"The World's End" is the second comedy this summer to feature the apocalypse. The first was "This Is The End," whose hilarity stemmed from vulgar jokes and the way the actors used their onscreen personas to toy with audience expectations, playing exaggerated versions of themselves to comment on the state of cinematic comedy.
If "The World's End" is not as funny as that movie, it's at least more memorable, using the science fiction genre to amplify the anxieties of the characters as a way to critique and celebrate the imperfections of human beings.
The movie follows a group of middle-aged men who haven't seen each other in twenty years. They've returned, most of them reluctantly, to their hometown to complete a pub crawl they'd failed to finish when they were teenagers.
If the men can drink one beer from each of twelve pubs, the last of which is called The World's End, then the night will be a success and will appease the oppressive nostalgia that defines Gary King, the group's leader.
King, a substance abuser, is obnoxious, reckless and doesn't appear to have changed one bit since that legendary night so many years ago. His hankering after the past puts his life and the lives of his friends in danger when they find that their hometown has been taken over by what at first appear to be robots.
But more importantly, the robots threaten King's pride.
"It's not us that's changed; it's the town," he says at one point, revealing his refusal to believe he's not the local legend he always thought he was.
The line comes after a rowdy bout with robots in a bathroom, setting the tone for many action scenes set to a soundtrack that ceaselessly bumps and bounds, keeping things light without sacrificing momentum. The fight choreography is often reminiscent of the graceful, dance-like movements of professional wrestling.
The action is always entertaining, sometimes wildly so, even if one or two of the scenes are redundant and last longer than necessary. But the dangers of excess is just one of the movie's themes, depicted through King's inability to stop drinking even during the most dire of moments.
Simon Pegg brings Gary King to life with a writhing desperation, earning our sympathies as his self-destruction becomes more imminent as the group moves from pub to pub.
Most comedies, especially action comedies, lack such a detailed characterization, but this one relies on it, because the jokes are rarely hilarious, but not to the detriment of the movie.
"The World's End" resonates not through punchlines, but through relatable characters and a visual aesthetic as immediate and engaging as King's need to live in the past. Each scene is filmed with a youthful spring even if the movie challenges the extravagancy of adolescence.
But more than anything else, "The World's End" is a lot of fun, a proper sendup of a genre that has more than worn out its welcome this summer.
Let's hope that this really is the end, because it's unlikely to get much better.
3 stars out of 4.
Rated R For pervasive language including sexual references.