The World’s End (2013), a film that Simon Pegg calls a ‘unifying chapter’ of the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, is meant to tie up all the themes that dominated the two previous instalments, Hot Fuzz (2007) and Shaun of the Dead (2004). The aim of the films was to show extraordinary events against the backdrop of everyday Britain, but to avoid the idealised and the gritty. The films are commentaries on both the genres they represent and life in the UK, with an emphasis on the inability to grow up or to find the right balance between adulthood and the echoes of adolescence.
The last instalment of the series is about revisiting one’s past. As Edgar Wright, the director and co-writer of the trilogy, puts it, ‘when you go back to your hometown, you feel alienated’. In the film this metaphor becomes literal. Under the influence of Gary King (Simon Pegg), a man who has retained his teenage mentality, a group of friends returns to their hometown to finish their once failed pub crawl. Soon they realise that the town has been taken over by aliens. In essence, the film contrasts Gary with his grown-up friends and ponders the differences. When considered in the context of the previous films, The World’s End reveals the trilogy’s overall stance on what it means to become an adult.
The unwillingness to grow up, or what Edgar Wright describes as ‘eternal adolescence’, stems from hostility towards what the films present as ‘proper’ adulthood. Being an adult is shown from the perspective of a rebellious teenager who fears that to join ‘the world of the grown-ups’ is inevitably to become one of the mindless drones who value productivity over individuality, convenience over freedom and conformity over creativity. In this light, Gary King is not a sad man-child but a hero who attempts to save himself and his friends from middle-age stagnation and uncritical subordination to the social ideal of a responsible breadwinner. Gary’s attempts might not result in a conventionally successful life and might even drive him into alcoholism, but he undeniably is the life force of the group and succeeds at making them question the meaning and the worth of what, for them, stands for ‘success’. He also defeats the perfect, coldly organised, corporate-like aliens – the ideals of soulless productivity and efficiency.
Similarly, in Hot Fuzz the adults are obsessed with being ‘proper’ and respectable. Their repression, and inability to accept anything that does not fit their idea of a ‘norm’, turns them into a cult-like, violent organisation. Their crimes are meant to regain ‘order’, in a disturbingly fascist sense of the word. Their actions testify of their inverted priorities – murder is right if it eliminates the threats to their candidacy for the title of ‘Village of the Year’. Superficial appearances become more valuable than the lives of the inhabitants of the town. The ‘different’ and ‘flawed’ are eliminated to sustain the obligatory homogeneity. Nicholas Angel, Pegg’s perfectionist police officer with exceptional abilities, is also defined as an anomaly, which needs to be obliterated. Nevertheless, the town does not succeed at destroying him but, ironically, helps him to discover that his ambition, determination and dedication to his job are not sufficient for a well-lived life, and that he needs some distractions and times of mindless joy for the sake of balance.
Growing-up, then, at its worst, means losing sight of what is significant and dedicating one’s life to the cold, mechanical, pseudo-perfection of deadly conformism, as symbolised by the Neighbourhood Watch Alliance and the aliens. At its best, it manages to create functional individuals who find a way towards self-fulfilment and negotiate their position between adulthood and adolescence. The crucial aspect of this transformation is, of course, its price. In Shaun of the Dead, Shaun appears to learn to be responsible and, in the end, manages to impress his girlfriend Liz with his newly acquired maturity. The process is, however, full of loss, blood and gore. It takes shooting his mother in the head and the death of a significant portion of Britain’s population to shake him out of his student lifestyle. His path is full of desperation and trauma. But, after all the dramatic events, he manages to sustain his relationship with both his girlfriend and his crude best friend, demonstrating the possibility of being a family man and an eternal teenager simultaneously.
The film takes its time to establish the idea of a zombie in each of us, emphasising the mechanical movements of the people while travelling through the city and performing their repetitive jobs. The point is emphasised by the fact that Shaun takes a significant amount to time to even notice the difference between the zombie infested city and the city he knows. There’s a strange duality about his situation. On the one hand, he fights the mindless animated corpses, on the other he needs to find a way to fit in. His fear of becoming an adult forces him to remain a teenager which, ironically, makes him become what he’s trying to avoid. He’s passive and both unable and unwilling to make crucial decisions to move on. Growing up requires him to take control of his life. This is difficult by itself but, to make things worse, the process progresses under the threat of the job, family, children, and the ideal of being a responsible adult taking over the reins.
The trilogy, then, starts by portraying the worries that accompany the beginning of one’s road to adulthood, and concludes by focusing on what one leaves behind. The characters in these films are, at least partially, motivated by the powerful memories of their golden past. Such memories not only define and create Gary King, but also seemingly leave both him and his friends in the state of permanent yearning and dissatisfaction. The freedom, rebellion and the endless possibilities of their teenage years haunt them and make them distrust their decisions which have shaped them. This nostalgia, which Edgar Wright describes as the villain of the last film, can, however, both build and destroy. The films negotiate a compromise with ageing and try to present a comfortable middle, which allows one to function as an adult without assassinating one’s inner child. The World’s End advocates the freedom to be useless, lost and unproductive simply, but not only, because, individuals should be valued above the requirements and expectations of the group. It shows that such a balance is possible and that the right to pick your own, even self-destructive, path means more than conformity to realise socially dictated success. Gary King might be a questionable symbol for all humanity but we can all be proud of being ‘out of order’ in one way or another.