The following essay by Film Critic Hulk is kindly re-blogged from: BadAssDigest
Thanks also go to Hulk for allowing me to publish this as a special lower case ‘Bruce Banner’ version. If you enjoy the article be sure to read the expansive and emotional comments on the original page.
There are spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film yet, so beware. Otherwise, please enjoy.
1. The First Chapter
Going into ‘The World’s End’ Hulk thought it was fair to expect a few things from the third entry in the Cornetto trilogy: General funniness, something that contained that specific Edgar Wright brand of kinetic cinema, something that would put relationships at the core of its story, and, uh, all that other good stuff.
…But what Hulk did not expect was one of the most thematically complex movies of the year.
Let’s start with the central character. Gary King is many things: A rogue. A liar. A cheeky bastard. But he is also the main protagonist, the chief antagonist, the main instigator of the plot, and even the direct source of conflict…
Now, we could simply chalk all these things up to just being a “round character” but that undersells both the complexity of pulling that off and exactly how it all plays out. You see, since Gary King is all those things listed above, it actually results in a film that makes the main conflicts constantly feel off-kilter and ultimately rely on what we call “inverse drama.” meaning that which is being dramatically geared in one way is actually ratcheting up another conflict or even moment of release. It is essentially drama that undoes other drama.
And the problem with inverse drama is that it isn’t all that easy to digest as a viewer. At its best, you’ve seen Hamlet displace conflicts with the best of them. But usually you see inverse drama populate the work of art films and stuff, like, Abbas Kiarostami or something. You rarely see it in uproarious comedies. And quite honestly, Hulk thinks that dramatic and thematic complexity might have thrown a few people at first, Hulk included.
Don’t get Hulk wrong. It got like 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and everyone seemed to enjoy the film and that’s because it’s pretty damn enjoyable. What Hulk is more addressing are the lingering questions and curiosities many seemed to have about certain choices in the film (again, Hulk included) and why some things gave them pause…. Oh, how to best explain this sensation?
The prior entries of the Cornetto Trilogy work in a very forward and instant sense. You sort of get the point immediately. They use conventions of genre and intertwine them with character emotion and the plotting in very gettable, dramatic ways (watch any episode of ‘Spaced’ to see the hyper expression of this idea). Hulk once called it cinematic amplification. But ‘The World’s End’ comes at its subject matter and themes in a bit more of an oblique way. The filmmakers seem to take an (obviously personal) idea, but in order to correctly express that idea in cinematic form, they go ahead and forge a movie that seems rather unafraid to be messy in a conventional sense.
But as Hulk will hopefully explain, it all works to great thematic and cathartic purpose.
… It’s just complex.
2. The Cavernous Gulf
Storytelling can sometimes thrive on elements being in contradiction.
We don’t acknowledge that fact enough. We often talk about films having to work in perfect harmony. Having our plots and characters and dramatic beats all accentuate our themes and vice versa. But as an audience member we have a problem in that we have base wants and yet also have greater intellectual needs. Sure, we want heroes to succeed and be rewarded and also want the wicked to be punished. We want these things because the average moviegoers are so ready to place themselves in the place of the main character. So ready to empathize and see through that perspective. And as part of that, we instinctively demand that everything falls in line perfectly with the subconsciously ingrained expectations of “how stories work.” Now, some people mistake those expectations for the conventions of the three act structure (which doesn’t exist) or a host of dumb rules, but it’s more the subconscious rules of cause and effect. There’s a rhythm and inherent truth to things and when a movie violates that unspoken code of ethics we revolt, for we demand that our instincts be sated.
And yet, the bigger problem is that for stories to be considered good we also ask that they be true. Not literally true, but personally true. That the film speaks to us. That it communicates something we recognize and value. We ask that it not violate the sanctity of our naked emotional transference into it, either. And because we demand all these things of our entertainment, we often say that good movies “satisfy us on all levels.”
The problem is that sometimes making good art is about recognizing the cavernous difference between what we want and what we need. Between satisfaction and disappointment. Between truth and our fantasy of what we want the truth to be. And thus, to make good art you sometimes have to sacrifice want completely. Sometimes you have to tell a cold hard truth in a sobering way that can in turn make the audience realize that what they want is wrong. And sometimes you have to make the audience see that we’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole.
Now, all of this may seem a little over the top when talking about a film as jovial, entertaining and farcical as the world’s end, but Hulk’s just trying to illustrate a point that will be of use in the conversation going forward. Because after spending a lot of time with the film, after seeing it a few times with continued curiosity, Hulk feels that many of the things that seemed to give people pause with the dramatic experience were indeed part of a larger mechanism, where the willingness to go for non-movie conventions were, in fact, completely necessary in order to make the point.
After all, storytelling can sometimes thrive on the contradiction of what we want and what we need.
3. The State Of The Issue
The problem with alcoholism, like any addiction really, is that it isn’t so much about the alcohol itself, as it is about the things that go by the wayside. Soon, all those other things that comprise your life, your goals, your hopes, your dreams, maybe your job and your family, will start to disappear one by one.
Soon, all you will be left with is alcohol.
But before we go any further let Hulk first make an acknowledgement: It’s really hard to sit here and spout off some banal platitudes like above. It makes it seem like Hulk is just picking them off from slogan-ized self-help sections or something. So please understand that these platitudes come more from a place of… well… pain.
Alcoholism is something that’s a bit too familiar. We could talk about it on a lot of levels really. The first is cultural, for it is not uncommon when growing up in the epicentre of Boston Irish Catholicism to have alcoholism just be a regular part of your life. Oh, you know the stereotype. Good ol’ Boston housing a litany of salty seaside alcoholics, who in turn just keep breeding an even younger litany of alcoholics. There’s such an ingrained stubbornness to it all. It’s like when Wahlberg talks about relationships in ‘The Departed’ and says his girlfriend will have to be the one to leave because “I’m Irish, I’ll deal with something being wrong for the rest of my life.”
Point is, this isn’t so much about being Irish (Hulk was the weird Scottish one growing up) as it the cultural acceptance and propagation of certain behaviors. It turns a funny line in ‘The Departed’ into one of those hauntingly true things. And if that “something wrong” is addiction then they’ll just deal with that too.
