One of the great disappointments of my moviegoing life was the 2005 adaptation of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. As a lifelong fan of Adams' work, the film did just enough right for me to delude myself into liking it for a few years, but with each repeat viewing on DVD, any love I had for the film diminished. In retrospect, it's a noble failure, a film that had its heart in the right place but didn't have the nerve to fully roll with the source material's darkly satirical (and occasionally cruel) sense of humor. It's the kind of film that makes you wonder if Adams' work would ever properly translate to film.
And somehow, Edgar Wright's The World's End is what answers "yes." That's not to say Wright's wonderful new science fiction comedy is in any way a direct tribute to Adams and his novels, but it most definitely scratches the same itch. What elevates The World's End above a typical comedy -- and what puts it on the same high ground as the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series -- is that its humor manages to be hilarious and silly while being rooted in some truly compelling science fiction.
Like with much of Adams' work, The World's End deals with something fantastical and horrible invading and threatening the lives of typical Englishmen (and later, the world). The comedy is not derived from obvious gags and jokes, but from the characters' reactions to finding themselves in an impossible situation. Wright and star/cowriter Simon Pegg's incredibly smart script isn't in a hurry and spends much of the film's first half introducing the five main characters, putting them in the middle of what appears to be a fairly typical (if very funny) drinking comedy about old friends reuniting. It's this relaxed first 45 minutes that gives the later half all of its weight: it's only once we understand these guys, their dynamic and their problems that the film reveals that their hometown has been taken over by nefarious robots who are working to remake the planet in their own image to ready it for a "peaceful" conquest.
Although different on the surface, this transition from mundane to fantastic recalls the opening pages of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where protagonist Arthur Dent faces some deeply personal problems (a bulldozer plans to demolish his home and no one told him) only for something truly extraordinary to appear out of nowhere eclipse whatever was troubling him before. In this case, it's an alien construction armada that plans to demolish the planet to make way for a new expressway. It's a clever jab at bureaucracy (like with Arthur's home, no one bothered to warn Earth of its impending doom), broad but effective satire that doesn't need to be too subtle or pointed because it's so funny. Wright also wields sci-fi and satire like the world's funniest sledgehammer, with the alien invasion of The World's End being the worst possible version of capitalist conformity. Like the first two pubs the our heroes visit in the film, our invaders would like it very much if we were all predictable, comfortingly similar and incapable of offering surprises.
When it comes to the subject of the human race, The World's End and the works of Douglas Adams don't have too many nice things to say about us. Adams paints us as being woefully boring, a dull race who live on a "mostly harmless" planet whose obsession with stupid things like digital watches and religion make us a sad bunch who won't be missed when we're gone. The World's End somehow manages to be even more cynical, suggesting that humanity is too stupid, too loud, too flawed and too drunk to be fit for alien conquest and to have a place in a galactic empire. You can't fix humanity because we're all too broken and proud. Adams destroys Earth because humanity is to dull and slow to do anything about it and Wright destroys Earth because we're all too belligerent to welcome our new alien overlords. It's dark stuff, but Adams' prose and Wright/Pegg's dialogue don't let you in on all of this at first, choosing to let their droll silliness mask their frequent contempt for the human race. You may not realize that these are fairly bleak science fiction tales until you strip away the comedy -- it's like a colorful bandage on top of an aching wound.
Seeing how well Wright and his cast balance such cynical science fiction with such goofy comedy makes the failure of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie all the more painful. It puts the events and the characters on film generally as written, but it never catches their voice, pulling the knife out when it should be twisting it. It plays the notes, but it completely bungles the music. The World's End is one of the best films of 2013 so far (and probably the best science fiction released in theaters this year) and while it has no connection to Adams, it captures his spirit better than any other film before. It's going to make people wonder what blessed alternate universe got the Douglas Adams film series directed by Edgar Wright and starring Simon Pegg.
Pegg would play Ford Prefect, of course. Martin Freeman remains the ideal Arthur Dent. At least they got that part right.
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