Banalization of Corporate Aesthetic, beer, body humor, comedy, Cornetto Trilogy, Corporations, Eddie Marsan, Edgar Wright, Film, film review, Fuck-ups, Gary King, Hot Fuzz, Human Developement, humanity, Humor, Individual Initiative, Individual Will, Martin Freeman, McDonalds, Mid-Life Crisis, Network, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Paul, Pierce Brosnan, Robots, Rosamund Pike, science fiction, Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg, The Golden Mile, The Kids Aren't Allright, The Network, The Offspring, The World's End, Totalitarianism, WTF
When we were young the future was so bright
The old neighborhood was so alive
And every kid on the whole damn street
Was gonna make it big and not be beat
–The Kids Aren’t Allright, The Offspring
Watching The World’s End makes me unbearably thirsty. This was my first conclusion after watching the film in theatres with my little sister and my wife, then fiancé, and my second conclusion was that it had the most disappointing ending of the Cornetto trilogy. This last opinion has changed with my fourth viewing of the movie and I promise that having three beers had nothing to do with it. It made me taste the colors of the lights that the Network robot/aliens made during the fight in the Bee Hive, but I promise it didn’t influence any other judgements.
I discovered the Cornetto Trilogy about halfway in when I rented the movie Hot Fuzz from Hastings (obviously this a while ago because the company recently declared bankruptcy and foreclosure sending me into an emotional tailspin as I watched the end of a retail outlet I’d visited literally as long as I could remember). Watching Hot Fuzz though was unlike watching any film I had ever watched and that’s not maudlin on my part it’s just fact. The scenes would cut and shift so dramatically, and while the film was obviously meant to be a comedy the level of the violence seemed at first a kind of contradiction. Watching a man have his head imploded by a chunk of concrete pushed from a Church roof, and watching his body wobble from left to right before falling to the dirt wasn’t funny it was disgusting and shocking…and then it was funny. Hot Fuzz led to Shaun of the Dead which, like the previous film, balanced a smart comedy alongside a grotesque zombie movie. Seriously when David gets ripped apart by zombies for the first time I literally almost vomited, now I can’t watch it without laughing and groaning.
While we’re being fair I do consider Paul a part of the Trilogy. Even if Edgar Wright didn’t direct it like the other three, I do feel the humor and narrative structure satisfies the Wright/Pegg/Frost model but I’m getting off topic.
The World’s End came to theatres and so I was ecstatic to watch, but as I began, I was originally disappointed by the film because, until the final ten minutes of the movie, I had loved every minute of the film. This impression changed when I watched it again when it came out on DVD, and when I watched it last Saturday with my family and my little sister I recognized that I had come to actually love the ending because of the character Gary King.
Simon Pegg plays a man who, 20 years after having the night of his life decides he wants to reconnect with his group of high school friends and try again to finish the “Golden Mile.” The opening monologue of the film, and the subsequent bit of dialogue set everything up:
Gary King: [opening monologue] Ever have one of those nights that starts out like any other but ends up being the best night of your life? It was June the 22nd, 1990. Our final day of school. There was Oliver Chamberlin, Peter Page, Steven Prince, Andy Knightley, and me. They called me “The King”. Because that’s my name – Gary King. Ollie fancied himself as a bit of a player but really he was all mouth. We called him “O Man” because he had a birth mark on his face that was shaped like a six. He loved it. Pete was the baby of the group. He wasn’t the kind of kid we would usually hang out with, but he was good for a laugh. And he was absolutely minted. Steve was a pretty cool guy, we jammed together. Chased the girls. I think he saw us as rivals. Sweet really. And Andy. Andy was my wingman. The one guy I could rely on to back me up. He loved me, and I’m not being funny, but I loved him too. There was nothing we were going to miss about school. Maybe Mr. Shepherd, he was one of the good guys. He used to ask me what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I just wanted to have a good time. He thought that was funny. It wasn’t meant to be, not that night. Newton Haven was our home town, our playground. Our universe. And that night was the site of a heroic quest. Our aim? To conquer the Golden Mile – 12 pubs along the legendary path of alcoholic indulgence. There was the First Post, the Old Familiar, the Famous Cock, the Cross Hands, the Good Companions, the Trusty Servant, the Two Headed Dog, the Mermaid, the Beehive, the King’s Head, the Hole In The Wall, all before reaching our destiny – The World’s End. We took my car into town that night. We called her “The Beast” because she was pretty hairy. And so our journey into manhood began. We were off. We didn’t waste any time, we hit pub one and we hit it hard. There was drinking, there was laughs, there was controversy, there were ladies, there were shots, there was drama, and of course there was drinking. By pub 5 we were feeling invincible, and decide to purchase some herbal refreshment from a man we called “The Reverend Green”. Pint 6 put O Man out of commission, so we carried on without him. Good thing, I bumped into his sister at the next pub and we went into the disabled’s, and then I bumped into her again. Sam tagged along for a while, but then I had to let her go, I had another date that night. And her name was Amber. Nine pints in and it was us against the world. Things got mental in the Beehive so we tailed it to the Bowls Club, or as we called it “The Smoke House”, which is where it all went fuck up. Everyone got paranoid and Pete chucked so we had to bench him. In the end we blew off the last three pubs and headed for the hills. As I sat up there, blood on my knuckles, beer down my shirt, sick on my shoes, knowing in my heart life would never feel this good again.
