Too often the movies we’re sold as science fiction are just action films with laser blasts, or fantasy movies set in space. These films take the trappings of scifi and use them in the most shallow way possible, never bothering to get to the true purpose of the genre: an exploration of humanity. The World’s End might not pass the ‘hard scifi’ test, but it definitely is a science fiction movie in that its genre elements are used to take a look at real, compelling elements of the human condition.
No place is that more evident than the ending of the movie; while there’s a big explosion (and an escape from a fireball), the film’s real climax comes during a scene that will delight old school Star Trek fans: Simon Pegg’s Gary King defeats the alien invasion from The Network by basically talking it to death. This is a patented Captain Kirk move, one that he utilized in the original Star Trek series four or five times*. In many ways this, more than bedding green girls or delivering judo chops, is the ultimate indicator of Captain Kirk as capable, smart and tactically brilliant… which of course means we’ll never see it in the new Star Trek movies.
But getting the man who plays Scotty in those films to do it in The World’s End is close enough. The way Captain Kirk usually killed the advanced computers was through a logic bomb - giving the sentient AI input that didn’t make sense or was contradictory to its programming and which forced it to shut down. Gary King does something similar but quite different, in that he presents himself as the contradictory input. This is a play on another science fiction trope, the idea that while humans are flawed it’s those flaws that make us special. Perfection, this trope argues, would only sand off our edges and take away the unique things that make our lives worth living.
Which is one of the main arguments of The World’s End (what’s interesting is that in many of the science fiction stories to use this trope the allegory is about socialism, the merging of humanity into one group for the greater good. In The World’s End it’s about gentrification and the capitalist imperative to make edgy things soft for mass-market consumption). But what makes The World’s End unique is that it takes this concept and follows it all the way through to the very, very bitter end. Defeated, The Network leaves the Earth but as it does it takes with it all of the digital technology that has made our lives better the last few decades. This is a twist on the idea of rejecting the hive-mind’s gifts to humanity, whether it be immortality or advanced technology… except this time the rejection is made after the fact. And the movie shows us all the fallout.
Usually in these stories the hero - always a pretty upright kind of guy - says that the brutish, ugly bits of humanity are the necessary flip side to the beautiful bits. In The World’s End the hero is not particularly upright, but he’s making a similar argument, and the camaraderie of the final three surviving friends is the proof. And it’s here that the movie gets a little weird, and dark, and complicated.
It’s important to remember that Gary King isn’t just a guy living a life of nostalgia and denial - he’s a suicidal addict. His arc is bigger than ‘growing up,’ and the script takes that arc in a unique direction. At the end Gary isn’t just rejecting The Network, he’s not just rejecting the Starbucking of the world, he’s rejecting 12 step programs. In that final pub Gary finds himself again in the center of an encounter circle, and The Network uses the word ‘intervention.’ This is AA, a system that makes you give up control of yourself to a Higher Being, that - it could be argued - Starbucks addicts into one-size fits all jargon-spouting robots. There’s no question that AA works - studies have in fact shown it has the best record of keeping addicts sober - but there is a question about whether it’s for everybody. It’s not for Gary King.
But there are consequences to Gary rejecting all of this, and in the final moments of the movie we see that Earth has been reduced to a new Dark Ages. In a standard movie Gary would reject The Network but would fix himself; he’d stumble out of Newton Haven (now destroyed, representing him finally leaving his past behind) into a bright new day. But that’s too simple. You don’t wake up the first moment of your sobriety to find your world fixed. You don’t get your wife back, you don’t get your job back. You wake up sober and living in the ashes of a world you have burned to the ground. You’ve survived a personal apocalypse and you have to make the best of it.
That, in many ways, is the most mature aspect of the ending of The World’s End. The world is fucked, but every character manages to find a measure of happiness in that world. Pete, now a blank, goes home to his family. O-Man keeps selling real estate. Steve and Sam end up together. Andy has his family back and is even eating better. And Gary ends up with a happy ending that shows the ways he has grown, even if they’re not the ways that we, as audiences, expected him to grow.
For one thing he’s sober, and ordering water in a bar full of big guys in war paint shows that he has come around to Andy’s way of thinking way back at The First Post. That’s a big step. But the bigger step is his friendship with the blank versions of his friends. Some people have been confused by this - isn’t Gary still living in the past? The reality is that Gary’s fixation on 1990 wasn’t the problem, it was a symptom. There’s nothing inherently wrong with still listening to the same music from your best years. Gary’s problem wasn’t that he was living in the past, he was looking to the past as an escape from responsibility. The source of his schism with Andy wasn’t the accident, it was the fact that Gary ran away when Andy needed him the most. It was his total rejection of responsibility, the way he can never be wrong. Throughout the movie Gary is not there for his friends, whether it be ignoring Peter during his speech about the bully or running away to the next pub at the end. In the final moments of the film Gary King has grown into the leader that he always fancied himself to be because he finally understands that he needs to stick with his friends.
Ordering that water is a big deal. Fighting for his friends - that’s the true measure of Gary’s growth. What I really like about this is that Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have eschewed a cookie cutter idea of responsibilty and maturation. Gary doesn’t have to settle down and have a family like Pete and Andy, he doesn’t need to excel in business like O-Man, and he doesn’t need to discover true love and live small like Steve. There are many ways to live your life, The World’s End says, and the important thing is how you live that life.
Why the blanks, though? On one level yes, they represent Gary’s friends from a better time. But in a larger sense they represent taking responsibility for his actions. Gary didn’t just send the world back to the Dark Ages, he has stranded these not-quite-robots in a world that doesn’t want them. He can’t fix the world, and he can’t save all the blanks, but he can take responsibility for this group in a way that he never could with his real friends. He got them into this situation, and he’s going to stick with them until the end.
And so all of that - the robots and The Network and the apocalyptic finale - speak to the humanity at the heart of The World’s End. The movie rejects the Disneyfication of Times Square, but it also acknowledges that the seedier version of that intersection had lots of problems. It’s hopeful in its own way, as it’s saying that even when you are at your worst - even when you’ve hit alcoholic rock bottom - you can still wake up in the morning and make the best of it. It’s not the most sweepingly romantic concept of all time, but it’s real and it’s true. Gary King is 40 years old and this is the world he’s made. Now he’s going to live in it the best man he can be.
* Return of the Archons, The Ultimate Computer, Changeling, I, Mudd, Requiem for Methusala