Nathan: Genevieve, you just watched The World’s End, the concluding entry in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy,” so now is the perfect time to discuss the films as a whole. The Cornetto Trilogy, jokingly named after a mass-market ice-cream treat that appears in all three films, is unusual: The characters in each film are different, but the director (Edgar Wright), screenwriters (Wright and Simon Pegg), leads (Pegg and Nick Frost), producer (Nira Park), and a number of supporting players remain the same. But these films are linked by more than just cast and crew; they also all use genre filmmaking and pop-culture references to comment satirically and insightfully on the dangers of conformity.
Shaun Of The Dead depicts a world where the unthinking embrace of consumerism has transformed people into virtual zombies and robbed them of their individuality. Hot Fuzz depicts a seemingly idyllic small town so obsessed with niceness that it eliminates anyone who deviates from community standards. And The World’s End is a bracingly dark science-fiction allegory about a world where the human soul can be franchised into a state of complete homogeneity. For all their smart-ass insouciance, these films are fundamentally affirmations of individuality and free will in the face of mindless conformity. The heroes of all three films are given the opportunity to blend in with the herd and free themselves from the pain and alienation of individuality. But there’s a whole lot more going on in all three of these incisive social satires. So how do you think the films hold up as a trilogy? Do they cohere? And how does The World’s End fit into the equation?
Genevieve: I think the three films cohere to the extent they’re intended to cohere, which is to say, not very much. Or rather, they’re connected through style and the broad theme of conformity you mention, rather than character or narrative. It’s notable—and in keeping with the filmmakers’ irreverence—that the trilogy’s namesake only makes a brief cameo in each part, and has no bearing on the events of the films; it’s more like an inside joke turned marketing device. (The Cornetto’s requisite appearance in The World’s End is purposefully casual, and almost literally disposable. The way its appearance played out got a hearty chuckle in the screening I saw.) Each film is associated with a different color and flavor of Cornetto: the blood-splattered Shaun with red strawberry, Hot Fuzz with police-blue Original, and World’s End with mint chocolate chip, because green equals aliens, apparently? It all feels appropriately arbitrary, but it speaks to the division among the films: They’re part of the same brand, possessing the same general look and feel, but they’re three distinct flavors. (And, it should be noted, not the only three flavors of Cornetto; this is an open-ended trilogy, it seems.)
“The films all play brilliantly on viewers’ affection for the genres and films they pay tribute to, while at the same time depicting nostalgia as an often corrosive, destructive force.”
In the broadest terms, Wright, Pegg, and Frost have made their versions of the zombie movie, the cop film, and the alien-invasion flick. But if we’re looking at the three parts of this trilogy as a progression, or an evolution, each has been more ambitious than the last in terms of how it engages with its chosen genre. Shaun is playful in how it approaches zombie-movie convention—as in the brilliant paired sequences where Shaun goes to the corner shop, not processing the people around him as zombies rather than mindless, shuffling consumers-on-the-go—but it’s ultimately pretty much a mirror of its chosen genre. Hot Fuzz engages with its genre via Frost’s character, the action-flick-obsessed small-town police Danny Butterman, but it goes in a twistier direction, blending its fish-out-of-water story with the uncovering of a long-running conspiracy-cum-cult. And World’s End plays it close to the vest until well into its second third, not even revealing the alien-invasion turn until it’s deep into another story about the awkward, pained reunion of a group of childhood chums. All three have an early-to-mid-film twist that takes the narrative in a much different direction than it appears to be taking at the start, but World’s End concludes the furthest from where it began, story-wise. (We won’t get into the details of that ending, because it’s best to experience the film with as little knowledge of where things go as possible, but suffice it to say, it tops the grimness of Shaun’s ending by a few degrees at least.) I think that’s part of why, even though Shaun’s scrappiness and unexpectedness will always give it a special place in my heart, I was most impressed with World’s End out of the three films.
But beyond the ambitious structuring, I was more drawn to the relationship between Pegg and Frost’s characters, Gary and Andy, than any of their previous pairings. Nathan, you mentioned how there’s no relationship between the Pegg/Frost characters in the three Cornetto films, which is true to the extent that individually, they play vastly different characters in all three. But each film centers on a different sort of partnership between them, and uses the genre stuff to explore bigger questions about male friendship and how it develops, matures, and stagnates. Given that The World’s End came out the same summer as another, similarly named bro-pocalyptic movie, This Is The End, I’m curious whether you found one film’s approach more effective than the other in its depiction of male friendship. And do you think any—or all—of the three Cornetto films has a particularly distinctive take on this depiction?
