"The World's End" establishes this repertoire so distinctly that the movie could very well have stuck with it in plain terms, but a chance encounter between Gary and a strangely monotonous teen in one of the bar restrooms changes everything. After a sudden brawl reveals the younger man to be some kind of robotic creature filled with mechanical blue blood, the group suddenly finds themselves in a fist fight with a roomful of angry teenage machines. While a great metaphor for disgruntled men pushing forty facing down a youth culture they can't comprehend, it quickly shifts "The World's End" into zany survival story mode.
Quietly shuffling from one bar to the next to avoid detection from other robots in disguise -- in frantic, whispery discussion, they decide to call the invaders "blanks" -- the group starts to get a handle on the threat and fight back, driven by Gary's baffling commitment to keep going so they can finally reach the end of the crawl. Aided by Oliver's sister and Gary's longtime crush Sam (Rosamund Pike), the group embarks on a long, comically violent evening of showdowns with robots at every turn. But the despite the action's slapstick heights, it doesn't carry the same level of inspiration that Wright and Pegg bring to their characters.
There's a giddy quality to their capacity to use well-honed martial arts skills as they fight back, but it also breaks with the perception of these goofballs as real, coherent characters in a tangible world in a way the previous entries in The Cornetto Trilogy have not. The battle scenes maintain an absurdist quality akin to the videogame-inspired antics of Wright's undervalued "Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World," but they function more as a distraction here.
Even as "The World's End" erupts into outright absurdity, it lacks a well-defined threat, and when the final puzzles pieces do arrive they possess a noticeably rushed feel. Still, the ultimate message resonates with a wickedly cartoonish finale about the impact of technology on human thought and social connectivity. In the wily epilogue, "The World's End" veers off in a wonderfully oddball direction, unleashing a final missive to anyone unwilling to recognize the capacity for crowdpleasing genre ingredients to say something legit about the universal flaws of human behavior. It turns out that Gary and his gang speak for all of us.
Regardless of its uneven pace and rough plot devices, "The World's End" benefits greatly from Wright's ability to infuse each scene with a sense of play. In the years since "Shaun of the Dead" became a breakthrough hit, it's grown increasingly clear that Wright and his cohorts are too smart for Hollywood: In the wake of "Scott Pilgrim" bombing at the box office, "The World's End" has been produced by Universal's indie arm Focus. Though Wright shows plenty of potential to tackle more familiar terrain, even his stab at the superhero genre sounds distinctly off-kilter (that would be the forthcoming "Ant-Man"). With "The World's End" -- and this is not much of a spoiler -- he addresses the disconnect between technological advancements and soul, a takeaway that also functions as an indictment of lesser movies.
Despite its shortcomings, "The World's End" glistens with a comedic energy not present in equivalent mainstream blockbusters (at this point, its closest U.S. cousin might be the much-derided "Ghostbusters" knock-off "R.I.P.D."). Even with a mixed bag, Wright still makes a more pleasing spectacle than the market standard. Like his cohort Quentin Tarantino, Wright's enthusiasm for the material comes across in the work itself, and it's infectious.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Already released overseas, "World's End" opens in the U.S. on August 23, when it stands a solid chance at good returns during the last surge of summer movie activity as the fervor surrounding tentpoles dies down. Though unlikely to achieve cult status on par with "Shaun of the Dead," it should please fans and enjoy a healthy life in ancillary markets.