"The World's End" is a sci-fi movie about a dystopian parallel universe in which people are replaced by more efficient versions of themselves, eerily stripped of their human frailties in the name of progress. It's also a buddy comedy structured around a bar crawl featuring at least two jokes about people having sex in handicapped bathrooms. It's also a bittersweet movie about five estranged friends riding the train back to the quaint English suburb they grew up in and struggling to reconcile the distance between who they once were and who they've let themselves become.
It's all of these things. Not seamlessly, but effectively: The funny is funny, the sad is sad, the action is by turns slapstick and threatening, and as the movie winds its way into its third act, it starts unpacking science-fiction tropes that feel both familiar but so perfectly suited to the story and characters you've been following for the last hour and a half it's like hearing a beautifully executed cover song — suddenly, it sounds new again.
Written and directed by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg — responsible for the 2004 horror pastiche "Shaun of the Dead" and 2007's action pastiche "Hot Fuzz" — "The World's End" follows five boyhood friends embarking on a pub crawl that they almost finished 20 years earlier, on their last day of high school. Turns out their town has been taken over by these Replicant-type creatures. Once discovered as humans, the chase is on, and so forth.
Four of the men are straight: A realtor, a corporate lawyer, an architect, a contractor of some kind. They have wives and children and properly tailored clothing. The fifth, Gary, has the same badass trench coat and Sisters of Mercy T-shirt he wore in high school. He also has a history of substance abuse and the kind of manic, compulsive interest in fun that people tend to get when they're at the end of their psychological rope.
It's Gary, of course, that proposes the pub crawl because it's Gary who can't let go of the feeling he had when he was 18 and imagined life would only get better. He thinks he's doing his old friends a favor by liberating them from their stodgy, middle-class lives; they think they're the ones doing the favor because they're giving his sorry ass a chance to actually finish something he started.
They're both right, of course. They're both wrong, too. While the movie goes to great lengths to condemn brainless conformity (the verb "Starbucking" is used), it also slyly condemns the idea that so-called free spirits like Gary — who frantically drinks pints even as enemies are banging down the doors — are any less conforming than the society he imagines himself liberated from. In the end the movie circles back to a simple message: People want to be left alone to get drunk with their friends and share their flawed, beautiful lives with each other. But for the most part, pathos and message come in discreet flashes. This is where the conceit of the plot comes in handy: It's hard to get tender for too long when robots are chasing you.
Like "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz," "The World's End" is the kind of nerdy, genre-mashing movie made by people who tend to stay up late watching movies. But it's also a throwback to something like "Ghostbusters," which is both a universally loved movie and a cult classic. (Among the few residents in town who seem to really know what's going on is an elderly man who used to babble about UFOs and the local weed dealer — a nod to a subcultural community that the success of all sci-fi depends on.) It's smarter than the dumb movies it emulates and funnier than the smart ones. It is not afraid to be tender. The tone jumps but the filmmakers know it, and they know how to control it too. So they stripped a bunch of genres for parts and built a better machine.