Gary King (Simon Pegg), a 40-year-old drunken mess of a man, gathers together his four best pals from high school to relive what he still considers the best night of his life: The time when the five of them, in their late teens, tried to hit 12 pubs in their hometown, got ridiculously sloshed in the process, and never quite reached their goal. 22 years later, Gary is determined to finish this unfinished business.
The problem is, Gary's mates - played by an enviable cast of British character actors, including Wright/Pegg regular Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, and Paddy Considine - have moved on with their lives. Only Gary is dressing and behaving like he's still 18, and it's still 1990.
After they return to their old town and begin their pub crawl, the five men soon learn that things have changed. Not only have the old pubs become corporatized and soulless - "Starbucksed", I think, one of them calls it - but so have the town's residents.
And that is all I will give away; though the posters, previews, and Wright's own reputation for genre bending have all played up the sci fi elements of the script, it would be kind of awesome to see The World's End without knowing anything about it in advance. But if you're past all that, read on.
Wright and Pegg, who cowrote the script, are reworking the same "individual vs. collective" themes of their earlier cinematic collaborations, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. But while they also pack in - amongst all the laughs and thrills - insights on nostalgia, anti-conformity, and today's technology-obsessed society, The World's End becomes first and foremost a parable for alcoholism and recovery. The filmmakers have confirmed as much, as Pegg has been clean and sober since 2010. The context almost puts a preachy drag on the film, though Pegg, reportedly an atheist, at least stays away from the typical AA "God" stuff.
Wright's direction remains crisp and witty: not many filmmakers can elicit laughs merely by cutting between close-ups of glasses of beer and water being poured. But I'm resigned to say that the fantastic Shaun of the Dead might have been lightning in a bottle. It caught me off-guard when it arrived, and its newness, I think, was what made it special. Hot Fuzz was fun but it was too light; lacking Shaun's unexpected depths, I found it forgettable. And while Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - thus far Wright's sole feature without Pegg and Frost - was certainly a cinematic candyland, its glibness also disappointed.
The World's End may be the closest Wright has come to Shaun's perfect blend of comedy, genre, and heart, but the third act's focus on Gary's alcoholism ultimately, for me, is not a great fit for all the action that surrounds it. I get what Wright and Pegg are trying to do - the alcoholic's acceptance that he is not perfect is at the core of the film's finale - but for me it was almost too ambitious.
Look at me, the picky pants: unhappy with the flippancy of Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim, yet dismissive of The World's End's attempts at profundity. Just ignore me. This film is still great fun to watch, with plenty of hilarious dialogue, a tight script, a great soundtrack of 1990-era British tunes, and the always-welcome Rosamund Pike. It's a standout in a 2013 that has, by August, proven to be an otherwise lackluster year for cinema.