My legendary night came in the late winter of my final semester of college.
Spring was around the corner, though you wouldn’t have known it in central Maine. My friends and I were scheduled to perform at a nearby ski resort the following day, so we arrived late in the evening and packed ourselves into a condo. We were a singing group, but we were more than that, too—already I knew that these were my forever friends, the ones drawn together not by arbitrary rooming assignments but by a shared passion for performance that was rivaled only by a shared passion for juvenile hedonism. These were the guys who’d been there to celebrate my greatest triumphs, and the ones who’d helped me process heartbreaks with a supportive ear and, more often than not, a chemical distraction. The guys who’d found in each other the mutual desire to create something extraordinary, both onstage and off—and, perhaps most miraculous of all, who’d found in each other a mutual agreement on what that meant.
Suffused with the illicit thrill of staying up late in an unfamiliar place, we stocked our cars with too much beer and too much pot and kicked off a night of singing, drinking, singing louder, smoking, singing far too loud, pounding on the walls, throwing our bodies around and howling out all our giddy ecstasy that only gathered the longer this singular moment of youthful disinhibition lasted. It took a visit from the police, spurred by a neighbor’s noise complaint, to bring us back to ground level. Before the night ended, feeling chastened but by no means humbled, we had the freshman—buzzed for the first time in his life after downing a six pack of hard lemonade—making crank phone calls that would provide us lifelong inside jokes and catchphrases.
Looking back—as we did so often across the next decade—it wasn’t the peak inebriation that made the night legendary. It wasn’t the police warning that we’d recall. It wasn’t anything in particular that we did. The night was legendary for the feeling that crackled in the snowy air—the awareness that we would never be this young again, and the dawning realization that we were coming to the end of a uniquely extraordinary moment in our lives. If we could have done this every week, every month, even every year—if this coming together in the darkened woods to shout into the unexplored void was repeatable—it wouldn’t have been legendary.
It was special because it was only once. This was the fact we couldn’t fully articulate in the moment, one it would take another decade for us to fully reckon with.
* * * *
Unsurprisingly, the title of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End is a play on words. This final installment in the “Three Flavors Cornetto” trilogy—a trio of genre-inflected comedies united by stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as well as a mischievous interest in tweaking the tropes of such traditions as the zombie (Shaun of the Dead) and buddy cop (Hot Fuzz) movie—features not just a key location by the name “The World’s End,” but also a quite literal apocalypse.
Best to start at the beginning, though.
By its primary meaning, “The World’s End” refers to a pub located at the end of “The Golden Mile,” a route charted by protagonist Gary King (Pegg) to intersect with all 12 watering holes in his provincial British hometown of Newton Haven. This bar crawl was first attempted by Gary and his four best friends in 1990, when they failed to reach The World’s End but carved the night into their memories as the single best one of their lives.
Or, at the very least, it has remained the uncontested single best night of Gary’s life. And so, upon his release from the ambiguous treatment program in which we find him at the story’s opening, Gary—now in his 40s, though his style and behavior suggest a man who never quite progressed beyond age 18—rallies his four childhood compatriots, all of them now successful businessmen living happily stable lives, and harangues them into returning to Newton Haven to complete The Golden Mile at last.
Back at home, Gary and his friends find themselves alienated from their own childhood haunts, and while this at first seems the natural result of the two decades that have passed since the crew left, they quickly ascertain the somewhat less intuitive truth: virtually the entire community has been replaced by robotic simulacra designed by a hostile race of alien invaders as one of the first steps in a global takeover. As they battle their way to the edge of town, Gary insists on routing their escape through all the stops on The Golden Mile, unwilling to let anything, even the immediate risk of annihilation, keep him from completing his long-cherished dream—a dream not simply of drinking in 12 pubs, but of once again being blissfully carefree alongside the only four men who ever made him feel like he belonged.
Gary’s friends—played in adulthood by Martin Freeman as officious realtor Oliver; Eddie Marsan as contented family man Peter; Paddy Considine as confirmed bachelor Steven; and Nick Frost, Pegg’s longtime on-screen partner, as Andy, a successful lawyer nursing a silent but deadly grudge against Gary—take up the Golden Mile reluctantly, each of them perfectly content with the lives they’ve grown into, a trait Gary finds perverse and abhorrent. As he tries to cajole them into unwinding—or, depending on one’s perspective, regressing—they remain stubbornly mature, with Andy even having given up drinking, the greatest affront of all from the perspective of the transparently alcoholic Gary.
