Nostalgia and Narrative Structure in The World’s End
Earlier I wrote an essay detailing the themes of God and technological determinism found in The World’s End. For today’s post, I’d like to explore the theme of nostalgia and how the narrative structure of the film supports its representation.
Gary King convinces his four friends, Oliver, Andy, Steven, and Peter, to reunited decades after their attempt at a massive pub crawl as kids: 12 pubs in a night, all culminating at the final pub, The World’s End. They reunite not only to talk about the past, but to try for the pub crawl again. Unbeknownst to Gary’s friends, however, is that Gary initiates this quest not just to catch up on old times, but to relive them. Gary’s preoccupation with the past is self-eveident. His wardrobe choices never seemed to change since 1990, and neither does the technology he retains: a cell phone circa early 2000s, an old mixtape from Steven, even an old car he bought off of Peter in the 1990s. When the gang first arrive back into their old hometown, Gary is delighted that the town hasn’t changed – his attempts to relive his past, when he felt more of a success that ever, seem tangible. Newton Haven hasn’t changed a bit, and that belies the true horror of the story.
The orderliness and old-time nostalgia covers that fact that Newtown Haven has become a dystopia. The ultimate antagonist of the story is The Network, a technological colonizing force replacing anyone who doesn’t submit to the utopian vision it seeks to systematize on Earth. Newtown Haven has become just one of the many small areas across Earth that are the starting points of the colonization, overrun with replicant-like robots called “blanks” that enforce the new order. The gang of friends soon discover the secret, and find themselves trying to escape the town by finishing their pub crawl to not arouse suspicion, much to the delight of Gary.
Antagonisms prick forth between Gary and his old friends, who soon find that Gary is only reenacting the pub crawl for his own grasp at the past, noting that he needed his friends to enable him to do so. They eventually discover his alcoholism, tying back to the beginning of the film, where Gary recounts the tale of the gang’s first attempt at the famous pub crawl to some sort of support group. His alcoholism is linked to his nostalgic yearnings, which prove to be destructive.
The climax of the film has a few revelations. Andy discovers Gary’s attempted suicide record, ripping off his nostalgia-laden coat to reveal hospital bandages on his arms. In his desperation to succeed in the pub crawl, Gary to serve himself a beer at The World’s End despite Andy’s protests and concerns. Instead of a beer however, Gary’s actions trigger the pub to reveal its facade. Gary and his friends are greeted by the theistic figure of The Network, who explains the utopian vision that caused terror for decades in Newton haven. Gary is even offered the ultimate nostalgic fulfillment by The Network: the opportunity to live on through a blank of himself as a youth. But Gary, Andy, and Steven rebuke the theistic figure of the Network, arguing for the free will of humans instead, even if it means screwing up.
In terms of narrative structure, the 12 step pub crawl Gary initiates is symbolically linked to Alcoholics Anonymous, but twisted and ultimately rejected. The 12 step structure of Alcoholics Anonymous emphasizes that you submit to a “higher power,” but at the end of the film, Gary and his friends refuse the authority of The Network, presented much link a god figure in the climax. The 12 step pub crawl is revealed to be Gary’s destructive grasp at nostalgia, ultimately rejected by Gary by the end of the film. When fleeing the destruction of Newton Haven, Gary shouts for his friends to drive over the famous roundabout of Newton Haven, symbolizing Gary’s refusing to live in a cyclic pattern of destruction, and instead break free from it. It also indicates a rejection of nostalgia: as the first roundabout ever made, the Newton Haven landmark inspires a sense of memory and nostalgia that is ultimately disregarded.
Memories are not disregarded in of themselves, but the nostalgia worship of them is. Instead, the film points to the importance of lived-in experiences. The scars of the gang are the proof that distinguish them from the replicants of the city, the flaws and dents that prove they are human. In this way, the film appears to propose living out experiences, rather than trying to relive the past. The narrative structure of The World’s End (not to mention the great dialogue) critiques nostalgia as a means of living, proving recycled living to be just another system of oppression from which one must break free.