The World’s End: Sly, Wry Sci-Fi

Edgar Wright's boozy sci-fi comedy tackles technology, commercialism and lost youth

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Laurie Sparham / Focus Features

Edgar Wright’s The World’s End is an apocalyptic comedy, rather like the early-summer release with the confusingly similar title, This is the End. It’s also a bromance like The Hangover, featuring five high-school buddies, now pushing 40, who reunite for an epic pub crawl across their English hometown of Newton Haven. Except it overflows with middle-aged angst over lost youth. And laments the generic nature of our corporate-driven culture. And—as the movie is written by Wright and Simon Pegg (their third such collaboration)—it’s also a witty send-up of genre conventions—this time, alien-invasion flicks. The movie may sound like an unpromising mess, but it’s fun, complicated and emotionally rich.

The pub crawl is initiated by the group’s once-gloriously charismatic leader Gary King (Pegg,). Gary is bound and determined to relive June 22, 1990, the night he and his four mates made an attempt to hit all of Newton Haven’s twelve pubs—a feat known locally as “The Golden Mile.” They didn’t make it to the last, The World’s End, and Gary, an unrepentant drug abuser and alcoholic, is determined that they not fail this time.

While Gary is caught in a state of arrested development, the rest of the gang is successful and reasonably well settled. None of them seem terribly enthused to join the crawl, particularly not Andy (Nick Frost, Pegg’s co-star in the Wright-helmed Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead) who severed ties with Gary after a mysterious “accident” years before and has been a teetotaler ever since. Gary fairly erupts in rage when Andy orders a glass of water at their first stop. “It’s like seeing a lion eating some hummus,” he grouses.

(READ: Simon Pegg’s Q&A with TIME)

Even before they notice the strangely subdued townspeople (a something-is-not-right-here clue that hints at horrors to come), the quintet is struck by a sameness of the pubs, right down to the chalkboard menus, with their suspiciously similar handwritten menus. “Starbucking man,” Gary laments. “It’s happening everywhere.” He views his own refusal to change, to grow up, to mature as a badge of honor: he takes pride in driving the same car, listening to the same mix tape that Steven (Paddy Considine) made him back in high school and wearing the same long black coat that made him look so incredibly cool 20 years earlier, à la Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club.

More telling is Gary’s resentment of the guys—the cast also includes Martin Freeman as an obsequious real estate agent and Eddie Marsan* as the sweet guy who got bullied in high school—who seem content with their perfectly conventional existences.  “You are all slaves and I am free,” he tells his friends, who he sees as bound by wives, kids and/or a 9-to-5 job. Unlike the American brand of bromance, where even Adam Sandler is meant to be adorable no matter how churlish his character, The World’s End embraces Gary’s boorishness—and more interestingly, the sadness of this dissipated pretty boy.

With his wicked delivery, Pegg is always going to be funny, but his characterization of this guy who peaked in high school is almost too good. The desperation of the character cuts into the easy laughs. It’s unusual to see a comedy this absurdly over the top—the gang decide the safest thing to do is continue the pub crawl and get progressively drunker in the face of danger—that is also mindful of big truths. Shaun of the Dead was smart, but it didn’t aim to make anyone think or, God forbid, fret. There is also some fascinating stuff in The World’s End about the need for human imperfection in the world—even losers like Gary.  When the guys are offered a sort of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style cleansing, along with a return to their youths, they reject the option. “To err is human,” Gary shouts.

Human, then, is this movie’s unsatisfying finale—which seems to be a problem pervasive in the narrow genre of apocalyptic comedies. This is the End, which is cruder and more raucous than The World’s End, had its heroes ascend into the light of the Rapture, redeemed by good deeds for each other. Warm Bodies ended on an upbeat note. The horror movie-spoof The Cabin in the Woods and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World both closed with big bangs. The World’s End isn’t that bold; it wraps up things in way that seems contrived and haphazard—as if Wright and Pegg came up with it after a long night at the pub.

(READ: When Shaun of the Dead landed on Time’s Top 25 Horror Movies list)

* CORRECTION: An earlier version of the review incorrectly listed the actor’s name as Eddie Marsdan.