Spoiler warning: best not read on if you don’t want to ruin The World’s End, Alien, Star Trek: First Contact or Alpha Papa. You have been warned.
In The World’s End, the most recent comedy from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (and third in their “Three Flavours Cornetto” trilogy), a group of five middle-aged friends reunite to complete the “Golden Mile” pub crawl they failed to finish decades earlier, after leaving school at the age of 17. The crawl finishes at the twelfth pub in their sleepy home town of Newton Haven, The World’s End. Bringing them together is Pegg’s Gary King – a flamboyant, chaotic, arrogant and directionless alcoholic trying desperately to relive the glories of his youth, and particularly the night of the crawl – the “best night of his life”. Soon, though, they discover that most of the town’s inhabitants have been replaced by blue-ink-blooded robots – or “blanks” – who, after pursuing, fighting, attempting to seduce and in a few cases catching the protagonists, finally confront Gary King (Simon Pegg), Andy Knightley (Nick Frost) and Steven Prince (Paddy Considine) beneath the World’s End pub. Here, the blanks’ alien controllers, “The Network”, reveal that they have brought about all of humanity’s recent advances in communications, and expose their plot to reform a failing Earth by carefully replacing select groups of humans. Offering to fulfil King’s dreams, they present a set of blanks identical to himself and his friends in their youth – but King rebuffs them, and the aliens finally decide to “leave you to your own devices”: departing the Earth, they trigger a fireball that devastates the planet, abandoning humanity in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Out of the ashes emerges a different world: organic gardening; a rising, quasi-xenophobic hatred of the confused and leftover “blanks”; and a reformed, water-quaffing Gary King roaming the earth alongside robotic replicas of his friends in their youth, battling the fascistic clientele of the film’s final pub, the Rising Sun.
On the face of it, the film is an obvious satire on globalization and corporate takeover: early on, the protagonists revisit two pubs of their youth, only to find them taken over by chains – their identical sets comically filmed from identical angles – and bemoan the “Starbucking” that has drained these old haunts of their character. Like the chain pubs, the “blanks” that replace the townspeople are devoid of all character besides an eery menace or ersatz cheerfulness. They repeat formulaic, rote lines; their personalities have been wiped. (Even the town’s cars have all been replaced with the same model.) A few of the townspeople have been allowed to remain, on condition that they consent to the changes their new alien overlords impose. Only if they resist are they obliterated and replaced. The metaphor at once captures corporate homogenisation and capitalist mechanisation: humans are both replaced by machines – like employees displaced by technology – and turned into machines – like soulless franchises and their disciplined employees. Like advertisers, the aliens nevertheless have seductions to offer humanity: enticing sex objects and fantasies of eternal youth.
The World’s End repurposes ideological critiques from the science fiction tradition in powerful ways. We first witness the blanks’ true nature when Pegg gets into a fight with one in the gents, accidentally ripping his assailant’s head from its shoulders and spilling a pool of blue blood – an homage to the shocking moment in Ridley Scott’s Alien when Ian Holm’s character Ash is exposed as an android, his severed head unexpectedly leaching white fluid. In Alien, Ash is the tool of the vast corporation Weyland-Yutani – a giant, predatory, vastly powerful conglomerate that sends the vessel Nostromo to retrieve an alien specimen for military research, with no regard for the safety of its hapless crew. This dystopian vision of an all-powerful, psychopathic capitalist institution using and destroying human beings at will is far darker than anything found in The World’s End – but the nod in its direction hints that we are meant to regard the latter’s quasi-corporate takeover in similar terms.
More interesting is the final confrontation between aliens and humans beneath the World’s End pub – its tower of darkened metal rows and columns filled with deactivated robots evoking the Borg of Star Trek: First Contact – a race of supremely powerful cyborgs, linked and controlled through a “hive mind”, thinking and speaking in unison, and “assimilating” the species they encounter into their collective. The Borg first appear in The Next Generation, when the utopianism of Gene Rodenberry’s vision of the future had receded, and function as an ideological projection of the “free world” confronting communism. The enemy is overwhelming, seemingly all-powerful, progressively taking over entire regions; it destroys individuality, remaking people as “drones” that service the collective. Confronting them is an heroic stand-in for America: a “Federation” exploring the “final frontier”, upholding Enterprise, explicitly defending a “culture … based on freedom and self-determination”. In Star Trek: First Contact, an altogether more cynical, capitalist vision displaces Rodenberrian idealism: the valorised inventor of the all-important warp drive, Zefram Cochrane, turns out to have been motivated purely by money. A curious parallel for The World’s End’s critique of capitalism to draw, but perhaps that is partly the point: here, it is coercive capitalism – not communism – that reduces us to soulless drones servicing a “greater good” (notably the comic-sinister refrain chanted by Hot Fuzz’s little-England conspirators). Even the blue blood in the blanks’ veins – at one point compared to ink – is redolent of both oppressive bureaucracy (“pen-pushing”) and printed money. Star Trek’s anti-communist vision has thus been appropriated to expose the capitalist “free enterprise” the series implicitly defended.
