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.
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.
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.
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…”