The World’s End may be a shit film but at least it is full of bitterness and self-recrimination. The roots of that bitterness reach all the way back to the late 1990s when the writers of The World’s End first found success with a sitcom named Spaced.
This may be hard to believe but geek culture really wasn’t really that much of a thing before the late 90s. Sure… people enjoyed the films, books, comics and games that continue to provide geeks with a sense of common ground but mainstream culture rarely acknowledged that people (other than sports fans) were beginning to define themselves through their love of popular culture. Postmodernism was popularised throughout the 1990s but what drove that popularisation was not so much the death of cultural meta-narratives as the frisson of parental approval that came with every suggestion that a creator loved the same shitty pop culture as the rest of us. We often speak of constructing identities in terms of self-expression and self-acceptance but what really drives the adoption of a particular label is the recognition of others, particularly people in positions of authority. Simply stated, geek culture was not much of a thing until the late 1990s because advertisers and cultural creators rarely pandered directly to geeks and so rarely legitimised their identities.
Things began to change is the late 1990s when marketers noticed how devotion to a particular cultural product acted very much like devotion to a particular set of cultural values. Way back in ye olde black and whitey times, advertisers realised that if you associated a particular brand of pipe tobacco with values of manliness and respectability then people who valued manliness and respectability were more likely to buy the pipe tobacco. The success of films like Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction demonstrated that this transferral of affection also worked with popular culture; if a film makes a reference to some aspect of popular culture then the people emotionally invested in that aspect of popular culture are more likely to seek out and enjoy that film even if the subject of the film is entirely unrelated to the subject of the obsession. First broadcast in 1999, Spaced ruthlessly exploited these quirks in human psychology by dignifying geeks with their own slice of comedic social realism.
Written by the comic actors Jessica Stevenson and Simon Pegg, Spaced managed to capture what it was like to be in your 20s, in London, in the late 1990s. Positioned somewhere between traditional British situation comedies and American sitcoms such as Friends and Seinfeld, Spaced recognised that real-life social circles owe a good deal more to the vagaries of the housing and job markets than they do to lasting bonds of family and friendship. Sure… you might have a close relationship with your family and live with childhood friends but you’re a damn sight more likely to be living with complete strangers who happened to be looking to share a flat at the same time as you. The emotional topography of Spaced is defined by the lies, the compromises, the frustrations and the brittle camaraderie of shared accommodation and its suggestion that you can live in the big city while effectively living in a shitty small town perfectly captures the realities of living in London when you can’t even afford to rent in Zone 2.
Light on traditional gags but heavy on character and social observation, the series built itself a cult following based on its ability to sell people a slightly wittier and cooler vision of their shitty lives. Central to this pandering sensibility was the series’ frequent references to comics, films, TV series and video games. In fact, the series clocked up so many obscure references and in-jokes that the DVD release wound up using the format’s in-built subtitling capacity to highlight the numerous homages and allusions. There is nothing new about sitcoms that explicitly pander to their audiences but Spaced happened to pander to what we now think as geeks at precisely the time when marketers really caught on to the idea of geeks as a discrete social category.
Released three years after the second and final season of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead is set in a similarly anonymous part of outer London and reprises the on-screen friendship between Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Given the similar faces and places, it is easy to imagine Pegg’s titular protagonist as an older iteration of the character he played in Spaced. Much like Tim, Shaun works retail and enjoys geeky pursuits but his youthful ambitions have now evaporated and left him torn between the need to accept adult responsibilities and the desire to keep doing the things he enjoyed as a young man. In a display of impeccable timing and cultural nous, Pegg and Wright chose to unpack their geeky coming-of-age story using the tropes of the post-apocalyptic zombie genre as laid down by filmmakers such as George Romero. Just as Spaced followed in the tracks of the Star Wars re-release, Shaun of the Dead followed in the tracks of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and managed to find an audience amidst American geeks who were already comfortable with the idea of watching a British zombie movie.
Funny and exciting as well as insightful and genuinely self-aware, Shaun of the Dead is filled with anxiety about the presumed childishness of geek culture. Rather than turning the trappings of the zombie genre against the world around them, Wright and Pegg turn them inwards and explicitly compare geeky Shaun to the undead husks who thoughtlessly congregate outside shopping centres in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. The film suggests that while trading obscure references and playing video games with your friends might be what you really want to do, it will not land you a decent job or an attractive girlfriend. The film’s ending is surprisingly explicit on this point as Shaun emerges triumphant by fully accepting the need to change and adopt a more ‘grown-up’ identity. Having confronted the dangers associated with allowing his geeky tendencies to run his life, Shaun now keeps those interests under tight control as symbolised by the Tekken-playing zombie he keeps locked up in his garden shed.