Nathan: I agree that the films have grown by leaps and bounds in scope and ambition. Re-watching Shaun Of The Dead, I was struck by its economy: not a single scene wasted, nor a sequence that wears out its welcome. For a film about slackers, it’s incredibly disciplined and focused. Hot Fuzz isn’t as tight, but it expands the trilogy’s scope, while The World’s End has a newfound emotional depth and maturity.
I found The World’s End to be a much more honest and incisive exploration of the complexities of male friendship than This Is The End. Wright cited the recent Dissolve Movie Of The Week It’s Always Fair Weather as a major influence on The World’s End, and the films share a bracingly dark conception of the delicacy of friendships, and specifically how they atrophy and disintegrate over time. The World’s End may be even more cynical and incisive about friendships than either This Is The End or It’s Always Fair Weather, in that it features a protagonist who isn’t just a slacker or a bit sketchy, but an alcoholic whose sickness informs every aspect of his existence. The character’s introduction says everything about how he sees himself and his friends: He discusses the epic, long-ago pub crawl they shared as rowdy teens with the high-spirited bonhomie of the narrator of a beer commercial, before the big reveal that he’s delivering his boastful spiel to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It’s the character in a nutshell: He sees a dangerous, even deadly pathology as a matter of being the life of the party, and doesn’t seem to realize that everyone else left the party ages ago en route to becoming proper, respectable adults. From the beginning, he’s trying to suck his friends into his illness and his addiction, to make them enablers in his misguided quest.
Pegg is about as likeable as actors get—hell, he almost made Toby Young seem tolerable in that misguided adaptation of How To Lose Friends And Alienate People—and I was impressed by how unsympathetic he’s willing to be here. He’s needy, pathetic, and selfish, always willing to put his own desires above his friends’, even if it means endangering their lives for the sake of a meaningless promise he made to himself ages ago. For me, the key moment in the film comes when Andy asks Gary why he’s so obsessed with finally conquering the 12-bar pub crawl he failed to achieve in his radiant youth, and Gary replies, with naked desperation, that it’s all he has left. In that heartbreaking moment, the character’s oily charm dissipates to reveal a man who clings to cheap nostalgia and the idea that his friends are still a cohesive unit in the face of oblivion.
It’d be hard to imagine a moment that raw, powerful, or emotional in This Is The End, which lets its characters off easy; there’s a gory, gothic cartoonishness to the proceedings that makes that kind of emotional depth impossible. It explores some of the same themes as The World’s End, but never matches its depth or darkness. In a similar vein, I very much like Hot Fuzz, but feel like it’s the odd film out here, since it lacks the freshness and novelty of Shaun Of The Dead and the bracing darkness and metaphorical richness of The World’s End. While Pegg and Frost are fantastic in it, their relationship deliberately, intentionally follows the well-worn arc laid out in the mismatched buddy-cop format the film pays reverent homage to.
Wright and Pegg are unusually attuned to the intricacies and complications of male friendships, but there is a curious dearth of female friendships in these films, as well as women in general. Of the three films, only Shaun Of The Dead has a proper love interest. What do you make of the lack of women in these films, Genevieve? Did it bother you at all? And where would you like to see Pegg and Wright go from here?
Genevieve: Well, I should point out that The World’s End also has a proper love interest, of sorts, in Rosamund Pike’s character, Sam, the sister of Martin Freeman’s character, Gary’s love interest (as far as he’s concerned), and the actual love interest of Paddy Considine’s character, Steven. But I can see why you glossed over her, because like Kate Ashford’s Liz in Shaun Of The Dead, she functions mainly as an ideal, something for our flawed heroes to bumble toward on their pained journeys to maturity—successfully in Shaun’s case, not so much in Gary’s. This is slightly problematic on a big-picture level, but given the overall strength of both films, it’s the sort of thing I’m willing to forgive: Pegg and Wright are clearly writing from what they know, and I think it’s safe to say they know genre and male camaraderie a lot better than they know about women’s inner lives. Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing a female character in this universe with even a fraction of the flaws and complexities exhibited by the male characters. (Consider that my answer to your question of where I’d like to see them go next. And no, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World doesn’t count.)
Still, in both World’s End and Shaun Of The Dead, a female character ultimately saves the heroes when all seems lost: In Shaun, Jessica Stevenson’s Yvonne—who initially seemed like a throwaway gag of a character—returns with the British Army to save Shaun and Liz during their last stand at the Winchester, while Sam returns at a similarly dire moment near the conclusion of World’s End, after previously being shuttled off to safety by the very dolts who got her into this mess in the first place. In both films, female characters are literally and metaphorically saviors. That’s not exactly an offensive or even particularly unusual depiction for female characters in film, but it is pretty one-note, and given how adept these films are with inverting expectations and familiar tropes, it’s a little surprising Pegg and Wright haven’t managed to home in on a more interesting female character across these three films.
