That The World's End features an impeccably curated soundtrack should come as no surprise. Ever since he cued up the Smiths' Panic to herald a zombie outbreak in Shaun of the Dead, director Edgar Wright has proved himself a maestro of pop appropriation. The keynote track in his newest feature is Do You Remember the First Time? – a 1994 single by Britpop stalwarts Pulp that slyly describes the futility of trying to recapture early triumphs. It's the perfect theme song for a movie about man intractably trapped in the past.
Like Pulp, Gary King (Simon Pegg) was in his glory in the early 1990s, when he lorded over the sleepy English hamlet of Newton Haven as the big man on its (high school) campus – a leather-jacketed wild man whose pals were only too content to slip into their roles as sidekicks. Twenty years later, however, Gary is an alcoholic clinging desperately to his adolescent fantasies while his friends have all achieved a degree of grownup respectability.
Gary's scheme is to bring together all of the members of "The Five Musketeers." He deftly manipulates the group to rejoin him in Newton Haven for an evening of carousing modelled on their last night of high school, when they tried – and failed – to conquer an epic pub crawl known as "The Golden Mile." Pegg, who has previously played the straight man in Wright's comedies, is phenomenal here as a man whose idealization of his own adolescence has turned him into a grotesque. (There's a little bit of Ricky Gervais's David Brent in Gary's incessant, obliviously mean-spirited joking – the prattling of a man who always has to get the last dirty word.)
Pegg is so good, in fact, that viewers may start to feel as trapped and anxious as the other members of the gang, and long for last call to come early. But Wright, who may be the most resourceful genre filmmaker working today, has some tricks up his sleeve. A tense confrontation in a pub bathroom between Gary and a hoodie-clad youth explodes suddenly into surrealist slapstick, and The World's End turns on a dime from a soused comedy of manners into a science-fiction spectacle that ambitiously splits the difference between John Wyndham and John Carpenter.
Wright's great theme is everyday life made uncanny, whether by the arrival of massed undead hordes (Shaun of the Dead) or the revelation of a hidden cabal in bucolic surroundings (Hot Fuzz). The World's End goes further in this regard than its predecessors. Gary suspects that Newton Haven has changed since he left, and it's a measure of Wright's cleverness that the movie has it both ways. While his hero is projecting his own fear and insecurity onto his hometown, there is also clearly a sinister conspiracy afoot – one whose details are too good to spoil here.
What's key is that even as its story and situations grow ever more outlandish, the film never loses sight of Gary's sad obsession. He's going to finish the Golden Mile, even if it literally kills him – or his friends. In the midst of all of the crazy comedy, Wright finds room for a few sobering details: A scene in which Gary chooses to batter his head against a wall rather than revealing some hidden scars is emotionally devastating even as it nods cheerfully to midnight-movie classics like The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. If Wright doesn't quite sustain this astonishing mixture of sadness and silliness all the way through, he gets major points just for attempting it in the first place.
The World's End isn't perfect – it flags noticeably in the home stretch, including a misjudged coda that ropes in a whole new set of sci-fi clichés – but its best moments leave the bulk of recent American "event movies" gasping in the dust.