[shows Gary in a group therapy setting]
Gary King: And you know what? It never did.
Group Leader: Interesting, Gary. Does anyone have any insight? Or maybe they want to challenge Gary?
Pale Young Man: Were you disappointed?
Gary King: About what?
Pale Young Man: You didn’t make it to the World’s End?
[shows Gary with a smug grin on his face]
This was a rather long quote, but it’s necessary to really understand Gary King. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are always the center pieces of the films of the Cornetto trilogy, and The World’s End follows this pattern as they play Gary King and Andrew Knightly, two friends who have become estranged after Gary seemingly faked a drug overdose and left Andy following a car accident that left Andy in intensive care. Gary gathers his old group together, lying to Andy that his mother has died, and they eventually return to their home town Newton Haven. They begin the Golden Mile, but about halfway through they get into a fight with a group of teenagers who turn out to be “robots filled with blue stuff.” From that point on the remainder of the night becomes just about surviving while Gary pushes through to the end of the Golden Mile seemingly oblivious to the reality around him.
There are a lot of elements holding the film together, and part of the major theme of the movie is the threat to individuality by corporate sterilization. The first three bars the group enter are almost identical and a brief conversation handles the issue of, as Steven calls it “Starbuckin.” Starbucks is the most reliable example of this in contemporary society, through the McDonalds effect is a previous model that works just as well. The general idea is that as corporate assets grow, their influence grows too. Part of this is just their ability to buy up multiple pieces of real estate to expand their presence within communities and cities across the globe, but the idea explored in The World’s End is the notion that, along with these territorial expansion, comes a unification of aesthetic. That’s a fancy-pants way of saying corporations make everything look, feel, and taste the same. It’s no mistake that just about every pub the group goes into the same beer is Crown & Glory, and so like the Big Mac, the Whopper, or Venti Mocha Frappuccino, the commodities companies sell tend to unify the experience of people entering their establishments. This sentiment is best expressed by a friend of mine during a casual conversation, “People like McDonalds because they know, wherever they are in the world, they can walk into one and the burger will taste the same way that it does in Dallas, Budapest, Constantinople, London, The Hague, or even Moscow. A Big Mac is a Big Mac.” There’s an essay in the bland banalization of sensation and the purposeful avoidance of interacting with foreign cultures but that’s for a later date.
The group eventually comes into contact with The Network, the head of the “robots” that is in fact a multi-global force attempting to prepare human beings for interactions with the rest of the galaxy, but while The Network is talking Wright carefully suggests that it’s this force that has created the technological innovations humans have enjoyed over the last few decades. The general idea is that once all human beings are complacent and abandon their rebellious behavior, then they’ll be fit to interact with the real world.
It’s not unfair to suggest that corporate realities make this moment in the film, not so much a narrative trope but in fact a beautiful moment of mimesis between reality and the rest of the film. This essay isn’t necessarily about the corruption of corporations on individual human beings, but it most certainly is about fuck-ups.
By the end of the film the men encounter the head of the Alien organization which has taken over Newton Haven, and by extension the world. The exchange is the climax of the film, but also allows for brief examination of what’s sometimes excessively referred to as “the human spirit.” The Network notes that:
The Network: At this point your planet is the least civilized in the entire galaxy.
Gary King: What did he say?
Andrew Knightley: He said we are a bunch of fuck ups.
Gary King: Hey it is our basic human right to be fuck ups. This civilization was founded on fuck ups and you know what? That makes me proud!
From there the issue of human’s tendency to rebel against authority is addressed:
The Network: You are children and you require guidance. There is no room for imperfection.
Gary King: Hey earth isn’t perfect alright? And humans aren’t perfect and guess what? I ain’t perfect!
The Network: And there in lies the necessity for this intervention. Must the galaxy be subjected to an entire planet of people like you?
Andrew Knightley: Hey who put you in charge? Who are you to criticize anyone? Now, you might think Gary is a bit of a cock and he is a bit of a cock, but he is my cock!
Gary King: Oh thanks mate.
And finally when it becomes clear that The Network is losing Gary notes that:
Gary King: I think you bit off more than you can chew with earth mate
Andrew Knightley: Yeah, because we’re more belligerent, more stubborn, and more idiotic than you could ever imagine.