The World’s End is not alone in promoting this vision. The Alan Partridge feature film Alpha Papa, another comedy by veterans of British television released around the same time, portrays a profit-driven corporation fronted by a sleazy, avaricious boss and his craven, pusillanimous right-hand man taking over Norwich radio station North Norfolk Digital, renaming it “Shape”, and, at Partridge’s cowardly prompting, making mediocre veteran DJ Pat Farrell redundant. During the corporate launch party, Farrell returns with a shotgun and takes the entire studio hostage. Partridge is drafted in by the police, but, turning the siege into a self-promotional vehicle, is soon broadcasting alongside the gunman, before an absurdist, incompetent parody-showdown sees Farrell carted off by police.
As in The World’s End, we are encouraged to despise the incoming corporate culture, not only for its avarice, but as it steamrollers the character of the local radio station, reducing it to a homogenised array of corporate jingles, and imposing redundancies to cut away “dead wood”. The satirically naff (and Orwellian) slogan the DJs are forced to broadcast – “Shape: the way you want it to be” – provides an ironic contrast to the non-consensual, autocratic corporate takeover actually taking place. Just how non-consensual becomes clear when supporters of Farrell line the streets, their placards condemning the corporate takeover, and calling on him to keep up the siege.
So thick with irony, ambivalence and deliberate distancing is Alpha Papa that it can be difficult to discern what, if anything, is intended seriously: Farrell veers between likeable, sympathetic victim and comic sociopath; and the “local character” he fights to preserve comes across variously as “shit”, glib, trivial, crass, vacuous, ludicrous and appallingly bigoted. Yet Farrell’s supporters themselves are never entirely damned: they are shown turning out in great numbers, and we catch glimpses of their placards and slogans (among them “Shape: The Way We Don’t Want It To Be”). Nor is there any space for sympathy with the incoming corporate managers. This is a vision of popular rejection of the corporate steamrollering of “the little people”, of diversity and local “character”, and we are encouraged to sympathise with this rejection, if not with its methods, or even with the culture it defends. North Norfolk Digital is rubbish, it suggests, but it is our rubbish, possessing a kind of authenticity and character far preferable to the bland, oppressive homogenisation of the profiteers.
In The World’s End, this ambivalence is if anything even stronger, encompassing not only popular resistance but the incoming culture itself. Again, the film celebrates the “local character” of the traditional British pub, but simultaneously portrays this culture as hugely problematic, associating it with King’s mindless, compulsive alcoholism. The challenge King offers to the aliens is a championing of “freedom” – boilerplate Hollywood rhetoric – but comically subverted into an ethic of pure hedonism. King quotes verbatim the Wild Angels sample from Primal Scream’s “Loaded” – a song of his youth, heard at the beginning of the film:
THE NETWORK: Just what is it that you want to do?
KING: We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do! And we wanna get loaded! And we wanna have a good time! And that’s what we’re gonna do.
This defiant, hedonistic challenge prompts the aliens to depart, leaving humanity to their “own devices” in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the film’s conclusion, replete with a burning London skyline. A familiar narrative – unrestrained hedonism causing financial collapse – and a profoundly problematic account: the aliens oppress us, but in pursuit of efficiency, productivity and competitiveness (they even display a graph showing how Earth is falling behind). Disdaining these goals, humanity causes the crash that brings down the previous order. The story at once partly excuses capital, blames its victims, and ignores how the “masters of the universe” have in reality consolidated their power.
Like the financial crisis, King’s is a story of unsustainable consumption founded on fantasy. And, while preferable to the alien takeover, his hedonism is never supposed to convince: the film ridicules and challenges King’s alcoholism and pathological, obsessive nostalgia, and the only defiant challenge he can offer the aliens is comically lame. If in one sense King resists an incoming corporate culture, then, in another he and the aliens represent contending cultures fostered by capitalism: the hedonistic hyperconsumption of the marketplace and the oppressive, soul-crushing monotony of both the workplace and the homogenised high street. This is a vision of the contradictions of capitalism causing it to collapse: hedonism allows the corporate culture to seduce its victims, but also inspires resistance, along with the instability that brings down the system.
Ultimately, though, blame is placed firmly on people, not capital: “to err is human”, reads the wall behind Nick Frost as he recounts the story of the crash. The aliens may manipulate it, but hedonism is very much our tragic flaw – an innate tendency toward excess that triggers disaster. “I’m sorry”, King says as he and Frost look out on the scorched wasteland the fireball has left – a repentant sinner taking responsibility for the consequences of his actions. “I know”, Frost replies. As in Star Trek, this flawed nature is what it means to be human, bestowing us with “character” and hence value. It is also, perhaps, what it means to be British: as in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy, humanity here becomes a stand-in for Britain facing a wave of oppressive bureaucratic managerialism and (American) cultural imperialism.