Released three years after Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz feels like a natural corrective to the self-loathing and anxiety of Shaun. The film revolves around the type of person you risk turning into should you take the message of Shaun too much to heart; Competent, assertive and supremely driven, Nicholas Angel is so completely defined by his job that he struggles to see the world in anything but institutional terms. Dumped by his girlfriend for being inattentive, Angel is re-assigned to rural Gloucestershire because his levels of professional competence make all the other police look bad. Upon arriving in the small town of Sandford, Angel struggles to fit in with his supremely unprofessional colleagues until he inadvertently bonds with a geeky character played by Nick Frost. Again, the film is surprisingly explicit in its message as Angel would undoubtedly have fallen victim to the sinister perfectionism of the village’s neighbourhood watch scheme had he not taken the time to bond with Nick Frost’s Danny over cheesy action movies. The film concludes with Angel triumphant and refusing to return to London suggesting that his ruthless efficiency and careerism have now been tempered by a more mature attitude towards his non-professional interests.
It is interesting to compare the moral of these two films as they seem to point in diametrically opposite directions: Shaun of the Dead argues that obsessing over geek culture is childish and will inevitably hold an ambitious person back while Hot Fuzz approaches the concept of ambition from the opposite direction and concludes that ambition will inevitably lead to unhappiness unless it is tempered by a healthy dose of extra-curricular interests. Both films couch their arguments in terms of emotional maturity but the problem with the concept of emotional maturity is that there are no objective criteria by which to determine what is and is not an adult reaction. Though undoubtedly social and ideological constructs, Wright and Pegg’s ideas about emotional maturity express a profound ambivalence about the values and lifestyles that we have come to associate with geek culture.
As in the first two films in the series, The World’s End casts Pegg as a character locked in battle with his own immaturity. Once a handsome lad whose selfishness and lack of accountability passed for charisma in the eyes of children, Gary King is now a lonely middle-aged alcoholic and drug user. Suicidal and lost, Gary attempts to put his life back on track by recapturing old glories and rekindling old relationships by enlisting his childhood friends in an epic pub crawl around their home town. Aside from the fact that the friends’ last attempted this pub crawl before ‘breaking up’ and going their separate ways, the film’s themes of nostalgia and maturity are also central to the unhealthy relationship between Pegg’s character and his principal childhood friend played by (of course) Nick Frost.
Unlike previous films in the series that project the Pegg/Frost relationship onto a relatively simplistic tension between maturity and immaturity, The World’s End presents both characters as stunted, confused and ultimately irredeemable. Ostensibly the least sympathetic of the two, Pegg’s character remains utterly committed to the identity he inhabited at the age of 19 meaning that much of the film’s opening act revolves around Pegg’s character behaving like a complete arsehole while his more mature and successful friends roll their eyes and shake their heads. The attempt to paint Pegg’s character in the least flattering light imaginable is so relentless that the audience cannot help but ask themselves the question that comes to absolutely define the film: Why do people put up with this arsehole? Why not tell him to shove his ‘Golden Mile’ up his arse and fuck off while he’s about it? This question is particularly pressing in the case of Nick Frost’s character Andy.
Once Gary King’s most submissive underling, Andy has grown into a responsible husband. Having been left for dead by a drunken Gary at the end of their first abortive pub crawl, Andy has gone teetotal and constructed his adult identity around an explicit rejection of everything that once made Gary seem so cool and charismatic. However, despite this foundational hatred for Gary, Andy allows himself to be dragged onto the pub crawl by a transparent lie. The more time Andy spends with Gary, the more he reverts to adolescent type, thus the loyal teetotaller is soon downing shots and getting off with women in school uniforms before eventually breaking down and weeping about how hurt he was by Gary’s abandonment and its accompanying symbolism of lost youth and innocence.
Never adequately rooted in either character’s history, Andy’s transformation from strong-willed adult to sycophantic post-adolescent is explicitly mapped onto important beats in the plot (i.e. the decision to stick to the path of the pub crawl, the decision to work together and the decision to stop running away and start kicking arse) but the film itself is rather unclear as to how we are supposed to feel about Andy’s retreat into a fucked-up second adolescence.