Even as the self-styled Five Musketeers find themselves fighting for their lives, they can’t help airing their long pent-up interpersonal drama. No mere android apocalypse could stop Gary and Steven from vying for the affections of Oliver’s sister Sam (played in adulthood by Rosamund Pike), and in what they assume to be the final moments of their lives, buried truths burst to the surface: Gary is forced to admit that he’s just finished treatment for a suicide attempt driven by the impossibility of recapturing the joy and optimism he felt for one night some 20 years earlier, while Andy confesses his inability to forgive Gary for overdosing at the end of another long-ago night of partying, forcing an inebriated Andy to drive him to a hospital, a choice that resulted in a near-fatal wreck from which a revived Gary escaped, leaving Andy to shoulder the consequences alone.
Though it draws inspiration from the longstanding tradition of body-snatcher horror, Wright’s film is unique in its narrow focus. Where so often body-snatching is used as a stand-in for fears of mindless consumerism or anxieties of government overreach, here the phenomenon represents the uncanny discomfort of returning home to find the world has moved on without you, draining all your cherished passion from the scenes of your greatest joys. When it’s revealed that the invaders—here dubbed the “blanks” by Gary’s friends, an ostensible placeholder representing the automatons’ unclassifiable status as neither quite aliens nor robots—first made contact the night of the initial Golden Mile attempt, it comes as a perverse vindication for Gary; the night he remembers as the most significant of all time is, quite literally, a turning point in human history. Meanwhile, the responsibility of periodically engaging in acrobatic and deadly hand-to-hand skirmishes serves as the ultimate heightening of the stakes that one is willing to ignore in the service of trying to hook up with a longtime crush, or finally give a friend the chewing out you’ve been dreaming of for years. And when, in the climax, the entire town assembles in a subterranean arena and begins speaking with the same voice—that of Bill Nighy, who portrays the omniscient neural Network responsible for this strategic invasion of Earth—the scene represents the greatest possible literalization of depression’s ability to flatten the world into a monotonous drone.
I may not have been at quite the same personal nadir as Gary when I first saw The World’s End during its theatrical run in August 2013. But something in my own life resonated in the theater that night, vibrating on a very specific frequency. At a low point in both my social and professional lives, I longed for the past with a Gary-like fervency, and so my heart ached when I heard Sam tell him, “It’s not all about that night,” only for Gary to respond, “Isn’t it?”
When you have a that night of your own, it’s not just a memory. It’s a talisman, a promise that life was that good once and so it might be again. And the longer you go without seeing that dream fulfilled, the harder you cling to the past. What could be more important than the proof that there may still be hope for you?
* * *
Ten years after our own legendary night, my friends and I gathered for a reunion. For so long we’d looked forward to putting aside our responsibilities for a night, exchanging them for a return to that bubble of easygoing bliss we’d inhabited as undergrads.
As it soon became clear, though, not all of our cares could be forgotten so easily—among our small crew, one had just finished chemotherapy, two had experienced psychiatric crises, one was processing the bumpy transition after two years in the Peace Corps; in so many ways both large and small, we fit together differently than we once had. We weren’t the people we remembered, either to ourselves or to each other, and so our attempts to recreate that sense of hedonistic abandon felt unnatural, like slipping into a beloved shirt only to find that the body it was tailored to changed shape long ago.
It had been several years, and quite a few personal switchbacks, since my first viewing of The World’s End, and now, rather than emulating Gary’s frantic bonhomie, I found myself in the position of Andy, the reluctant buzzkill. I focused on cooking us a nice dinner as I tried to suppress the others’ single-minded quest to hunt down some pot by any means necessary. Unlike Andy, I harbored no ill will towards my friends, but I did harbor a secret—having been the first to cross the threshold of marriage the previous year, I knew that before too long I would be the first of us to become a father, too. Things were changing too fast for me to keep up with, and I experienced a sort of emotional vertigo, unmoored from myself and searching for some new solid ground.
Eventually, like Andy, I relented. I gave myself over to the night’s entropy, and long after midnight—long after we’d tracked down the pot, long after we’d tried recapturing the prankster spirit that had once provided us classic inside jokes but now made us uneasy in our own skins, long after we’d begun withdrawing one at a time to call girlfriends or check the results of presidential primaries—somewhere in the hazy aftermath, our tensions flared and our grievances burst out. We snapped at each other, and that snapping turned into shouting. It wasn’t clear why were angry; we fought not against each other, but against the cold indifference of time’s passage.
