What We Can Learn from The World’s End (2013)

The World’s End is by far the most unexpectedly brilliant movie of the year. I expected it to be good. After all, it is an Edgar Wright film, and Edgar Wright can always be counted on for great comedy combined with amazingly complex scripting and editing and a strong emotional core. So I was ready for The World’s End to be the best comedy of the year, and it was. What I wasn’t expecting was that it would also turn out to be the best science fiction movie of the year.

The article continues after these advertisements...

More than just a heartfelt character comedy, The World’s End somehow also turned out to be the most thought-provoking sci-fi film I’ve seen since Inception. It’s hard, intellectual stuff, and like Inception, it takes an old, well-explored concept and looks at it through an uncompromising lens no one has ever dared look through before. It absolutely blew my mind to the point that I’ve been able to focus on little else since it came out. It’ll likely end up being my favorite movie of 2013, and I just have to share with you all now. Obviously, spoilers follow, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet… what’s wrong with you? Go see it now! …Then see it a few more times. Then come back.

The World’s End starts off as such a simple concept: one man’s struggle with his addiction. But then it ingeniously expands on that concept to such extremes that it encompasses the whole of humanity. Gary King, who we first see as an adult attending an AA meeting, defies any and all outside efforts to fix his problems. This isn’t because he’s happy being a lonely alcoholic, but rather because he simply can’t stand not being in charge of his own life. “They told me when to go to bed,” he wails miserably. Regardless of what you think of Gary’s decisions, it’s hard not to sympathize with the humiliation and infantilization that comes from being a grown man who can’t even choose his own bedtime.

What We Can Learn from The World's End (2013)

But just when you think this movie, which seems to be about little but the self-destruction of one stubborn alcoholic with some sci-fi on the side, has reached its climax… everything changes. The movie shows its hand, and reveals itself to be about so much more than you imagined. It takes the idea of one person’s stubborn refusal to be dictated to, even if it is for his own good, and applies it to the entire human race. I admit, the first time around this threw me a bit. It seemed an almost random and disconnected turn of events. But on a second viewing, it all clicked for me when I noticed the use of the words “enable” and “intervention” during Gary’s confrontation with the Network. The movie ends as it began, with, as Gary describes it, “a bunch of people in a circle talking about how awful things have got.” The first time, it was a circle of recovering alcoholics; the second, a circle of alien androids. Both groups genuinely want to help Gary and make him a better person, both are mostly uninterested in whether Gary actually wants their help or not, and both find their efforts rejected.

What We Can Learn from The World's End (2013)

On the one hand, the idea being raised here, that it’s our flaws that make us human, and to try and perfect us would be to rob us of our humanity, is a very old idea that has been put forth by many films before. Gary himself reminds us of the old expression “to err is human”. The film’s genius comes in how it answers this question. When Gary, and by extension the human race, reject the Network’s offer of galactic citizenship, their decision comes at a price. They don’t just get to go back to the status quo. The film realizes that to reject any and all control is to reject the very concept of civilization. And thus, civilization ends.

This uncompromising honesty is what I find so unique and striking about The World’s End. Gary’s defiant declaration of “We are the human race, and we don’t like being told what to do!” is one I’ve heard many different versions of before. Freedom is an enticing notion. It’s one we’re very fond of, as it’s been romanticized many times in fiction. So often, in fact, that we usually forget that freedom has a downside. Because freedom, while nice to have, benefits only the individual at the cost of the greater whole. The more free we are as individuals, the less cooperation is possible as group. As a race, we humans are capable of amazing things. We’ve cured diseases, built machines that can traverse the globe in hours and connect us to each other in milliseconds. As a race, we set foot on the fucking moon. As a lone individual, we are capable of substantially less.

We’ve gotten very good over the years at demonizing ideas like collectivism, globalism, or anything that deemphasizes the individual in service of a larger group. This is largely due to said ideas having been repeatedly misused to horrifying effect by various dictators and regimes. Control scares us. We don’t like giving up our freedoms, any of our freedoms, for fear of what those we give them up to might do with them. It’s a scary world, and sometimes we feel like we can’t trust anyone but ourselves. We like to think of ourselves as individuals first, and part of something bigger than ourselves second, if at all. But in doing so, we severely limit our potential as a species. Everyone bemoans the slow erosion of our privacy and freedoms as we venture further into the Information Age, without stopping to consider that maybe such things are just the natural consequence of coming together as a species.