The most striking thing about The World’s End is how long it takes for the plot to kick in. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz owe much of their charm to the way that Wright and Pegg managed to steer the films from social realism to genre-inspired gonzo without either ingredient overwhelming the other or outstaying its welcome. Conversely, The World’s End completely fails to strike the right balance.
Part of the problem lies in the decision to set the film in a deliberately generic mid-sized British town that could just as easily be Worcestershire as Milton Keynes. With little to say about this milieu (other than to stress the generic nature of its chain-run pubs), the first half of the film relies on character and dialogue to hold the attention despite the fact that the dialogue is rarely funny and Wright wastes the talents of Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan in painfully under-written roles. When the plot finally does arrive in the form of an alien invasion, the film explodes into a series of over-choreographed CGI-augmented fight scenes that are so unreal and cartoonish that they lack tension and rapidly become repetitive. Even worse, the fight scenes are so reminiscent of those in Wright’s Scott Pilgrim and the now famous slow-motion gunplay episode of Spaced that they create an unshakeable impression that both Pegg and Wright are stuck in the past.
Pegg and Wright have always understood that nostalgia is the main emotional engine of geek culture; Geeks may claim to be open-minded and even counter-cultural but in truth they are little more than consumer slaves defined by a hopeless quest to recapture how they remember feeling when they first encountered a particular intellectual property. The cowardice and conservatism of geek culture are obvious from the succession of sequels, prequels, spin-offs and reboots that dominate the cultural landscape but marketing serves to cut through the self-aggrandising bullshit and rationalisation: The rules of the game were laid down in 1997 when Lucasfilm began their promotion of the Star Wars prequels with a high-profile re-release of the original trilogy. If you like this old thing, then you will like this new thing… nothing is allowed to stand alone in geek culture and the fire of every fresh obsession is lit by the roach of a fading and over-exploited love.
The Cornetto trilogy’s ambivalence towards these aspects of geek culture is so articulate and profound that it is hard not to read it as being at least partly autobiographical. For example, I do not know how Simon Pegg envisioned his career playing out when he left the University of Bristol in the mid-1990s but it seems safe to assume that he would have been aiming higher than following in Russ Abbott’s footsteps by playing an unfunny and frankly insulting comedy Scotsman.
Despite multiple attempts to establish himself as a legitimate comic actor in films like Run Fatboy Run, How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, and Burke and Hare, Pegg keeps being drawn back to geeky roles in geeky films. Projects that would almost certainly not be interested in him were it not for his track record in geek films and his status as a legitimate geek celebrity. The fact that Pegg’s geeky past seems to both open doors and hold him back goes some way towards explaining the profound ambivalence of films like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz as well as the overwhelming bitterness of World’s End.
World’s End concludes with an absolutely extraordinary scene in which the aliens explain their presence on Earth. Rather than a bunch of sinister body snatchers, the aliens are actually intending to improve humanity’s lot by giving them immortal bodies and minds unaffected by the flaws and trauma that make humanity more miserable than it might otherwise be. This utopian vision of happiness and acceptance wrapped up in a science-fictional package is uncannily reminiscent of the promises made by both traditional genre fandom and geek culture as a whole: If you become one of us, you will be able to hang-out with cool science fictional stuff and you will never have to be one of those boring, depressed people that you are terrified of becoming. Pegg’s character reacts to this offer with a howl of anger, resentment and rejection so authentic that it might as well be Pegg himself standing there and cursing his decision to pigeon-hole himself by coming out as a geek: Fuck aliens, Fuck robots, Fuck space ships, Fuck geek culture and Fuck all of the people who like this kind of childish bullshit!
The film’s epilogue is similarly moving as while Nick Frost’s character winds up finding some form of contentment in a post-apocalyptic middle-class idyll of distressed furniture and organic food, Pegg’s character ends up roaming the post-apocalyptic wasteland with a bunch of perpetually youthful robots. A true geek celebrity, Pegg is rooted in genre culture. Never allowed to grow old and forced to remain in a state of arrested development, Pegg’s character has ostensibly made his peace with the geeky shit surrounding him but his eyes cry out for the sweet release of death.
All of the Three Flavours Cornetto films are about the tension between the urge to live the life of a geek and the urge to live the life of a mature middle-class adult. However, while the first two films in the series try to resolve this tension with an uneasy peace brokered between childishness and ambition, World’s End suggests that this tension is largely illusory as regardless of how geeky or ambitious we wind up being, the result will still be a hollow life tinged with regret and bitterness.