There will always be an England, at least as long as there's a PBS, and as long as the Brits continue to mine one of their greatest natural resources, eccentricity. Trust an English filmmaker to spin some contemporary popular genres in a different direction, as Edgar Wright did a few years ago in "Shaun of the Dead," a clever, funny take on the zombie flick, usually a most unsettling form in these parts.
In his latest movie, "The World's End," Wright once again toys with some well-established material, here a combination of science-fiction and horror flicks about aliens robbing humans of their identity. The subject emerged most powerfully in the 1950's with films like "It Came From Outer Space" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and still provides important themes for our time. Wright grafts the concept onto the structure of another contemporary favorite, the goofy buddy movie, a very odd decision indeed.
In "The World's End" Gary King (Simon Pegg) provides a voiceover back story about five friends in the lovely little town of Newton Haven who embark on a pub tour, the Golden Mile, which demands that they drink a pint of beer in the town's 12 pubs, a marathon they never completed for understandable reasons — they were all too drunk, too sick, or too unconscious to make the full 12. Twenty years later, he visits his four companions and through a variety of unscrupulous methods, persuades them to complete the tour for old time's sake, to relive their youth, and just for the hell of it.
When the quintet arrives in the village, everything looks strangely unchanged, including the string of picturesque pubs that constitute the Golden Mile — except that nobody recognizes them. Despite Gary's manic cheerfulness and drunken loquacity, in places like The First Post, The Trusty Servant, and The Mermaid they encounter only cold shoulders and hostile stares. Finally, in a fight in the men's room, Gary and his pals discover that a considerable number of Newton Haven's citizenry are actually mechanical replacements — nobody likes to use the word "robot" because it's politically incorrect.
In addition to a good deal of quarreling among the friends about the past, the present, and Gary's constant lies and deceptions, the rest of the movie consists of chases and fist fights, enough pursuits to stock a couple of blockbusters and enough saloon brawls to enliven a dozen Westerns. The group fights a series of battles with the "blanks," as they decide to call them, unscrewing heads, ripping off limbs, which they then use as weapons, and smearing the mechanical creatures' blue blood all over Newton Haven.
The friends eventually learn from one of their old teachers, played suavely by Pierce Brosnan, that aliens from outer space, intent on establishing peace throughout the universe, take over whole towns, replacing any humans who resist with mechanical duplicates, a concept that, once again, provides the inspiration for a great many science-fiction films. When they reach the last pub on the Golden Mile, naturally named The World's End, they finally confront the leader of the invasion, a voice from on high who engages in a comical philosophical debate with mad Gary.
Throughout its length, the movie constantly alternates between comedy and horror, though the director uses even the most violent and startling moments for comic purposes. The antics of the quintet, especially the crazy Gary, weaken any of the usual shock or terror that some of the subject might ordinarily create. Even its apocalypse, the world's end indeed, another staple of popular film, results form a droll view of technology, progress, and contemporary civilization, and its post-apocalyptic vision provides an even stranger surprise.
"The World's End" suggests some of the odd interrelationships between American and English films. Although it employs a great many familiar cinematic elements — stuff from traditional science-fiction and horror movies, the fashionable apocalyptic blockbusters, and even drunken buddy flicks like "The Hangover" — the picture displays a characteristic and mostly entertaining British drollery. Simon Pegg, who often plays a befuddled geek, dominates just about all the action with as sort of hyper-energetic, mercurial, and entirely gleeful impersonation of the crazy friend we all knew in high school who never grew up.