Or, in the case of Hot Fuzz, a single female character of consequence; Olivia Colman’s perkily raunchy constable is a lot of fun, but not exactly a driving force. Like you, Nathan, I’ve started to regard the second film as a bit of an outlier in this trilogy. (It’s always the middle child, isn’t it?) I’ve only recently revisited the first two films in order, and seeing the entire trilogy end-to-end highlights that Shaun and The World’s End are much more of a piece. This is partly because their genre targets, zombie and science-fiction films, are more closely related to each other than either is to the buddy-cop movie, but also because the developing relationship between Pegg and Frost’s characters in Hot Fuzz is much different than the stagnating relationships between their characters in the first and third films. However, I do think Hot Fuzz has the strongest, most overt connection to the trilogy’s themes of conformity, and to a lesser but no less important extent, the problems of living in the past. In Shaun and World’s End, the main characters are defined in part by their inability to overcome their nostalgic connections to the past, whether they’re personal relationships that have long since outlived their usefulness, or old records that are too precious to use as zombie-fighting projectiles. In Hot Fuzz, Pegg’s character is actively fighting against the nostalgia for the ways of old that defines the bucolic, rural Gloucestershire, while the affection Frost’s character has for old action movies draws the two together. So it’s a bit of a thematic inversion in that sense.
Nathan, given that all three of these films are predicated on their creators’ affection for somewhat musty genres, and given the vocal appreciation Wright and Pegg (but especially Wright) have for the films and music that defined them as people and artists, I wonder what you make of these films’ relationship with nostalgia?
Nathan: While we’re thinking of next steps, it would be nice if the gents were to collaborate on a film with a female character as richly developed and central as the character Jessica Stevenson played (and co-wrote) in Spaced, the cult television hit that represented Wright, Pegg, and Frost’s first big triumph together. Genre movies have historically been a boys’ club, because of the overwhelming sexism of pop culture and the world at large, but as you wrote, that would be another place where Pegg and Wright could tweak conventions and upend expectations in interesting, subversive ways. These lads have grown up extensively over the course of the trilogy; perhaps the next step in their evolution can entail giving women a more substantive and substantial role in their richly developed universe.
I think you highlight one of the series’ fascinating contradictions: The films all play brilliantly on viewers’ affection for the genres and films they pay tribute to, while at the same time depicting nostalgia as an often corrosive, destructive force. At best, it keeps people and cultures from growing, evolving, and reaching a state of contented maturity (if such a thing even exists). At worst, it can be destructive and deadly—to people, communities, and even civilizations.
“Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing a female character in this universe with even a fraction of the flaws and complexities exhibited by the male characters.”
In Shaun Of The Dead and The World’s End, the protagonists are so desperate to hold on to a connection to their past that they literally hold on to inhuman, supernatural simulacrums of friends who no longer exist in their original form. In Shaun Of The Dead, this unwillingness to let go of the past at any cost is treated with distinct affection, as a testament to the unbreakable bond shared by the leads; in The World’s End, it takes on a somewhat more sinister connotation, as the antihero’s need to retreat to the comforting cocoon of the distant past is taken to its poignant science-fiction extreme. In Hot Fuzz, the nostalgia is twofold: the town’s pathological, deadly nostalgia for an impossibly quaint British past that no longer exists and can only be brought into life through mass murder, and Danny’s boyish nostalgia for over-the-top mismatched buddy-cop movies. As you mentioned, one proves unexpectedly useful in providing the tools to triumph over evil, while the other leads to that evil in the first place.
Part of what makes these films so effective is that they not only acknowledge the power of nostalgia, but delight in it. With The World’s End in particular, I experienced another form of double nostalgia: nostalgia for the genres Wright and Pegg play with, but also nostalgia for early-1990s British pop culture, particularly the Brit-pop songs that litter the soundtrack. Just hearing bands I hadn’t thought about in ages, but that were important to me as a Brit-pop-obsessed teenager in the early 1990s, instantly brought me back to that strange time in my adolescence. It connected me to my own past, as well as pop culture’s past, on an almost subliminal level.
I like that these films don’t preach. The themes emerge organically from the narratives, characters, and relationships developed over the trilogy. The Cornetto films acknowledge the value in acknowledging and treasuring our past, whether in the form of friendships that have radically shifted over time, the movies and music we love, or even our desire to hold on to the values of an idyllic, romanticized national past. But there comes a point where nostalgia stops becoming constructive and becomes destructive. The Cornetto Trilogy is on some level concerned about what happens when our reverence for the past keeps us in a state of regression and suspended adolescence. That said, I’m already nostalgic for the Cornetto Trilogy, and it just ended.