The World's End: Entering The Matrix with a Dose of Nostalgia
Clad in a Neo-inspired trenchcoat, sporting a slightly updated pair of Agent Smith sunglasses, Gary King has a simple message for his four childhood friends who have reluctantly returned to relive the greatest – or worst, depending on who and when you ask – night of their lives: “Take a moment to look upon it in all its original colors, boys, for tonight, we paint it red.” The man-boys from Newton Haven have returned to their hometown for the longest night of their lives: an existential battle with complacency and nostalgia, fighting their way through to the red pill at the end, the cracked mirror that forces them to see their town, and their own lives, as they truly are. The parallels to The Matrix don’t end there. Edgar Wright’s screed on individuality and the death of “Starbucking” – stripping pubs and coffee shops and bookstores of any semblance of uniqueness – nods throughout to the Wachowskis’ 20-year-old cyber-punk breakthrough, but it finds its gut-punchiest moments in a simple twist on the classic movie. For Wright, and for Gary King, played by a surprisingly contemptable Simon Pegg, the most potent form of the complacency-inducing blue pill is nostalgia. Gary and his friends grasp and stretch and twist to hold on to their individuality amidst their constantly blue-ifying town, but to do so they must honestly face the ugly reality of who they once were, and who they are today. Or, as Gary puts it after this never-ending night from hell, “It is our basic human right to be fuck-ups!” That’s it; that’s the journey. The World’s End opens on a series of flashback scenes, with Gary King narrating the group’s epic quest over two decades earlier for The Golden Mile, a 12-pub crawl through Newton Haven, finishing at The World’s End. Life was perfect. People called Gary “the king.” Gary, Andy (Nick Frost, “my wing man”), Ollie (Martin Freeman, “fancied himself a bit of a player”), Pete (Eddie Marsan, “good for a laugh”), and Steve (Paddy Considine, “almost as cool as me”) ruled the town. Or so it would seem. Shot entirely in sepia tones (by cinematographer Bill Pope – known for shooting, yes, The Matrix), the opening sequence is bathed in the wistful glow of Gary’s reminiscing, an early sign that the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, rarely reflect the reality of our pasts. Cut immediately to the present: harsh lighting depicts a harsher reality, with Gary in AA and his friends suffering the doldrums of everyday British life, work, and family. These five men all live in the proverbial matrix. Gary, drowning in longing, ultimately decides that a return to his glory days is the only possible cure. The particulars of how he convinces his four unenthusiastic pals to join him are unimportant; what matters is they all join, despite the total lack of a good reason. All four have had their senses dulled by the shiny veneer of respectability, a thin layer of complacency serving as their special blue pill. Like Neo, they know something is wrong with their world – they know there’s something more out there – they just don’t know they know it…yet. The five friends begin their ill-fated journey at a bar that, we’ll come to learn, looks just the same as every other one in town. At their fourth stop, The Cross Hands (major SPOILER incoming), they encounter a group of young men in a bathroom brawl, only to discover that the boys are actually robots that bleed blue. Through a series of conversations, the men learn that the town has been taken over, and humans are being transformed into uniform, happy, complacent “blanks,” as the men call them, who are near-empty shells of their former selves, loaded only with selective memories. As the blanks themselves put it after explaining to Gary that the word “robot” means “slave”: “We’re not slaves. We’re very, very happy.” The World’s End lives comfortably in the shadow of The Matrix at the intersection of individuality and complacency. The “blanks,” signified by that ever-important blue color, closely mirror the many Agent Smiths, right down to their robotic and initially unbeatable fighting techniques. Our heroes must break free from their monotonous lives – must own up to their suppressed dissatisfaction and enter the unknown of the true reality – if they hope to distinguish themselves. No man (aside from a fantastic Rosamund Pike, The World’s End’s all-male cast may be the most disappointing part about it) can stand out without staring into that cracked mirror and refusing to blink. Where The World’s End veers from its predecessor, where it builds upon it and becomes truly special, finding a voice of its own, is when the film focuses its sights on that omnipresent feature of society and pop culture: nostalgia. When the boys first meet up with Gary, they notice a concerning trend: Gary drives the same car, The Beast, from when they were younger. He has the same tape in the tape player. In a scene later in the movie, Rosamund Pike’s Sam, conspicuously clad in a bold red coat, has a simple message for Gary: “It’s not all about that night.” His response: “Isn’t it?” Wright treats nostalgia as the ultimate blue pill – the primary force preventing us from confronting our realities and embracing our individuality. Gary and his friends cannot stand out, cannot defeat the Starbucking by the Blank Alien Race, so long as they are busy romanticizing their pasts and rewriting their own stories. Gary is an alcoholic and a miserable friend. Andy’s career success turned him into a piss-poor husband and father. Steve has a hole that he fills with young, attractive women. Pete is a spineless shill who won’t stand up for himself. But they all still identify as the men they were on that night just over twenty years ago – or who they could have been, or might have been, or anything, anything other than the version of themselves that they became. The World’s End doesn’t judge its characters – it sympathizes with the pain of confronting our true origin stories. Pete comes face-to-face with a former bully early in the movie: he sits, frozen, forced to stare at a reminder of his cowardice, yet does nothing. Steve has to make small-talk throughout the night with Sam – his once, still, and forever crush who slept with a young Gary in the disabled