“This is what we used to do,” someone shouted, his voice echoing in the hollow space. But it wasn’t what we did that mattered; it was how it had felt. So what had changed? What was different—beyond, of course, everything?
The World’s End is surprising in many ways—it’s surprisingly thrilling and surprisingly melancholy; with a coda that leaves humanity in a burned-out wasteland, it’s surprisingly audacious. And yet one of its most surprising qualities is its inscrutable neutrality. Where so many comedies anchor viewers in the protagonist’s perspective and proceed in a comfortably binary storytelling mode, Wright—as well as Pegg, co-writer on all three Cornetto films—is happy to open with messy ambiguities and only descend further into gray areas from there.
From their first moments on-screen, the core group subverts the tropes of their respective archetypes. Gary, who clearly fancies himself an overzealous imp tasked with breaking his friends out of the shackles of routine, is instantly odious, and while this is a fairly standard starting point for a comic slob, it doesn’t take long to suspect that the film has no interest in reforming Gary into a conscientious citizen. Meanwhile, if Gary’s friends are coded as repressed and henpecked stooges out of any number of Sandler or Apatow projects, it’s never clear whether they do, in fact, need to relax and let their (figurative) hair down—while Andy and Steven have unresolved personal arcs to be sorted out (respectively, a clandestine divorce and a pathological inability to commit to a romantic relationship), none of them are presented as overtly in need of regaining their mojo, but rather as men who’ve simply aged into a new definition of happiness.
It could be argued that this lack of clear-cut character trajectory is a fault in the script, but for a filmmaker as meticulous as Wright—one notorious for winkingly telegraphing his stories’ entire plots with such devices as the names of The Golden Mile’s pubs, which correspond to the story beats that will later occur in each locale—a careless and sloppy approach to narrative stakes seems unlikely. Far more likely, it seems to me, would be that Wright, even in a film that features androids who explode in geysers of blue goo at the slightest punch, insists on hewing to all of life’s frustrating ambivalences. Rarely do any of us walk into a night—even the most consequential ones, the ones we’ve dreamed of for decades—with a straightforward personal deficiency that can be resolved in a few hours of outrageous incident. Our lives are too tangled and our mindsets too defensive for that. If anything, a night of incident—be it mundane personal squabbles or melee brawls that decide the fate of life on Earth—is most likely to find us digging in our heels, as Gary and Andy do, ceding ever less ground and unable to see the night’s transformative impact until long after the sun has risen.
Perhaps the film’s most alarming storytelling neutrality comes in the climactic showdown that sees Gary and Andy facing off against the faceless Network as it invites them to willingly surrender. The Network’s arguments are chillingly reasonable—this collective represented by Bill Nighy’s voice claims responsibility for the exponential technological advancements of the past two decades, and frames the invasion as a course correction for humanity’s centuries of cyclical self-destruction. “Countless solar systems,” according to the Network, agree that Earth, “the least civilized [planet] in the entire galaxy,” needs to be brought into line. Most damning of all, the Network singles out Gary as the man most representative of humanity’s core deficiencies. We are all, both individually and collectively, Gary: helplessly self-destructive and utterly disinterested in change.
It’s alarmingly difficult to dispute the Network’s points. Much like The Matrix’s haunting equation of humanity with a deadly virus, the Network’s argument can instantly reframe one’s perspective on their place in the world. But where The Matrix proves its villains wrong in their estimation of humanity, the result brought about by Gary and his friends is far less optimistic. While it seems for a moment that Gary’s inability to grow up and engage thoughtfully with his problems will be the ironic twist that saves the day—he defeats the Network through sheer belligerence, drunkenly cursing out this faceless and omniscient force until the collective intelligence is overwhelmed with revulsion and abandons Earth as a lost cause—the triumph is short lived. As soon as the Network abandons earth, a technological pulse is triggered that wipes out the global power grid. In defending our collective “basic human right to be fuck ups,” Gary fucks up everything for everyone. Except himself.
In a coda narrated around a debris-littered campfire, Andy describes a world struggling its way toward some new form of stability—though Oliver and Peter perished in Newton Haven, their blank doppelgangers have taken up their places in society, while Steven has settled down to a life of agrarian simplicity with Sam, and Andy has reunited with his wife. Everyone’s life is back to something resembling normal, except for Gary’s. While Andy doesn’t know what became of his onetime best friend, Wright’s closing shots provide an answer: Gary now travels the wasteland alongside his friends’ blank simulacra—all of them eternally frozen in their teenage years, physically in the case of the other four musketeers, emotionally in Gary’s—visiting pubs and doing battle with rowdy patrons, Gary’s order of tap water being the only nod to personal growth. Gary is granted his wish of freezing his friends in amber at the moment he loved them most, no matter that they aren’t actually his friends at all. Better to exist in a suspended memory with their simulated replicas than grow up alongside their living and breathing selves.