It’s also fair to mention that these kinds of stereotypes are dangerous, but only because they propagate the myth of “the singular regional psychology.” there is no such thing. Think about all those other “familiar” brands of alcoholism we’ve seen in movies, like the southern abusive drunk, the Malibu drunken mom, etc. Even if though they all seem rather different, the psychology is often the same. They all create the same problems. And thus, these stereotypes appear to be very, very real. They become people’s daily reality… and daily obstacles. And when a culture gives tacit permission, when certain societal factors contribute, then those stereotypes become something ingrained into the community in a very, very real way.
For example: you were probably unaware of this, but Massachusetts (a state most outsiders confuse with images of Martha’s vineyard, Fenway park and the Kennedys) actually has one of the biggest heroin problems in the country.
If not the biggest. It’s sort of hard to measure because it’s gone underground. Why Massachusetts? Because it still has a working class and some of the few genuine working class residential areas left in the country (we could be amazed at this, but a lot of it has to do with generational throwback attitudes, the segregation of the city’s racial population, and the fact that jobs existed en masse thanks to the on-going construction cash cow that was the big dig). This is completely relevant to drug choice because working class drug choices manifest differently than you might expect. Cocaine costs too much for too short a high. And meth and crack are for the poor. The first drug you do is alcohol. Then a few slips of other stuff. Then heroin. That’s the working class path. And it’s true. It started to crop up everywhere about a decade and half ago, grew slowly and then heroin deaths have been skyrocketing in the last three years. Given the similar demographic sprawl and economics involved, the Boston dynamic is actually not unlike what London has been facing for decades. Again, this is real.
To wit: list all the kids you personally know who died of heroin overdoses.
Hulk blanketed 50 people Hulk knew in California and there wasn’t a single one. Meanwhile, Hulk can’t list all the ones Hulk knew in Massachusetts on Hulk’s fingers and toes. The intent of this fact is not to compare, the point of this is talk about the reality of environments. And the environments are everywhere. We can talk about the same exact kind of plight with people from meth capitals. Or go talk to people who are knee-deep in designer drug / wealthy environments. The point of doing so is merely to contextualize. To communicate the realities vs. the fiction. Because when most people Hulk knows think of heroin, they think of ‘The Wire’. When Hulk thinks about heroin, Hulk thinks about home and old faces now gone.
4. The Inner Admittance
This may not seem to have much to do with alcoholism, but Hulk would argue that it very much does. The mechanisms. The psychology. The environments. It’s all part of a personal perspective. You can recognize that realness in the world around you. You can feel it.
For instance, let’s talk about one of the “fun” wrinkles of life that some of you may have to deal with is when you know someone with what is known as “high-functioning alcoholism.” these are often people with stark intelligence, who unfortunately can also convince themselves they got it figured all out, regardless of whether that’s actually true. They see themselves as having total control regardless of how out of control it might actually be. And unfortunately, these are often the kinds of people who are the most resistant to admitting the problem. They are the people least willing to admit they don’t have control. They are the people who will prove they can function without it just fine and then slide right back into the old familiar and damaging routines. It’s something far more insidious than you would think. It breeds people who can create entire lifestyles around feeding their problem and yet denying their problem. They always find perfectly acceptable ways to drink. And drink. And if you cross those lines you are made to feel like an enemy, like it is you who have somehow faulted and got in the way. It blurs all the lines of social-ability and relief. And when you’ve lived so long with it it works its way into the fabric of your existence.
And when you’re aware of that reality it creates another interesting dichotomy…
Because when this understanding has been put in your bones, you can see it everywhere… Except yourself. Because it’s not like you’re an alcoholic. Gosh no… At least you don’t think you are. Sure, you can drink a weird amount more than others. Then you lie about how many drinks you’ve had because other people won’t understand how you could. But you just love drinking with people because it makes the socializing so much more fun. You think it doesn’t matter because you’re a happy and loving drunk and you just tend to tell your friends how much you love them and try to pick up the tab. Maybe you notice how you can’t seem to go a single meal out without a drink. You have a few too many sick days from drinking and lie and say you ate something. Or how when you’re alone for the evening the relief of getting a big bottle of wine, whiskey, whatever you’re in the mood for and you party! No, you don’t party. You drink by yourself and play video games. You think about how you used to tell all these crazy stories of your incredible ability to drink massive amounts of alcohol… And now you think about those stories and they seem somewhat ghastly, maybe even inhumane. And then you think about the few times you shouldn’t have driven home and yet you totally did. Then you admit that that number is much higher than you like. But even with all that, it’s not like you have a problem. Not you. You haven’t let it impact your life in that way… Even if all these things that were the same warning signs for all the people who were much worse than you… Right?
And so you think long and hard about it. You think about all the people who went down the same path and fucked it up. And suddenly you think about how life would probably be better if you didn’t drink. You think about how you’d probably have a clearer head. How you’d have even more time to get stuff done. You imagine the money you’d save and other things you could do… But you also imagine that you’d be missing something. That it’s really not all that bad. That there are just too many things on the good side of drinking. And so you bargain. But why wouldn’t you? You’ve never crossed some imaginary, arbitrary line. You’ve never been as bad as those you know with the disease. So you make sure it all reads okay, that there isn’t any affront… And then it all starts again. Then you think about it some more: What if that drive home went wrong? You wrestle with these things and you don’t know if there’s a right answer.
You simply don’t know what is true anymore.
And what Hulk would like to suggest is that these feelings are more universal than you could possibly imagine. Believe it or not, these thoughts and feelings are the same for those who drink lightly but with troubling consequences, those that drink heavy, and even the most troubled of alcoholics. The psychology when dealing with the problem is the same, even if the tangible life results are most definitely not.
So… Um… Hulk? That’s nice and all but why the hell did we need a big talk about drinking and drugs, as well as your weird indirect admission of problems?
Because discussing that psychology and environment is ultimately necessary in order to examine why ‘The World’s End’ is the way it is.