toilet. He watches Gary flirt with her, yet he says nothing. The heartbreak is palpable. It’s not that these characters aren’t trying to be honest with themselves, it’s just that shallow contentment is far easier. Nostalgia is the heated blanket we come home to at the end of the night. Reality is the blistering cold we step into each morning – unless, of course, we can maintain the illusion that nothing has really changed, that life is still good, that we are still the same, the best, the immortal versions of ourselves. For Wright, one of the most insidious forms of story-telling we engage in is the way we recast our relationships. In this, and perhaps this alone, Gary truly does reign as King. He and Andy are best friends, wingmen from an impossible era of unlimited alcohol and zero repercussions. His sexual foray with Sam is merely a tantalizing what-could-have-been, to which he remains eager to return. Or at least this is what he imagines. Yet the more Gary lies to himself about his connection with the people around him, the more it hurts those he claims to love. By ignoring his past, he cannot possibly create a present that looks any different. How can we right our wrongs if we bathe them in sepia tones? We do a lot to avoid facing the truth about ourselves. Early in the film, Gary lies about his mum dying from “the cancer,” showing a painful but recognizable flexibility with the truth in his efforts to convince Andy to join the adventure. The lie will eventually come out, of course, but the reveal disguises a deeper look at the distinction between Reason and Excuse. Even while his friends believe that Gary’s mum has just died, they still refuse to tolerate his behavior. It may be the Reason for his alcoholism and infantilism, but it’s certainly no damn Excuse. And here’s the utter singularity of Edgar Wright: he uses an absurd sci-fi conceit to properly lay bare that fatal flaw of nostalgia. There is no twist, no crazy turn of events, that will allow us to successfully rewrite the past. For the crew from Newton Haven, the supporting cast of their childhood, now filled with blue liquid and empty heads, no longer remember them. The Blanks immediately expose what the boys have taken for granted: nobody remembers things the way they do. And so long as they conveniently avoid confronting the past, they remain incapable of distinguishing themselves in the present, and stand no chance against the powerful Blanks. As the haywire night freewheels toward sunrise, Edgar Wright’s antidote to the modern drug finally reveals itself: salvation through one another. It’s no coincidence that late in the film, after Ollie has gone Blank, the remaining four men find themselves alone in an empty warehouse. The solution was never to fight their way through every Blue Lazarus in the entire town. Instead, after learning that the Blanks are indeed Blanks – copied from a person’s DNA, yet lacking any deformities that may have arisen post-birth, and with only selective, happy memories – the men test each other to reveal their most embarrassing physical and emotional traumas. Black-outs, scars, burns, betrayals. It’s painful. It’s raw. Then again, confronting our past without the sheen of conjured glory always is. That is: choosing the red pill will always hurt. But that’s the thing about pain. As Gary cleverly notes after purposefully and repeatedly slamming his head against a beam: “That proves I’m human.” From there, it’s a fast tumble for each man toward a personal reckoning. Pete finally stands up to his bully, surrendering himself to a crowd of Blanks just to get one redemptive punch in. Steve confesses his love for Sam. Andy admits that his wife took the kids and left him because he wasn’t “present enough.” And Gary? His reckoning is the most painful of all. Bleeding, crying, nearly puking his way toward the finish line, Gary finally explains what’s so important about the Golden Mile. “It’s all I’ve got.” In his final punctuation, Wright casts this brutal honesty as a form of armor. Just before the Blanks attack and force the boys into hiding, their former mentor, now-Blanked, offers them one final pitch. Do it for peace. Do it to avoid tumult. “It’s about working together as one team.” The twisted community of Newton Haven honestly, if dementedly, reflects the weaponization and popularization of nostalgia in our society. Sequel after sequel in Hollywood has left fans squealing with delight in the middle of a movie when their childhood favorites are re-introduced on screen, yet original, inventive stories are comparatively absent. Corporate mergers – it’s no accident that the Blanks refer to the “merger” of societies – feed us more and more of the same products, somehow providing more content but less substance, numbing agents meant to help us ignore the very real ills of our world. Even in politics, certain candidates urge a return to the good-old-days. As the Head Blank puts it in the climactic scene, the ultimate goal is “individuality…replaced in the name of progress.” But if we’re honest with ourselves – about our personal flaws, our mistake-ridden pasts, and the problems facing our society – we can shield ourselves from going Blank. From a complacent life that is devoid of meaning, of feeling, of growth and togetherness. And so it is that Gary finds himself facing the leaders of this alien race working to take over Newton Haven, newly armed from his staring contest with that cracked mirror. Their final, tempting warm blanket of nostalgia comes, as the Blanks offer Gary the powerful blue pill he’s been seeking for so long: “the chance to be young again, and yet retain selected memories.” But by this point, Gary has taken his red pill. He’s prepared with a clear-eyed understanding of himself, his individuality, and all his problems. “It is our basic human right to be fuck-ups,” he yells back. “We are more belligerent, more stubborn, and more idiotic than you can imagine!” And that’s all it takes. The Blanks know he’s armed with reality: they scatter. The World’s End – the bar, not the movie – explodes, and the men and Sam make their final escape, blood spattered across Gary’s face, shot by Bill Pope in overtly red hues. Gary has taken the red pill, gone down the rabbit hole, and his world will never be the same. And thank goodness for that.