The world made it past December 21, 2012, and countless other forecasted doomsdays before that. But fascination with end-of-all-things disaster remains a pop culture staple. Whether by zombies, viral contagion, robots or Rapture, the final act in earth's story is more popular than ever as big-budget fodder for Hollywood.
There's a lot to ponder about the why of this trend, and earlier this summer, our own Alissa Wilkinson wrote an insightful piece on the matter, suggesting that these sorts of films might serve as a coping mechanism for a jittery "BREAKING NEWS" culture ever more expectant of imminent danger and disaster. Apocalypse escapism is somewhat counterintuitive: because we know the world could fall apart at any moment, maybe we seek visualizations of it to preemptively ease the trauma. And this sort of helps explain the rise of apocalyptic comedies, like 2013's This is the End. As Wilkinson writes, "You don't have to stay awake at night worrying about the end of the world if you can just make jokes about it when it gets here."
Edgar Wright's The World's End is the latest example of this. The film follows a group of five men in their 40s who return to their suburban U.K. hometown, Newton Haven, to attempt an epic pub crawl ("The Golden Mile") culminating in a final pint at the aptly named The World's End. Led by ringleader and alcoholic Gary (Simon Pegg), whose former best friend Andy (Nick Frost) is now a teetotaler and insists on drinking water rather than beer, the group tries to rekindle their old camaraderie by attempting the pub crawl they failed to finish in their teenage years.
Drunken antics and hilarity ensues, as does—you guessed it—the world's literal end. As the "five musketeers" move from pub to pub and pint to pint, they realize something is majorly askew in Newton Haven. The town is ground zero for some sort of robot or alien invasion. Think The Stepford Wives meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The World's End is part three of Wright, Pegg, and Frost's so-called Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy, so named because each film features a cameo by a different flavor of Cornetto ice cream (a brand popular in the U.K.). Like The World's End, the other films in the trilogy—Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007)—are irreverent comedic twists on established Hollywood genres (zombie and buddy-cop films).
Like the other two films, The World's End has raucous fun with genre (in this case, sci-fi/apocalypse) while also semi-seriously exploring themes of male camaraderie. The "boys' night out gone awry" plot of The World's End affords some opportunity to explore the importance of friendship between men, even while it doesn't get too serious about it.
The tension between irony and earnestness, between amusing jokes and human insights, is a common and tricky one in comedy, especially in those narratives that aspire to rise above Hangover-grade frat gags. The World's End definitely tries to toe this line, and it's better for it. However, the blending of outrageous comedy and weighty themes can also risk trivializing the latter. In this case, the film flirts with the theme of alcoholism semi-seriously here and there, but it ultimately reduces to a "don't judge me for getting hammered at a time like this!" joke.