And Hulk would like to suggest that the reason “the way it is” seems so foreign to a lot of audience remembers is because for all our familiarity with drugs and alcohol we’re actually pretty bad at recognizing the psychology and behavior of addiction. They don’t see the world like that. They are out of understanding the same way most people don’t fully understand depression. Normal society really has trouble understanding the idea of addiction because it so goes against the grain of our normal understanding. And for what we have trouble recognizing in life, Hulk argues we have even more trouble recognizing in cinema.
Coming out of the initial screening Hulk actually heard a critic say, “ugh, why did he want to go finish the pub crawl so bad? I mean I get it, but that’s just ridiculous! No one would ever do that!”
Well if you get it, then you can’t really have a complaint against it, right? Then you would even know why he would? Because that’s what it’s all about for him: It’s alcoholism. You have to have that next drink. No matter what. No matter if the world is upending. There is only the drink.
And thus our protagonist / antagonist / all-purpose mainstay, Gary King, goes forward for that drink despite all plot logic or dramatic need. Yes, that sole bit of metaphor is probably rather obvious to most of you, but the important thing is how everything Hulk will talk about in this essay is an extension of that logic.
And that logic is simple: There’s this moment in ‘Get Him To The Greek’ where Russell Brand is desperately craving drugs and sends Jonah Hill out to get some and after some hijinks ensue and Jonah comes up short, he comes home to find that Russell has already found them another way. And Russell, while high, has to explain why drugs and why he needs them:
“You know I used to be sober. When I was sober I was worried about: ‘aw, is this the twilight of my career?’ ‘Is the mother of my child a cruel, evil, brilliant, savant, idiot genius?’ ‘Am I bringing up my kid the right way?’ now, I just worry about drugs. Your life’s to-do list must be a baffling document. You’re worried about so many things, Aaron. You’re worried about: “will we get to the show?” “Will I perform well?” “Will you get the credit that you deserve?” Mine has on it but one word. Do you know what that word is?”
… The word is obviously drugs.
So of course Gary King wants to finish the damn pub-crawl.
It’s the only thing on his life’s to-do list.
5. The lens of withnail
The great thing about movies is that they are required to have perspective.
That’s kind of the magic of what a film camera can do when paired with a movie screen. It brings us into a world and shows that world in a very specific way. It almost has to be its very nature. It brings us into a person’s world and shows an inherently specific perspective. And when you have the ability to do that, you can do anything really. All the familiar platitudes and metaphors apply: you can walk a mile in another man’s shoes. You can see through another person’s eyes. Truly, you can suddenly escape out of your own damn brain for a second and be forced to see something in a way we rarely do: You get to see with the omnipotence of God. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. “Forcing” perspective is inherently the most powerful tool imaginable. You can supplant the audience with a way of seeing, a way of feeling, that is perhaps far unlike their own. There’s a reason movies are used for propaganda. There’s a reason it’s Western cultural imagery that topples empires. There’s a reason movies make us feel so damn good. And sometimes you can use that forced perspective to show them something completely alien and whackadoodle.
For instance, you can show them ‘Withnail and I’.
Please understand that we are about to talk about one of Hulk’s favorite movies ever. And no, it’s not an apt demonstration of superb blockbuster craft, nor a careful or intricate glimpse into humane courage, nor is it an example of finely crafted traditional drama. ‘Withnail and I’ is basically a boozy cinematic riff on an absurdist play in the fine British tradition… Uh, what does that mean exactly?
Well, it means it has basically zero interest in plot or arcs or any of that stuff. It’s basically all about posturing ideas within crazy, comedic situations and vignettes. Hulk could sit here and get into some academic minutiae for another 8,000 words, but let’s stick with the following generalization: absurdism, while technically rooted in the cavernous gulf of trying to find meaning in life (where there is no meaning), can basically be summed up as that which is logically possible, but not humanly possible. Does that make sense? It’s surrealism and other forms that deal with that which is actually unreal, but absurdism is kind of like presenting an insane behavioral version of our own reality. And unsurprisingly, it often takes the form of comedy. For instance, think of Quentin Dupleix’s work like ‘Rubber’ and ‘Wrong’, which often deals with the absurd (but not always). But the comedy, wit and observation are all grounded in the fact that the characters always have unnatural, heightened, unexpected reactions to things. You could even argue the world of ‘Raising Arizona’ and a bunch of other Coen movies flirt with absurdism to make their point.
Now. Here’s the trailer for ‘Withnail and I’, which might give you a small taste:
Okay, this makes it seem like these could be just funny moments in very real situations, so let’s turn to give you an idea what the social interactions are like:
And of course:
Do you see how it’s a comedic behavioral unreality? Good. Now let’s ask the most important question of all: “what’s the point of making a film like this?”
The reason is it allows you to get at an objective truth in a very different way that isn’t so dependent on logistical reality. And ‘Withnail and I’ does a remarkable job of bringing you right into the ridiculous, paranoid, unreliable brains of the two main characters. Two main characters who, as you can see in the clips above, our addicts barely capable of understanding… Well… Much of anything that has to with their situation. Virtually everything they tell themselves is a lie: Why they’re going to the country. Why they’re drinking. The reasons they don’t get their parts. Why things aren’t going their way. Why they don’t like dealing with certain persons. What’s wrong with those certain persons. It’s all lies. There is virtually no moment in the film where they actually have a solid grasp on anything around them. And there is no moment in the film where they do anything that isn’t for their own selfish good (particularly when dealing with each other).
‘Withnail and I’, for all its complete zany absurdism and total unreality, is a near perfect way of showing you “the cinematic perspective of addiction.”
No, it’s not trying to dramatize it. It’s not trying to tell the story of addiction. It’s not even trying to get you to empathize. It’s trying to push you away so you can see it all for what it is. So you can laugh and separate yourself. So that you can make these stark, ridiculous observations that just make the truth so obviously clear… And the reason this matters not just to art itself and its capacities, but because this tactic has strong connection to certain ways that the ‘The World’s End’ tells its story.
For it absolutely uses “the lens of Withnail.”
6. The needed performance
Literally & figuratively, it all starts and ends with Gary king.