When Gary declares independence from the Network’s control on behalf of mankind (with a quote from Animal House, appropriately enough [EDIT: The quote was from The Wild Angels, not Animal House. My bad.]), at first it’s met with the usual triumphant celebration. But suddenly, as the entire world starts imploding around them, Gary and his friends are confronted with the horrific realization of what they’ve done. They’ve saved the world from invaders, but at the cost of our way of life. You don’t get to live completely free of control and still have governments to run things, public services to help and protect you, free unlimited access to information, or even running water pumped to your house. Those things only come about from mutual cooperation, which would mean submitting to the will of something larger than yourself.

The question is then posed by The World’s End: What do you value? Freedom or progress? Are you really willing to live with the consequences that freedom, real and total freedom, would bring? Are perhaps the rewards of scientific and social progress worth the price of some of your liberties? On the other hand, are you willing to risk losing your individual self for the greater good of the species?

These are hard questions that the film pulls no punches with, and I honestly don’t know how to answer them. Five or so years ago, I would’ve answered right away. Back then I was still an angry, self-important teenager, a hardcore libertarian who thought he knew everything. But I was much less thoughtful then, and my thinking now couldn’t be more different. Now I honestly don’t know if, had I been there, I would’ve sided with Gary and chosen freedom, or if I’d have been like the “Shifty Twins” and chosen progress. Is humanity, in the context of the film, to be commended for sacrificing everything for their independence, or is the fact that the Network had to mulch so many of us more indicative of something wrong with us than something wrong with them? The film remains indifferent in its final judgment, leaving it up to us to decide whether or not Gary made the right call. It’s not an easy question for me to answer, but in trying, it brings up so many questions about the nature of humanity and our relationship with each other. “To err is human,” Gary King says to us, “so, err…”

You may also like...

  • Muthsarah

    Fun analysis. I could tell when I saw the movie that Gary was supposed to be symbolic of something, which I took to be stubborn individualism taken to comical levels, but I didn’t leap all the way to his representing the human race or even individualism as a whole. I figured it was more of a genre tweak, or as a way of setting the audience up for something, only to go somewhere else (mainly in that neither he nor anyone else ends up where film convention says they will). I will see the movie again when it comes out on streaming or something, so I can look for more of a coherent “message” (intentional or incidental) to it, but from what I recall, the ending was a bit sloppy, being both rushed and a little long too. Too frantic for a thoughtful “message film”, but too heavy and drawn-out for the goofy, anarchic comedy it had been up to that point. A strange, not entirely satisfying eleventh-hour swerve that nonetheless feels like it wrapped things up neatly. Maybe they were trying to shoehorn them both in there and didn’t get it quite right, or didn’t want to lean too heavily on one side. Then again, had they tried to beat this point – assuming your interpretation matches their intention – into the audience’s brains, it couldn’t NOT have come off as preachy. Which is why analysis like yours exists, I guess, to provide depth for those, by those, who like such things, without bogging things down for those who only want a laugh.

    While I don’t think the movie was anywhere near to perfect (regardless of the points you raise, it’s still deeply shallow through most of its running, which is not a bad thing for a frantic comedy), it’s easily one of the year’s standouts, and also easily my favorite of the Cornettos. Movies with subversive angles and that raise issues for debate and reflection tend to improve on re-viewing, though. I’m already looking forward to watching it again, and introducing it to others.

  • Random British Guy

    Some very interesting points raised here. I’d like to add my own two penny’s worth if I may. There was certainly a lot of anti-conformity stuff going on, with one bit that stuck out to me being the whole “Starbuck-ing” process which is, as the film pointed out, homogenizing British “institutes” such as pubs and whatnot.

    I also got the impression that the film was being critical of people who waste their lives and wish things were as good as they were when they were younger. Ironically, when you’re young, you don’t have that much control over your life anyway, what with school and parents and things.

    I think the ending also makes a bit more sense if one knows that, as Simon Pegg admits in his autobiography, Mad Max is one of his favourite films. While the ending does follow the film’s themes to their logical conclusion, I can help but wonder if it was partly to fulfil Pegg’s desire to be Mad Max. It was also nice to see Nick Frost being given more to do than juts be the comedy buddy.

    A lot of people I know don’t this film as much as the previous two Cornetto’s because it’s “not as funny.” Insert bigoted “I’m right, you’re wrong” comment here.

    This all sounded a lot more coherent in my head. Terribly sorry about that.

    • Random British Guy

      And another thing. I always thought that the basic genre they were riffing on here was the Body Snatchers / John Wyndham (Day of the Triffids, Village of the Damned) school of sci-fi. If so, the ending also makes a lot more sense in that context too.

