fun, are now settled down into routines that, as pleasant as they may be, seem to an outside perspective impossibly dull. Not only does the film take this to an extreme, it counters with one in the King character. He’s a Peter Pan syndrome’d take on James Dean’s Jim Stark, gloriously unmutual and imbued with the undeniable charms of total anarchy. What fuels him is a sense of nostalgia and a quest to reclaim his glory days. While his specific methods are not necessarily enviable, it’s hard not to sympathize.
Wright has stated that part of the inspiration for King was Arthurian legend and there are clear parallels to between Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail and King’s own search for eternal youth. His four friends (appropriately named Knightley, Prince, Page and Chamberlain) are the Knights of the Roundtable (Nobody knows how many there were, really, do they?) with the relationship between Paddy Considine’s Steven Prince and Rosamund Pike’s Sam Chamberlain playing out to King as a variation of the love story between Lancelot and Guinevere.
Wright has also made it clear that the names of the 12 stops along the Golden Mile are very specifically chosen and, much like in his Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the precise numbers can be seen hidden throughout each respective pub. (Definition of Sound’s “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” and its repeating “be my lucky number seven” line plays, for instance, in the background of The Two-Headed Dog, the seventh pub along the Golden Mile).
As one of the primary themes of The World’s End is addiction, there also appears to be some strong correlation between the pubs and the 12 steps of Alcoholic’s Anonymous. I’ve noted a handful below, but I expect the parallels to grow deeper with repeat viewings.
Participants in AA are asked to embrace their own interpretation of a higher power and, in the narrative of the film, The Network takes on that role. Upon completion of the seventh step, addicts will have, “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings”. The seventh pub is where we meet the “Marmalade sandwich” and learn that The Network can literally do that, replace individuals’ old bodies with young, perfect versions.
When King finds himself barred from the third pub, The Famous Cock, it’s likely because his character stands in defiance of the third step, which calls for addicts to have “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Because King is unable to see a world outside himself, he’s unable to pass.
The eight and ninth steps both involve making amends with “all persons we had harmed”. Although King can’t bring himself to admit that he’s done anything wrong, this is roughly where Eddie Marsden’s Peter Page is approached by the Blank version of his childhood bully, seeking to make his own amends.
The tenth pub, The King’s Head, reflects the tenth step, “Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.” It’s here that King’s friends very nearly catch him admitting that he has made mistakes when he says, “I did something right for a change!”
(By the way, the pub that doubled for The King’s Head in the film, formerly known as The Arena Tavern, decided to keep the new name and signage. If you’re in Hertfordshire, you visit The King’s Head and check out the pub sign for which Pegg himself was the model.)
Exactly like Shaun and Angel, King is battling conformity. The catch this time around — and what makes it the most mature entry in the trilogy — is that he desperately needs the aid that said conformity offers. While he may, blow for blow, oppose each step, he does, in the end, fulfill AA’s final tradition of placing principles before personalities or, at the very least, manages to find the place where they overlap. King’s principle at the film’s climax is about maintaining absolute freedom at all costs, regardless of the consequences. What ends up playing out is something much akin to Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster’s line about how “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
That, to me, is very much in tone with the ultimate statement that The World’s End makes with its incredible finale. Our realities, to a large extent, depend largely on what we choose to make them and, while the apocalypse may not seem like a happy ending on the surface, each of the main characters manages to walk away largely content. Page and Chamberlain, after all, were maybe better suited to a Blank lifestyle all along while Sam and Steven have each other and Knightley is able to reunite with his wife.
And then there’s King.
The credits roll on the films world premiere and the end hits me a lot more emotionally than I had expected it to. During the introduction, Wright said a brief word about the theater, the Empire Leicester Square, lamenting that the beautiful, classic screen were sitting in front of the same screen he saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on when he was a kid was going to be torn down soon and that this would be the last of his films to be shown on it.
Even though its decidedly lavish, something about the after party doesnt feel right. The only beer is Heineken in glass bottles. Its too fancy. Too state of the art. It feels like a bar for Blanks.
It quickly turns out that Im not the only one who feels that way and a small group of us (five Musketeers, as luck would have it) decide to duck out for just a minute to find a place where we can drink a quick pint. Its an impetus that I realize one could argue stems from somewhat antisocial thinking, but I think that each of us identifies a bit with Gary King.
Its nighttime in the streets of Soho and Im thinking about how strangely the world turns. About how glad I am that it sometimes lets like-minded spirits come together and create works of art that have meant and continue to mean — a great deal. Im thinking that the world gets sad sometimes and that, simply because it turns means that, in time, you end up losing all sorts of people. Or maybe your childhood movie theater just closes its doors. Im thinking that nostalgia comes with the same caveat as alcohol: small doses, lest it become an addiction.
Mostly, though, I’m sharing a drink with friends and we’re talking about a film that we all loved. It feels really good. It feels really human.