Which is probably a good thing because this might be Simon Pegg’s best performance. That’s not something Hulk says lightly. Hulk understands that some of you will want to make a joke about comparing it to Scotty or something. Or perhaps some of you will look back and notice that a lot of his roles seem to fit a certain M.O. of “disaffected gen-xer” or something equally reductive. Make whatever comment you want, because just as many of you will recognize that Pegg’s career has been filled with so many moments of surprising, wholly significant depth. You’ll likely remember the dark, practical moment of figuring out the logistics of suicide in ‘Shaun Of The Dead’. Or perhaps the tearful breakup with his friend in ‘Hot Fuzz’. Or pretty much the entirety of pathos of Tim Bisley on ‘Spaced’. Hulk argues the overlap of this affect is not accidental. It is the evidence of an absolute skill to subvert a front of comedy with humanity.
It’s also a really popular tactic in drama.
Sadly, it’s one you don’t see much lately. At least now that the James L. Brooksian school of thought seems to have cooled (yet again). But the idea is simple: you build up effect with jokes/lightness and solid core relationships and then you hit them with very real, human consequences (and hopefully not in a cloying way). But now with Gary King, Pegg has pushed his acting style into completely different territory. His M.O. is now less part of an overall dramatic construct for the story and instead, becomes character’s main tactic for dealing with life itself. And Hulk argues the way in which he does it is kind of amazing, but in order to prove that first we have to define the craft involved, so let’s talk about the levels of difficulty in acting!
On the first level of acting you basically learn to supplant the awkward stilted-ness of being filmed and can thus be “yourself.” or at least seem like a real person who is saying things. The highest part of this level is when you can effectively be an “on camera personality,” where you are yourself but it really does work and communicate with an audience (and it doesn’t require a lot of depth)… Often this also requires some level of charm. Also note: a lot of people claim people like Clooney or Pitt who just “play themselves” fall into this category and that’s not true at all and incredibly dismissive of the skill of acting. To wit:
On the second level you begin to properly emote. You can convincingly be angry on screen. Or scared. Or lustful. Or whatever it is. But you often can just do those single elements on a given moment. Still, you begin to have the range of a whole human being.
On the third level you discover nuance. What used to be shouted you can now get away with just using a glare (and often the glare is superior). In cinema this is invaluable because it allows for cinematic language to overtake the verbal one.
And on the fourth level you discover the ability to mask. Instead of communicating directly, you can show psyche instead. You can show inner conflict. You can show thought. You can convincingly lie. You can show a character that is incredibly complex and wholly articulate that complexity. (Please note: these kinds of performances almost inherently require great writing).
The thing is that people are rarely able to get to that fourth level. But damn does it work when you can. Look at our best actors. Meryl Streep might be the master of it. Day-Lewis is more considered a chameleon, but he does it so remarkably well too. Think of Gandolfini’s work on ‘The Sopranos’, where he was a dinosaur of a bygone era trying to make sense of the world around him. Watch Cranston on ‘Breaking Bad’ and you see his master class in how to convincingly make a character lie. These actors wore masks and yet conveyed truth. They knew how to act and showed conflict within a person’s psyche.
And wouldn’t you know it, he absolutely does it with Gary King. Watch the film again and just think about that fourth element. You’ll see it too. He spends most of the running time in a state of outrageous bravado, but think about the ways he is constantly deflecting. Look at the way he’s lying. Look for every single reaction he has for almost a split second before launching into some obtuse put on. Watch the way he bargains. What the way he runs and hides from anything. He’s masking everything he really feels.
And yet you still know exactly how he feels.
7. The semiotic groundrules
Edgar Wright is a clever filmmaker.
And Hulk argues this fact matters a great deal. Because if we are going to start interpreting his latest film then we have to understand that the laws of semiotics dictate that one can only extrapolate that which is fair to extrapolate. And we happen to qualify fair semiotic extrapolations as being:
1) Ideas that are coherent within the context of everything else presented.
2) Ideas that are (or can at least be argued are) part of a purposeful statement.
That last part is tricky. We all understand that semiotics is an inherently limited discipline because there is no way to prove such statements of theme in a movie are intentional and therefore “true,” but such is the nature of any interpretive art. It’s all ethereal and we must understand that. But these two qualifications for fair semiotic deductions are basically there to help prevent or eliminate what we in the academic world call: “obvious bullshit.” (Okay, that’s not the official term). But obvious bullshitting happens all the time with interpretations. Most notably when you see people start interpreting with just a single detail and then they go on and on and on with these run-on tangential thoughts, one on top of the other. And the problem is that these tangents don’t relate back to the original textual thought, but instead only relate to the tangent just preceding it. Do you see the problem there? So often the end deduction has nothing to do with any other information presented in the piece of art or sometimes even runs completely counter to it… So what Hulk would like to argue up front is that Edgar Wright’s cinema is absolutely filled to the brim with coherent, purposeful statements, which will in turn allow you and Hulk to make valid interpretations of his work.
To wit: some of the most of obvious of these purposeful statements can be found in good ole fashioned production details. Look around the frames of ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ to catch the litany of times you can see seven “x’s” inside a shot. Or note the times the corresponding ex’s “number” appears in frame while they are on screen. These sorts of neat little details pop up again and again in the film. Hulk understands the will to dismiss these details as simple tricks of form, mere coloring in the margins, but keep in mind that these sorts of the repetition of details are often used as extended jokes or story moments too. For instance, think about the initial walk to the supermarket in ‘Shaun Of The Dead’ and the way it doubles again for a joke in the post-zombie-havoc walk. Really, it’s just your classic set-up / punchline, but if you think about it in a broader context, these kinds of repeated details are just about simple foreshadowing. Like going back to ‘Scott Pilgrim’, think of the way Ramona always corrects Scott on “exes” instead of “ex-boyfriends.” again, it’s technically just setting up a joke and reveal, but these sorts of things are fundamental to the way he’s constructing these movies. So enough with the little stuff. Check this out:
… Yeah, that’s pretty damn specific.
And the film is full of all sorts of these future warnings. There’s this line about Nick Frost’s ‘Ed’ character where they warn, “if he wants to live like an animal, he can live in the shed!” and guess what happens to him? Or notice in Hot Fuzz how Danny keeps asking Mr. Supercop Nicholas Angel about whether or not he’s done all those cool action shots that he’s seen in movies and then every single one of those inquiries becomes an actual action beat in the finale. Edgar Wright’s work is absolutely littered with these kinds of moments of synchronicity.
