“Gary, you are out of your mind.” So observes Sam (Rosamund Pike) of her one-time-in-the-bathroom sex partner. Gary (Simon Pegg) agrees, absolutely: “I am the same old Gary,” he nods. The trouble — for Sam, anyway — is that their current encounter, in the same pub as before, as he’s followed her into the ladies, anticipating her continued interest, takes place 20+ years later. She’s grown up, she reasons. Gary has not.
Gary’s proud manboyness is at the center of The World’s End, the third film in the “Blood and Ice Cream” (or “Cornetto”) trilogy. Refusing to grow up and, as his former wingman Andy (Nick Frost) puts it, “join society,” Gary hangs on to the belief that his last great night as a hard-drinking lad remains unfinished. And so he decides to reassemble his best mates, including the now teetotaling Andy and Sam’s bluetoothed real estate broker brother Oliver (Martin Freeman), bring back to their reviled hometown of Newton Haven, and complete their initial mission, that is, to drink a pint in each of 12 establishments, the last one named the World’s End.
Gary and company can’t know the monumental appropriateness this name, and so they plunge ahead, some members of the group more enthusiastically than others. For Peter (Eddie Marsan), the night out is a bit of a respite from his daily routine, selling cars at the showroom belonging to his father, and for Steven (Paddy Considine), it’s a chance to recall his mighty crush on Sam, whom he always knew was too good for the likes of Gary. All the mates know that Gary betrayed everyone at some point or another (“You sold my guitar to buy drugs,” mutters Steven), and yet they come along, increasingly alarmed at how very little he’s changed even as they also marvel at alterations in the town. Indeed, when they notice that the pubs that were once so idiosyncratic and different from one another now look alike, Steven sums up and so expresses the middle-agey melancholy from which they might mean to escape if only for one night: “Starbucking, man, it’s happening everywhere.”
This observation actually goes to a theme in The World’s End, which soon turns from this not-quite-nostalgic focus to one more like Pegg and Edgar Wright’s first two Cornetto movies, which is to say, a melding of well-known genres in order to spoof them. Fittingly, it’s in a bathroom that Gary discovers what’s going on in the stuck-in-time Newtown Haven, that it’s populated with robots. For it’s during a violent fight with a crew of boys who resemble him and his friends 20 years back that he discovers their heads not only pop off, but also their arms and legs, revealing machinery and circuits and blue blood-like fluid.
Duly alarmed, Gary and the guys decide their best course going forward is to pursue the pub crawl so as not to alert the remaining robots, who seem to be everywhere, staring like body snatchers, as to their awareness of the secret takeover. Then, the friends guess, they can escape unnoticed later that night. The plan is preposterous on its face, which is at least one point, that the planners are already drunk enough to make bad decisions, and also to follow Gary’s lead. His determination to get to the twelfth pub is overwhelming, whether as a means to recover his youth or declare it done once and for all — or both. “I think you’re jealous,” he guesses of his skeptical friends early on, “You want what I have, freedom.”
Of course he doesn’t actually have freedom, for he’s sad and alone and an addict and unemployed. But he does have a commitment to an idea of himself, and that counts for something. That Gary might hope to remain the “same old Gary” is both his great flaw and his great gift, for it turns out that those Newtown Havenites who have given themselves over to the robots (who come from not-earth and claim to be on a long-term world-conquering quest) are quite as they have always been, frozen in time as plaid-skirted high school students or men in tweed jackets, a couple of aging moms and maybe a farmer and even an old teacher (Pierce Brosnan, a great good sport yet again). And yet, they are also not themselves at all, having been replaced by deathless robots, their “empties” have been discarded.
The fight between Gary and his friends and the robots is thus multiply and mightily metaphorical, as they hope to maintain something like an individuality, or maybe more accurately, something like a right to choose to conform. Gary phrases it differently, insisting they don’t like being told what to do, and that what they want to do is to “get loaded.” It hardly matters whether his friends agree on the particular goal, only that they agree on the importance of having a goal, any goal, that’s not being a robot. Frenetic and baggy-eyed , Gary acts out his rage at aging, at failing, at being human, and yet clings to all of it, too.