It’s the end of the world as we know it

The World's End

After talking about Rashomon in my last post I thought it would be appropriate to discuss another movie that’s been on my mind lately. So I was reading this post over at The Secret Sun, and usually I don’t read the comments but I happened to be skimming them. Someone mentioned they’d recently watched the third installment of the Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End, but said they didn’t get the ending. I hadn’t seen it since it first came out so I decided to re-watch it.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

It’s no secret the Cornetto Trilogy films are, among other things, about Englishness in all its folly and glory. They’re not subtle about it. But unusually for pop culture, there are more layers of symbolism than are evident upon first viewing, particularly in Hot Fuzz and TWE. A lot of people seem to hate on TWE but story-wise, it’s the most complex and most pointed of all the Trilogy.

The ending and the point of the movie seem pretty obvious to me, but in fairness I must admit with embarrassment that when TWE came out, I completely missed the Arthurian parody/homage even though they specifically mention it in the dialogue (obviously I didn’t read any of the reviews like this one, either). The movie came out in 2013 and it turns out to have been really prescient in light of Brexit–I mean, if you had watched this film right before the vote you would have been able to predict which way it would go. Indeed you might say that re-watching TWE was kind of a personal sync for me in light of, oh, everything that has happened on the global and European stages this year, and indeed Chris Knowles’ speculations in that very Secret Sun post that prompted the re-watch in the first place. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The basic plot of TWE is about a group of men who decide to re-attempt an epic pub crawl they failed to complete 20ish years ago. This project is at the behest of their dissolute but charismatic man-child/leader, Gary King. In the process they discover an alien colonization in the old hometown, which they defeat at the cost of all civilization on Earth.

The Matter of Britain

The Arthurian parody/homage is evident first in the characters’ surnames: (Gary) King, (Steve) Prince, (Oliver) Chamberlain, (Andy) Knightly, and (Peter) Page. They are on a quest to get in their cups, and what is the Holy Grail if not a cup? (Its usual depiction in Arthurian stories.) You can find lots of other little nods but I’ll stick to the main points.

The alien colonization, which has resulted in the imposition of a homogenized, globalized sameness–or “Starbucking,” as the characters call it–on the local culture, is akin to the Romanization of Britain. Sure, it’s clean and peaceful and superficially pleasant (but other than that, what have the Romans ever done for us?!), but there’s no depth or color or diversity. Just as Tacitus said of the Romans, these aliens “create a desert and call it peace.”

Gary doesn’t defeat the aliens so much as severely disappoint them. His drunken give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death bombast is the final straw that convinces them humans are just not worth the trouble, barbarians who can never really be civilized. So they withdraw, leaving behind a shambles and ushering in the Dark Ages.

Everyone settles down into a less-civilized, more chaotic, but indeed more free, form of their earlier lives. Steve and Sam finally get together; Andy and his wife repair their marriage and “[go] organic in a big way”; the original Peter and Oliver have been killed, but their Romanized alien android clones carry on in their places. Gary assembles a band of decommissioned Roman soldiers androids and goes around pacifying the unruly countryside.

So on this level, TWE is a loving poke at the mythic roots of Britishness itself. It’s interesting that whoever created this aspect of the story chose to portray a more historically-probable version of the Arthurian mythos, with Arthur as a Dark Ages warlord dealing with internal political and cultural divisions rather than a medieval monarch ruling over a chivalrous Camelot or a proto-Welsh chief defending Britain from Saxon invaders. It’s probably a pretty accurate view, albeit a lighthearted one, of post-Roman Britain. It was also a smart way to frame the narrative since it allowed its juxtaposition with the other story-within-the-story…

We want to be free to do want we want to do!

…which basically is “Britons will never be globalized.” I say “Britons” here because while Hot Fuzz is very much about the English, the Arthurian elements pull TWE out to a slightly wider scale. It’s still, in many ways, a very English view of Britishness, but it is a bit more inclusive.

At this level we have the aliens–an interplanetary “network” of right-thinking races joined together for the greater good–having decided that humans are finally worthy of joining. They have tried to make the integration as unobtrusive and seamless as possible by starting with a small English town; residents are given the option of conforming with the blah sameyness in return for safety and technological progress, or being killed, mulched, and replaced with android clones. In a particularly ironic twist, they even take people’s DNA from that most cherished icon of British life, a pint of ale down’t pub.

When Gary and his friends unwittingly uncover the aliens and fight them, the Network gives Gary, Steve, and Andy an audience. They explain the plan and all its “benefits” (“you are children and you require guidance”) but Gary demands that humans be free to do what we want any old time. The aliens give up on us and depart, destroying all our technology and ushering in the apocalypse as described above.

This part of the story portrays Britons as so passionate about their sovereignty and uniqueness that they will literally destroy themselves, and possibly everyone else, to defend them (“we’re more belligerent, more stubborn, and more idiotic than you could ever imagine”). Even if the majority of the UK were happy to belong to the European Union Network, even if it brought real benefits to many, even if the tipping point were some cack-brained numpty acting out of entirely stupid and self-serving reasons, ultimately the British will prove un-globalizable, un-Starbuckable. And so Britain might be the thin end of the wedge that spells the end of globalization (and maybe all civilization). See what I mean about Brexit?

out of order

It’s interesting that a number of people seem to find TWE sad. I think the ending is extremely optimistic. It holds out the hope that humans will reject the frictionless samey desert-called-peace and learn again to treasure that local ale with the surprisingly fruity note that lingers on the tongue; and that no matter how badly we fuck up, we keep on being stupidly, beautifully, chaotically creative. And kind of noble sometimes, for all our barbarity.

As Gordon White has been at pains to point out for some time, Starbucking is a very real phenomenon and we owe much of it to Silicon Valley’s vision of a “frictionless” “world without sin.” Inevitably there are financial and political elites encouraging this for their own reasons (ahem TPP/TTIP), but I would suggest that Google and Facebook algorithms designed to feed our old searches back to us, drawing the noose of parochialism and confirmation bias ever tighter–the Starbucking of our minds and hearts–is a more immediate threat. We can get strawberries in winter, mid-century quasi-industrial Scandinavian minimalism from Malaysia to Milan, and money from a plastic card. All wrapped up in a nice little package of scientistic materialism and faith in Progress. It’s just so dang comfortable–now “aesthetic homogeneity is a product that users are coming to demand” (source)–that it probably will take a self-destructive idiot of the Gary King variety blowing us all to kingdom come to reset us.

We haven’t left the Tricksters much else to work with, after all.

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