  • Renville

    I’ve seen it twice in the theaters, and appreciated the intelligence and subtlety of many scenes. There are callbacks to the other films but nothing felt repetitive. Having been to London twice myself, I discovered the “Starbuck-ization” of the pubs on my own (never go to a place advertising “TRADITIONAL Fish & Chips!”).

    There were some niggling points at the end that didn’t sit well with me, even on a second viewing. I didn’t quite get how the entire world fell and seemingly lost all forms of power. Is electricity gone forever? Is there a “Revolution” type magic spell keeping electricity from being used again? Seeing the real estate agent selling a house was confusing – who would have physical money anymore? The very end with him knowingly entering an anti-Blank pub just to beat everyone up (he knew what he was getting into) was inconsistent with everything we saw before, and made him seem unnecessarily vindictive.

    Even with all that I really liked the film – MUCH more than “Into Darkness” or “Man of Steel” – and would definitely see it again.

    • The exact details of the post apocalyptic world are vague, but they only had a few minutes to fill you in. Anymore time spent on details would’ve dragged things out too long, and the point of the epilogue wasn’t the technobabble, it was wrapping up the individual character’s arcs. And the point of going around beating up anti-bank racists was that Gary is finally taking responsibility for something. It’s a sign of his growth that he recognizes that the plight of the Blanks is mostly his fault, so he’s devoting his life to fighting on their behalf.

  • Sofie Liv

    I have to go with freedom, as I believe the ability to think for yourself is one of the most important abilities we humans have. And things starts going wrong when people doesn’t think for themselves.

    And well, by thinking for yourself, you can decide to help others and be kind to others, then they will help you, most humans are wonderful in the way we actually want to help each other.

    To join the net-work, would mean to give up even thinking or taking own decisions.. which would actually mean the end of natural progress.

    suffering, is a result of living, we all have to go through it some-time. If the net-work tells they are actually ilimating your suffering.. that means they are secretly iliminating your life, the most precious thing we got.

    And well, plenty of gennerations have done fine without technology, it’s just us whom has turned so soft that we can’t life without it. (me included.)

    Lets think of the ending scene of Wally again, where the people get so happy that they get to do actual manual work, because it’s all new to them. That’s cute :)

    • Mike

      The “plenty of generations” who did fine without technology were also the same generations that had to bury half the children born to them. Technology and progress are more than just creature comforts.

      • Sofie Liv

        What can I say, feel free to call me a hippie, I am a buddhiest and believe in we actually don’t need all the stuff we drag around with to be happy.

        I am not trying to be a saint, hell, I am not strong enough to let go of my computer for just a day.

        But well, having been to Vietnam and witnessed how people lived over there, and how content they looked without having much, really was an eye-opener for me.

        • $36060516

          They don’t get to make videos for people on Agony Booth!

          • Sofie Liv

            I just don’t think we suffer less just because we have more, we just suffer differently instead.

            For each problem we solved with technology we created a new one, and for me.. choosing a life of comfort and safety, is just the easy way out, it’s the Wall-e way out.

            And would you call that living?

            I just have faith enough in humanity that we can still make it work without all of that crap.

            And well, heh.. I guess you are right, without computers and stuff I wouldn’t have gotten to hang out with Doug Walker, Matthew Buck, Welshy, MikeJ, Sage and last but certainly not least, as miss Jill Bearup at alcon.

            Best… weekend.. ever :3

          • $36060516

            I pretty much agree with you. Glad you had a great time with those creative people with whom you fit in quite well!

    • mamba

      Catch is, you don’t think for yourself. You have to follow rules of society. so you only have LIMITED freedom no matter what you do.

      TRUE freedom is to do anything you wish, and for that, you must be a sociopath or a psychopath. After all, you’re not free to dance naked while carving up people with a chainsaw no matter how much you might want to. I’m not saying you SHOULD be free to do that mind you, but by definition you don’t have total freedom if that’s a choice taken from you. Thousands of other examples from tame to wild exist…freedom is an illusion.

      Even now, if you live in the middle of nowhere you are only as free as the local military (doesn’t matter which, literally the one closest to you at the time) will let you be. If your actions don’t cause concern then they leave you alone, but the second they do you will learn just how little freedom you have.

      There’s a middle ground, and the movie really should have explored that more, rather than presenting it as an all-or-nothing choice.

  • drumstick00m

    I have only seen the film once, so I am asking. Does it address the idea that a civilization built on exploitation, in this case murder and replacement, is not actually that advanced at all? It is possible to build progress without violently sacrificing others (see also: enslaving them), at least this is what the Once and Future King is supposed to believe.