So now let’s parse over the plot details of the very obvious structure of the golden mile pub crawl in ‘The World’s End’: the first pub is, naturally, “The First Post.” The second is “The Old Familiar” and the joke is that it is identical to the first pub (and commentary on the horrible conglomeration of independent pubs going on Britain). “The Famous Cock” houses the town loony. Then they fight five robot teenagers in “The Cross Hands”. (Look at the sign and think of that action scene again and you’ll see the reasoning). They then pretend to be friends and not fighting at “The Good Companions” (wherein Hulk believes that one of them turns and looks at this sign.) Then they meet their old drug dealer Reverend Green in “The Trusted Servant.” They fight two creepy robot twins in the “The Two Headed Dog.” They hear the siren songs of salacious temptress robots at the “The Mermaid.” Gary king slams his head against the wall at “The King’s Head.” A car is driven through side of the “The Hole in the Wall.” And then the world literally ends in their final confrontation at “The World’s End.” Hulk would like to argue that those developments qualify as more than mere production details. All the wordplay. All the direction. The story beats. The action beats. The themes. Love of synchronicity. The foreshadowing… They all matter a great deal.
And that is because they confirm that all of these plot choices are not accidents. They are not assembled randomly. And they are not just for fun. They are purposeful. And what we are about to talk about falls into the creative realm of the oft-cited “Chekhov’s gun” theory, which adheres to the belief that if you reference a gun in the first act and it doesn’t go off in the second or third, then the reference to the gun shouldn’t be included. This is the belief that the introduction of information and details need to have eventual relevance to the story being told. And that isn’t to make it seem like stories are just mere puzzles of interlocking pieces that have to be assembled. They are obviously human and defiant things in many ways. But just why is foreshadowing so critical to that purpose nonetheless?
Well, for one it makes for self-contained, fully-realized narrative worlds. But an even better reason is because it speaks to the very nature of action and consequence.
Put it this way: in the seemingly incalculable randomness of life, stories are actually opportunities to look past that randomness and find the connections that lend meaning any way that you see fit (which is the purpose of stories, anyway, to lend meaning and value to events). And so we foreshadow not to “give away the surprise” or some other nonsense, but to point out the meaning between events. To highlight the cause and effect, to determine the action and consequence whether it is for good or for ill. And using synchronicity, your film is therefore establishing the “laws” of its universe. How much do those actions and consequences matter to the character? To the world around them? Take one film, say an uber-Christian promotional movie, and it may be intensely about the karma of consequences of our good deeds. Take another film, say ‘Match Point’, and it might be about how it’s far more important to be lucky than good. One film is saying only deeds matter; the other is saying it is saying good deeds are meaningless to your result. But the important thing to understand is that language of how both those statements are built on the fact that we subconsciously pay so much attention to the “karma system” of a given movie. This is true of every movie. As a viewers / consumers we strive connect the dots of purpose and coherent intent. That’s how we identify that ever-elusive concept that we call “theme.”
Admittedly, most people don’t consciously seek out or care about theme. Which is actually totally cool, by the way. If the audience member’s goal is to be satisfied with the experience in some way then it’s all good. And that’s why on one level, ‘The world’s End’ can be digested as a fun comedy with a few surprising moments of clear dramatic anguish and since those moments are obvious to people, the casual viewer is in no such rush for interpretation. But the great thing about movies is they can work on a whole bunch of levels. Themes can teach us things in ways we’re not really aware of and Hulk has spent a lot of time arguing in these columns that this sort of stealth responsibility of theme is important. And better yet, sometimes having the will to interpret the meaning of a movie can really tell us a great deal about ourselves…. So fuck settling, let’s dive into the semiotic deep end and figure out just what in the hell ‘The World’s End’is actually trying to say.
8. The interpretive dance
The film starts with a voice over narration from Gary king remembering the good old times of high school (complete with a whimsical, scratched film look and lower frame rate). At first we assume this is all part of the grand tradition of quick-exposition film intros, but then it turns out Gary king is telling this ridiculous, romanticizing and boastful story of drinking while at… An AA meeting. (Well, the designation is unsaid, but that’s the implication). Which means the entire narration is not just information but effectively just an elaborate set-up for a great joke. But think about the meaning too. Gary’s story highlights a complete and utter disconnection from present reality. That glorified scratched film look? This is the lens with which Gary King sees the world. This is his “Withnail vision.” and thus that fateful night and all that has followed since have been clouded by that romanticized view of his hedonistic past.
Two important more notes about this prologue: much like the “Bloody Mary” speech in Shaun, the original story of the high school pub crawl is replicated exactly throughout the course of the film, only this time the events unfold with new, horrifying consequences. For starters, O-man and Peter Page are both lost to “the quest” in far more damaging ways then a hangover. But everything from the past is refracted into the modern journey with a new and troubling light. The pub crawl itself lacks the same gluttonous fun. Instead, characters lie to one another. They hide intentions and meaning. And soon all the lies come out and the group fights and seems on the verge of complete disintegration until…
Oh, yeah. It seems the town has been taken over by robots.
It’s funny. A few people have made the case that the film suffers from what Hulk will call “Super 8-ism,” which was a story where the alien element of the conflict never fit right with the personal, humane story of the young kids making a film. Meaning that a few people wished ‘The World’s End’ was just about a bunch of dudes on a bar crawl coming to grips with their personal stuff. It’s a fair feeling, Hulk supposes. After all, we do spend a whole act in the “normal” non-sci-fi world and so perhaps they just got used to it. But the key difference between the two films is that the alien metaphor never really worked for ‘Super 8’ (seriously, if the story is supposed to be about letting go of trauma, then the main character would have to show both an inability to let go and the affects of significant trauma, but there is neither), whereas the extended metaphor of the sci-fi element in ‘The World’s End’ works completely… It just takes a little effort to explain.