It’s an odd feeling watching this exchange and wanting to say “Yeah I’m a fuck up, and damn it makes me proud!” It’s akin to that moment in The Network when you want to chant “I’M MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GONNA TAKE IT ANYMORE!” The only problem is Howard Beale died at the end of that movie so I think I’ll stick to the fuck-up line. Far more accurate. Less foreboding.
The exchange is easy to miss as just the drunken ramblings of a few men who are too pissed (drunk, there are some idioms that I wish would cross the Atlantic) to even know what they’re saying let alone trying to defend the freedom of humanity against a nonhuman totalitarian system which seeks to rule the world, but the idea of power, specifically individual power is what defines the movie The World’s End, because from the start Gary King is trying to find some kind of personal power to make up for the fact that his life went nowhere and he is, in all estimation, a loser in life.
Watching the film again I really felt and observed Gary as a figure of sympathy and pity and that reaction is in no small part because of the way Simon Pegg plays him. Constantly in the film the old gang talk to each other about where they are in life. They’ve all moved away from Newton Haven, each finding their own life and career: Steven works in construction management, Peter is a partner in his father’s car dealership, Oliver is a successful real estate salesman, and Andy works corporate law. That leaves Gary who, as he admitted in the opening of the film, never went anywhere, and by the time they’ve hit the sixth pub it’s become even more clear that his life and his personality haven’t changed a bit since he graduated high school, assuming he graduated at all. At this point the film would become just a sad movie about some fuck-up who never grew up, but because it’s an Edgar Wright film Gary and the gang eventually have to fight robots which, while it’s not objectively brilliant in a cinematic sense, is still fun as fucking fuck to watch.
That and its impressive when you recognize that Peirce Brosnan was the second James Bond to appear in the Conetto Trilogy. Just putting that out there.
Gary is a man fighting his reality and trying to reclaim something and near the end of the film he finally arrives at The World’s End, the final pub in the Golden Mile, but Andy won’t let him drink. I won’t lie I was actually in tears watching the scene as Gary desperately tries to drink his beer while Andy fights him every time until the men finally offer this exchange:
Gary King: It never got better than that night! That was supposed to be the beginning of my life! All that promise and fucking optimism! That feeling that we could take on the whole universe! It was a big lie! Nothing happened!
Andrew Knightley: What is so important about the Golden Mile?
Gary King: It’s all I’ve got!
It’s a hard fact, but life can be unfailingly cruel, and to some people High School is a time where they can flourish, but while some graduate and enter the real world finding some sense of purpose or ambition, for a select few it’s not enough. Memories are truly powerful, and not just because they make up the reality of our lives and help us find perspective and wisdom, memories also create narratives about our lives. Gary’s final flaw is not just that he’s a fuck-up, it’s the fact that he believed he had so much promise and discovered that life didn’t care. The metaphor of the big fish in a small pond is a good adage for Gary, but perhaps a more fitting assessment is that he felt disillusioned about the fact that he felt he had so much promise and discovered that life didn’t care who he was, or what he had done, or even what his reputation was.
In life you have to build yourself into the person that you want to be and want to become, and that involves developing an independent will power that you can use to push yourself into the goals and aspirations you desire, and it’s clear that Gary did none of that. Gary embodies the man who has to fall back upon his memories for emotional comfort and satisfaction because he’s done nothing in life that anybody would consider worthwhile.
My contester argues now that it sounds like there’s no point. The movie in fact is just an odd science fiction movie that’s about how corporate greed has enslaved humanity while also dealing with some guy’s mid-life crisis. Why should I bother with the movie at all?
My response is that The World’s End may be about how corporate culture has negatively affected society, while also taking time to show a man who has gone nowhere in life, but I would argue that the endearing quality of The World’s End is that, like all three of the Cornetto Trilogy, the film is ultimately about achieving some kind of reinvigoration and redemption.
Whether it’s Shawn, Nicholas Angel, or Gary King, Simon Pegg consistently plays a man who is caught in a life that leaves him unsatisfied and static before a kind of supernatural event profoundly affects his life and he is given the chance to create a new life for himself. Likewise, Nick Frost plays the role of Simon Pegg’s friend, offering in different ways in each film, a friendship that will ultimately lead Shawn, Nicholas Angel, or Gary King to this reinvigoration and recreation of his life. In my own life I have had such friends and acquaintances, people who appeared and offered me their time and help when I needed it and it was because of them I am the person I am today.
The World’s End is about trying to achieve something, just one victory in a life of errors in spite of a world that seems bent on trying to stop you. Gary King is a fuck-up, but as he and Andy and Steven so eloquently put it at the end, it’s the basic nature and right of human beings to be fuck-ups. Mistakes are what make us human beings in the first place, and it’s learning from them that we become the people we are today.
Though to be fair, by the time you get to the third garden wall you should realize it’s not going to end well.