Humanity’s return to the land in the aftermath of the collapse provides a more viable, constructive vision – but a darker, fascistic post-crash society surfaces alongside it. At the same time, the audience’s ambivalence has come to extend even to the “blanks” themselves – suddenly (and confusingly) recast in the role of immigrants and ethnic minorities. As Nick Frost narrates how humanity “never were very civilised”, we see a line of “blanks” walk along a corridor of wire fencing, as furious human crowds shake the fence and scream abuse. Later, as the younger, “blank” versions of King’s friends accompany him into the Rising Sun, we see a cross of Saint George painted on one of the faces of the burly, hostile punters; another mutters “blank bastards”. In another scene, “Blanks go home” is daubed on a wall. “Blanks”, previously a subtle play on “banks”, becomes a not-so-subtle play on “blacks”.
Again, blame falls firmly on human beings: it is not unconstrained capitalism but its absence (the aliens having departed) that unleashes xenophobia. But if this coda depicts a disturbing resurgence of fascism – and a crude stereotype of working class racism – how have the “blanks” suddenly become not corporate drones or bankers, but immigrants and racial minorities?
In fact this conflation is not original, but reflects an ideological trend visible elsewhere, including in the work of some British greens: since globalisation is a problem, the argument runs, and immigration a facet of globalisation, immigration is part of the problem. The World’s End adopts this logic in inverted form: since immigration is a facet of globalisation, and anti-immigrant sentiment a deplorable facet of a resurgent fascism, globalisation cannot be unequivocally condemned. The glaring problem with this logic is its inability – or perhaps refusal – to distinguish the movement of human beings from the movement of goods and capital. The film is thus unable to provide an optimistic vision of green localism without simultaneously portraying a darker parochialism of closed borders and racial exclusion.
This is not the only reason the film’s end refigures the “blanks” in a more benign role. King’s young “blank” comrades represent a more sympathetic vision of nostalgia for youth, and the products of capitalism that accommodate it – presumably a nod to the mass-market populist games, comics and films in which Pegg and Frost’s work is steeped. Clearly, “The Network”, with its communications technology and airbrushed replacements of humanity, also represents the internet and social networking (though conflating capitalism with the state-designed internet and pleasures of human-designed popular culture is, of course, a seriously problematic proposition). The middle-aged King here is more balanced, not attempting literally to replace himself with a younger copy, his alcoholism apparently resolved. Various balances are thus achieved by the film’s end: dreams of youth and the reality of age; the pub and temperance; cosmopolitanism and traditional localism; and capitalism and humanism – as, left to its “own devices”, humanity turns the “blanks” to socially useful ends.
The film thus demonstrates quite literally that it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”, exemplifying the ideological narrowness of contemporary critiques even in the extreme circumstances of the crash and its fallout. Capitalism is not replaced but reformed. Global corporate managers imposed an oppressive and inhuman order, but genuinely sought to foster progress and efficiency. It is humanity’s original sin – its inherent imperfection – that leads us to reject this settlement and cause the crash. Thus “The Network went down” and globalised corporate power collapsed – though in reality, of course, it did no such thing. And only in its wake – not, as in reality, its ascendancy – do dark strains of human viciousness resurface.
Indeed the vilified “blanks” in their professional outfits, wandering pathetic and confused out of the wreckage of the crash, also seem to represent bankers. If so, this is a particularly extreme form of apologism for capital, by extension depicting anger against the banks as a kind of racism. Having caused the crash, “uncivilised”, hypocritical humanity blames the bankers for the consequences of its own flawed nature.
The World’s End, then, is British comic film presenting a particular vision of “Britishness” in the “authentic” local character and diversity of the traditional British pub. It taps into a wave of (often nostalgic) resistance to the cultural homogenization of capitalist globalisation – a structure of feeling Paul Kingsnorth describes in Real England, and which doubtless has driven recent waves of xenophobic national populism. Yet what anti-immigrant green localism and The World’s End share is a conflation of capitalist globalisation with human globalisation – of open borders to goods and capital with open borders to people; of capitalism with cosmopolitanism; and thus (by contrast) of resistance to corporate globalisation with complicity in xenophobia or even fascism. The World’s End portrays capitalist globalisation as crushing freedom and diversity, yet struggles to imagine either existing safely without it. This is a major problem for the film, for this strand of green localism, and perhaps for all of us. For if human freedom and diversity have become mentally inextricable from corporate power, cosmopolitanism from unrestrained capitalism, we are forced into the role either of xenophobic populists or neoliberal apologists. Neither is really inevitable – indeed neoliberalism itself creates the economic insecurity that fuels xenophobic nationalism – but to transcend this false choise, we must expose the fiction that globalisation can be imagined or realised only in the terms its current managers decree. The end of the world they have made is not the world’s end: another world is possible.