Let’s start here: most often we see the use of robots in sci-fi or films as stand-ins for conformity. You know the conflicts that come from that, the enlightened vs. the unenlightened, etc. And a few people sort of suspect that conformity is also the thematic subject of this movie, but that’s not really accurate. In fact, it seems like a lot of people couldn’t get a good lock on what the robots represented exactly. For instance, if you look at them from Gary’s view the behaviour of the robots is that they are lifeless, personality-less, killjoys (and beer obstacles!) he even keeps referencing the meaning of robots being “slaves,” but they keep insisting “we’re not slaves.” So then you should also notice that to Nick Frost’s character, Andy Knightly, the robots take the form of temptresses. And for peter page the robots take the form of a school bully and childhood trauma. And even for basil, the crazy guy with the crazy straw at the bar (“not so crazy now!”), the robots are all part of a vast conspiracy!
So what is perhaps confusing is that, within the context of the narrative, all of these characterizations are completely true…
And that’s when one detail becomes very important… That’s when you have to remember, this is a movie that doesn’t mince words. That everything is very much on purpose. So notice the long scene where our lovely drunken fools can’t seem to agree on what they should call these robots. They try and try and none of the funny names stick…
So instead they call end up calling them “blanks.”
and that’s when it all snaps into focus and the central theme of this device becomes clear. They’re not robots, they’re blanks. They’re plain white canvases. They are mere shells that we can project ourselves onto, whether they are our fears. Our desires, our hopes, our hang-ups, or whatever is the greatest conflict in our adult lives. They are blanks that embody those feelings. And when you realize that, the robots in this film actually become reflections.
O-man succumbs to self-involved ego. Page succumbs when he turns back to go fight a bully (his demon, really). Sure, Page even lets out a funny joke that “it’s worth it” but he still lost his life in the fight. These events are all reflective of personal baggage. Go back again and look at everything Crazy Basil says to Steven in the coat room at the Mermaid and see how it fits into the overall idea: he talks all about the fateful comet bringing the blanks on the night of the original pub crawl. What could just feel like simple exposition is instead tapping into the key themes (again, nothing is an accident in these movies). For it was that night when adolescence was left behind the fears of all the characters took shape. All of their “blanks” were ushered onto this planet the night of their great last moment of youth. This is not an accident or throwaway exposition. The analogy is clear: The comet bringing “the blanks” was the herald of all their respective adulthood problems.
Now, where this analogy might seem problematic to you is in trying to see how it fits into the final standoff with “the network,” which on the surface it seems like a basic sci-fi trope about individuality in the midst of technocratic sociological conformity (which is an actual thing! … It’s also a recent ‘Dr Who’ plot!). But again, this movie wouldn’t be about something as simple as the analogue vs. Modernity, or even generational nostalgia. Instead, the final standoff completely fits our “blank” thematic model because that moment is all about self-honesty of our ability to live up to our projections. We have the network making a plea to be ruled by reason. And yet we have our three drunk humans making pleas to be fuck ups. They’re all doing it for the own reasons, (pick from the list of blank concerns we’ve used so far) so what may seem like lame act of human defiance is instead something else (and if we’re going to get into more fun synchronicity then note the film opens with Primal Scream’s ‘Loaded’ complete with the lyrics: “just what is it that you want to do? / we wanna be free / we wanna be free to do what we wanna do / and we wanna get loaded / and we wanna have a good time,” which is the exact speech that Gary King and co. give to the network). We seemingly think this movie is about the triumph of humanity’s fucked up nature and this is us “winning,” but it’s not really about that at all.
Seriously. Zero in on the most important confrontation of that scene: Gary King is a given a choice to effectively go back in time to become a robot of his own personal high school self. It is seemingly everything he could ever want… And yet he rejects it. Part of the genius of this moment is that it almost plays like a joke because he can’t give up the ego of it not being “him,” which would make it seem to be a gesture of solipsism, but obviously the moment is representative of a bigger transition: he is accepting his current self. And then think back to just moments before when Nick Frost is given a final chance to revisit temptation and yet he slams through the blank’s stomach to retrieve his wedding ring. These are two radically different moments of final confrontation with the “blanks” and thus we see that that is not the specific theory behind them. It is only the overall dynamic that matters. For Gary, it’s not arguing for the right to fuck up the human race. It’s essentially coming to terms with “I’m an alcoholic” wherein there is no cure. There is no cure for the human race. It is an inherent error. It is the acceptance of that human limitation.
Our characters are accepting their faults. They are overcoming the lens of looking backward. They are finding a way through the issues our youth cannot navigate. And when we transcend past those things? Then we are truly free.
But in this case, freedom comes in the form of Armageddon.
How is that freedom exactly? Well, let’s first look at through the lens of Gary King, wherein apocalypse is the metaphor for sobriety. For one, he is literally sober. But for the world there are no more “blanks” working in secret (though it’s worth noting that the blanks become scapegoats in Armageddon, which fully fits their “reflection” of the problems status). Instead there is only a clean, hard sobering look at life. No more rose coloured glasses. It is the hard and honest reality. It’s the metaphorical hangover. Andy Knightly says it best: “you remember the Friday nights, I remember the Monday mornings.” and so in this new sobriety, Andy toils the land while being reunited with his wife (he even talks of their problems not seeming so big in this new, understanding world). Paddy Considine’s character goes off with Rosamund Pike to have a simple, understanding life together. And notice that the two characters who were turned into blanks, O-man and Peter Page (i.e. Those who never transcended their “blank” issue) go right back to doing exactly what they were doing before. They didn’t transfer into a new human life in the apocalypse of clarity. They didn’t overcome their “blank.”
It’s worth noting that our surviving characters have not changed too much. They haven’t being radically different people. They’re just more understanding. More in control. That’s what actual maturity looks like. Sure, Gary remains the same kind of guy who would start a bar fight and need four loyal friends at his side to make him feel awesome (of course, for this unresolved issue they are still blanks!) but he’s made the central strides at the heart of his character. In the end, he is looking for a pub (was it ‘a New Dawn’ or something like that?) and then he marches in and orders a water. Note how even the choice of water in the film has always been important. It’s not an accident that Andy had been ordering water all night instead of club soda or something. Because water is purposeful. It is about survival. Water is transparent. It is clear. Put it all together and water is everything sobriety stands for.