Watching The World’s End today, separated from my first viewing by six years that feel more like a lifetime, I don’t see a thrilling and heart-wrenching story. Instead, I see one that’s profoundly sad. And this is unquestionably by design—a storyteller as careful and thoughtful as Edgar Wright knows exactly the emotional effect of reuniting Pegg and Frost for one more adventure, drawing on fan goodwill that had accumulated by then for a decade and a half, spanning back to the premiere of the beloved Channel 4 sitcom Spaced, only to have them spend the film seething at one another, never to be fully reconciled. Audiences primed to think even zombification couldn’t break up the duo—as demonstrated by Shaun of the Dead, in which Frost’s character becomes an undead ghoul nevertheless content to play video games with his undaunted best friend—are left at the close of their long-awaited finale with the pair separated, most likely permanently, not just by the fall of civilization but by their divergent paths in life. Even death is more surmountable than the cataclysm that is growing up.
I was the first to go to bed after my friends and I failed to recreate our legendary night, and so I was the first to wake up the next morning. Sitting downstairs alone, surrounded by the remnants of the mess we’d made, I felt myself nagged by a half-remembered scene from my childhood—the final pages of Peter Pan.
I found the book and skimmed to the ending, the one Disney decided to leave on the cutting room floor, the one where Peter returns years later hoping to bring Wendy back to Neverland only to find she’s grown up.
“I am old Peter,” Wendy says to this boy she once cherished but who the text now describes as tragic. “I grew up long ago.”
“You promised not to!” Peter snaps, and when he collapses into sobs, Wendy realizes she no longer remembers how to comfort him, and rushes out in tears herself.
Even as life in Neverland is presented as a whimsical fantasy, it’s agony to be incapable of change while everyone you love becomes unrecognizable. Peter’s tragedy is so significant it’s given birth to an armchair psychological diagnosis: Peter Pan Syndrome, a condition characterized by Dr. Dan Kiley—who originated the term in his 1983 book of the same name—by narcissism and rage so overpowering that patients become victims of their own impulses.
“He tries hard to camouflage his sadness with gaiety and sporting fun,” Kiley writes of the prototypical overgrown Peter Pan. “In many cases, his trickery works, at least for a few years. [But] eventually, the people who love him become discouraged.”
And indeed, in their final confrontation, it isn’t Gary who expresses disappointment in Andy for having grown up, but rather Andy who howls, “You let me down.” Even as they stand at both a literal and figurative world’s end, Andy still can’t forget that one core betrayal: “I got better. You didn’t.”
My friends and I were all at roughly equal points in our emotional development when we came to our own late night confrontations, and so by now I think what caused our turmoil was less a battle between a faction of Peters and a faction of Wendys, and more a cognitive dissonance between the Wendys we were becoming and the Peters we still felt within us fighting for their lives. And watching The World’s End from my vantage point as a comfortably suburban dad, I can’t help wondering if I let my inner Peter Pan suffocate—and then I can’t help wondering if that might be OK. Is it a damning indictment that I believe the Network presents some reasonable points and that Gary would have been better off turning himself over willingly? That climactic showdown is no mere conformist metaphor, Gary is fighting for his individualism in a quite literal way, and I can’t help finding my own response pitiful: what’s so bad about going with the nice, relaxing flow?
So yes, I may as well accept that I’ve allowed myself to become a blank. But it’s worth remembering that the blanks don’t bear that name for their vapidity. The name represents the fact that their nature can’t be easily be pinned down or defined. Decades of popular media have sold us the notion that while growing up is a necessary evil, you can keep the flame of youth alive with a little help from your friends—it’s a lesson so mindlessly digestible that the Hangover series managed to offer it three times in four years. But as The World’s End reminds us, growing up isn’t a recipe you can follow simply and easily to land on success. It’s a confounding series of steps forward, back, and sideways in which joy and sorrow are often entwined so tightly it’s hard to identify which emotional note is dominant.
I still cherish the memory of that legendary night with my best friends. But I have to remind myself that we didn’t know we were living inside a future legend. So often, it’s only once the sun has risen and the night passed into memory that you can recognize the experience for what it was. And that’s a comfort, in its way.
If you can’t recognize a legend from within it, then who knows what future legend tonight might become?