When you go back to earlier in the film you’ll remember one last moment of synchronicity, wherein Andy tells Gary what true courage is after being called a wuss one too many times. Andy says that true courage is going into a bar after a rugby match and all these masculine guys who are dressed up with war paint and drinking pints and being able to stand in front of them and ask for tap water… Which is, of course, the exact ending of the film for Gary King.
9. The worlds of ends
If Hulk’s going to be honest, Hulk likes the thematic interpretation of apocalypse in ‘The World’s End’ a great deal more than others. Because usually apocalypse stories are just stand-ins for all sorts of egotistical musings. Some take the form of dystopian “I told you so!” gestures, like how we’re going to kill ourselves over oil or how we fuck up the environment. (Don’t get Hulk wrong, those are both totally ways we deserve to go). It’s just the way it’s written as these cautionary, finger-pointing tales. And even more apocalyptic stories come form a place of pure fantasy: we create these worlds where everyone dies, but somehow “we” (read: you) survive! We’re just that invincible! We’re the chosen ones! Or who knows, maybe we like apocalypse stories because we like writing our own endings.
So, yeah, this is much better. It’s a story of a world that goes on, but it’s trying to reflect a sober world. It’s not so much about ego as it is the erasure of ego. Of finding the simple and true self. And what better way to tell the story of that kind of apocalypse than with more kind-hearted synchronicity? We have a film that starts with someone telling a (distorted) story in a circle and it’s a film that ends with someone telling a (sobering) story in a circle. It’s the final stamp of maturity. The one time where the synchronicity was repeated to a better outcome.
You might think that after all these mentions of synchronicity that Edgar Wright’s “karmic system” exists in a truly fatalistic cinematic universe; a world where people can merely say things and then they totally happen. But a fatalistic universe implies that choice is predestined and that is so not what happens in these films. Sure, it’s a movie universe full of all kinds of intertwining prediction, but most of that is just predicting the core conflicts. Because then all of these stories actually become about overcoming fatalism and breaking such cycles. And it’s often in the little human ways of kindness that actually matter. Shaun ends up being a responsible employed boyfriend. Nicholas ends up being a happy cop in a small-town beat. And while Gary doesn’t finish the golden mile, he instead ends up sober.
Put simply: the characters don’t get what they want. They get what they need.
Oh, wait does that sound familiar? It’s almost like Hulk professed the importance of this dynamic earlier in the essay. How synchronous! Okay, all silliness aside, Hulk would like to suggest that there is no more important goal in dramatic character arcs because there is no more important realization in actual human beings.
And that arc is fully on display in ‘The World’s End’. It starts as a movie about masking and deflection. Subversion. Crushes. Alcoholism. Past abuse. It showcases the way all the characters are carrying scars (note: most are from Gary). And they keep making these same mistakes so the movie becomes about the foolishness of attempting synchronicity in the first place, whether it’s battling old enemies, giving into old crushes, or trying to reclaim past glories. And in the end sequence, it becomes about people facing “themselves,” staring down at the idealism and crushing fears of your younger self. It pleads to accept the realities of our faults. And once we can do that, it then goes through an apocalyptic change and comes out of the other side as “sober” and living your life in simpler, clearer, and better way. The entire thing is a complete arc and metaphor for adult living, now matter what specific problems you face.
… You might ask: how does this even qualify as an apocalypse movie?
Well, how about we note the fourth definition of apocalypse:
10. The glaring facts
Alcohol is poison.
Okay, scientifically speaking almost anything can be a poison. Hulk could stuff your gullet full of sand and that would technically poison your body, so let’s put it like this: if it is indeed the dosage (power and quantity) that makes a chemical a commonly known poison, then alcohol is definitely the most poison-y type thing that we regularly put into our bodies.
No matter how little or how much you put into your body, your liver (if functional) will start to process the alcohol and remove from your body it at a steady rate. It can only achieve that rate for yourself at an even pace, whatever it is. It will take what little alcohol it can from however much is in you and expunge it from the body. And this is not the “natural” process we think it is. It is not like digesting food. It is effectively, one of our bodies safety measures to help us survive. It’s like antibodies. With alcohol, we do not glean nutrients from it (even if we do from the other things that coat the alcohol). We do not receive any sort of boon whatsoever from it. There is a myth that one can “build up tolerance” but that’s not exactly true. It’s not like drinking a lot makes your liver better at processing alcohol. In fact, it has to make it worse. We just get confused because a lot of drinking often means increased size along with increasing the size of your liver, as well as the fact you can build up the level of how much you can drink without making your stomach sick. But again, you’re not actually processing alcohol any better.
So when you put too much alcohol in your system then you experience what we call “alcohol poisoning.” technically speaking once again, any amount of alcohol beyond what it can process in a moment is alcohol poisoning. But we just call it “getting drunk.” since the body will try to metabolize no matter what amount is in you, the excess amounts begin to affect circulation. When our bodies don’t circulate properly that means that either our bodies don’t get enough oxygen it gets too much carbon dioxide. Both are bad for you. But in the initial stages it feels good and makes your body feel good and you do all the fun drunk stuff. But when you pass the point where your lower level of poisoning is “fun” and instead fall into the higher levels of “not fun” then soon the body starts to literally shut down and causes passing out (which can further impair the ability to metabolize). At the highest levels above that which you can process (which is often what people actually call ‘alcohol poisoning”), then this passing out can actually cause a coma, and often the complications of said coma lead to death.
With even just a few months of EMT Training you will see this highest level occur. You will see what the bodies look like once this has been done. You will see the effect of the poison.
And you will see it a lot.
11. The converging point
So come on Hulk. What the hell is the point of all this? The seemingly random chapter separations? The waxing on audience expectations? The way narratives can thrive on contradiction? The out-of-nowhere personal talk about alcoholism? The ‘Withnail and I’ comparison? The talk about the levels of acting? The overdone examination of the semiotic layers of the Cornetto trilogy? And now a sudden tangent about alcohol poisoning? What gives?
Well, friend. Hulk talked about all of these things because they help explains a very complicated reaction to a surprisingly complicated movie. Because when you put all of those things together you realize what you’re actually watching:
It’s a weird way to think about all of it, but it totally works. Often when we see addiction in movies it is turned into something so dramatically direct, horrifying, and visceral. Think the nightmare scenario of the baby on the ceiling in ‘Trainspotting’. Or the hell-on-earth finale in ‘Requiem for a Dream’. In those contexts we get to see “addiction” told through very drama-centric movie conventions. We get to see the pride before the fall. We see the clear act breaks before it all goes so horribly wrong.
Hulk has always kind of had a problem with these movies because they work more like scare tactics, full of oogey-boogey moralizing and the worst possible results… Which is fine Hulk supposes? But much like the way scare tactics are used in our schools they have a way of momentarily sticking in the minds of our youngins’, but it rarely stops people. It rarely provides catharsis. It rarely communicates beyond the “just say no!” mentality.
So perhaps most importantly of all, Hulk just doesn’t find these dramatic scare movies all that honest. Most heroin addicts don’t really deal with the waking nightmare. It’s just like… an on-going sadness. A state of disconnected being. Nothing scares them. Like Russell Brand says, they just care about drugs. And yeah, perhaps there is one day where it all goes wrong. But Hulk honestly feels that it manifests in people as a completely different kind of desperate. They put on brave faces. They don’t care about the loss of humanity and things that shock us as casual viewers. There’s just care about the drugs.
Which means that when you put ‘The World’s End’ in direct comparison with these scare-tactic addiction horror movies it actually emerges as one of the weirder, yet truer expressions of addiction that Hulk can think of. Sure, they are tackling the subject of dramas in the center of a comedy (another thing that might have thrown some people off). And sure the lens is off-kilter, a purely distorted view, but it replaces scare tactics with robot sci-fi fun that is weirdly much more reminiscent of the Brechtian indulgence of ‘Withnail and I’. They both see the world through “cinematic alcoholism” and in doing so they can attack the ideas that actually matter.
So let’s tempt another moment of synchronicity and go back to what Hulk said before…
“And yet, the bigger problem is that for stories to be considered good we also ask that it be true. Not literally true, but personally true. That the film speaks to us. That it communicates something we recognize and value. We ask that it not violate the sanctity of our naked emotional transference into it, either. And because we demand all these things of our entertainment, we often say that good movies “satisfy us on all levels.”
‘The World’s End’ is a fun enjoyable movie filled with great gags, but it is also one of the best artistic expressions of alcoholism that Hulk has ever seen. And not just the disease itself but the manifestations of psyche.
And that, Hulk would like to argue, is worth something.
12. The rueful admissions
what would you say to the a rueful admission that after everything Hulk has admitted in this essay, that immediately after seeing this movie… Hulk went out to drink beer?
… Both times?
Okay, Hulk’s not sure this automatically implies something about the movie (because it sure as hell doesn’t glamorize it) but it might imply a lot about Hulk. Is Hulk a high-functioning alcoholic? Is there a drinking problem? Does Hulk just drink too much sometimes? All Hulk knows is what always seems to be really crappy reality when Hulk thinks about it in given moments of wrong. Like going to the bars even after all of this. Perhaps that’s part of understanding this problem. No matter what negative associations can be made, no matter how many scare tactics you’ve seen, you still just have that instinct. It’s the same reason smokers ignore warnings on the label. And with booze, there’s just those romanticized ideas of drinking that Hulk can’t get out of Hulk’s mind. Those moments and tastes that Hulk truly loves. A perfect I.P.A. with fish and chips. The smell of Laphroaig from the bottle. An 82 Bordeux with… Well… Hell, that’s good for any occasion. But Hulk can dress it up in all the delicate refinement Hulk wants. It all still gives way to the realization that Hulk is a sitting here writing this at 4:26 in the morning (on a work night) and Hulk is wishing that Hulk could have another glass of whiskey just so Hulk could peacefully go to sleep and shut Hulk’s over-active brain off.
Too bad we’re out of booze.
It’s the kind of ridiculous moment that makes Hulk think of the uber-famous ‘Simpsons’ quote: “to alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” … It’s the kind of catch 22 that can either give you psychological nightmares or make you throw up your hands and realize how silly life is. Both reactions are probably right.
But as Hulk said at the beginning of the essay, “sometimes diving deep into the meaning of a movie can tell us a great deal about ourselves” and in sitting down to think in depth about ‘The World’s End’ and in trying to write another giant-ass essay Hulk found Hulkself questioning things Hulk never imagined would show up in the analysis like this. Hulk wrestled so much with it, often late into the night. And the result of that is simple: over the course of the last month this is the most that Hulk has ever seriously thought about quitting drinking.
It’s an obviously personal thing to admit, but it turns out all the scare tactic movies in the world, which all seemed to shout “this is how you could end up!” barely made a dent in this brain. Neither did the lifetime of experiences with alcoholics and abusers, where the very essence of drinking is practically carved into the neighborhood itself. And neither did the rides in ambulances and dead drunk corpses staring you right in the face.
Instead of all of that obvious tangible stuff, it just took a complex genre movie to articulate “this is how you are and why it’s a problem.” and now there are suddenly cracks in Hulk’s own Withnail vision. Suddenly Hulk is pausing more. Choices that Hulk previously saw nothing wrong with in terms of drinking behavior feel really different. And for the first time you feel suddenly aware of how what you’re doing looks like to other people. You’re suddenly seeing a thing in a way that is completely outside yourself. It’s like getting assigned to cover a delicious lobster festival for a food magazine and coming away by thinking about the little red guys going into the pots. It’s all about brain reorientation. And suddenly, this personal conflict seems real in a way it never did before.
… But as great and forward thinking as all of this sounds… There is the even more rueful admission that Hulk’s not sure Hulk can make good on those serious thoughts. That Hulk’s gone through this cycle before, just in much smaller ways, and it all ends up the same.
And then there’s the most rueful admission that Hulk’s not even really sure that Hulk even really wants to.
All Hulk knows is that with all the litany of things out there that could have helped, it was going down the rabbit hole of figuring out how ‘The World’s End’ works that maybe just maybe might have done something. Hulk’s not sure. But Hulk made a choice to make good on that inclination and to just talk about it here with you. So that it might be helpful. That it might strike a chord. And in the very least it just might have been something to confront.
After all, we all have our blanks.
With all the love,