The James Clayton Column: Laughing at The World’s End

Edgar Wright's The Worlds End proves that it's best to face the end of days with a smile and a laugh, James writes...

(Warning: readers are advised that the following column discusses the end of days and, as such, may strike sensitive readers as excessively morbid and disturbing. It may also contain spoilers for several apocalypse-tinged feature films and the end of the real world itself. Spoilers there as well – the world is going to end at the end. Sorry.)

In the Ray Bradbury short story The Last Night Of The World, a married couple acknowledge the arrival of ‘The End’. They do this calmly. The inexplicable coming of the end of days is simply accepted and understood without anxiety or melodrama by the pair and, it’s implied, by the rest of the planet as well.

Wife and husband eat their dinner, do the washing up, tuck the kids in and then go to turn in for the night themselves. Doomsday is just another day of domestic routine and they embrace it as a relatively unexceptional occasion. They say goodbye in their matrimonial bed in similar fashion to that old couple in Titanic, except in the prose there’s no overwrought Celine Dion soundtrack, heartstring yanking or expensive watery special effects laid on by James Cameron.

It’s a beautiful vignette from Bradbury and – unsurprisingly for the late great author – encompasses an essential humanism within a short scenario that stimulates the reader’s mind and heart. Even though I’m a fan of high-octane action cinema spectacle – pyrotechnics, visceral audiovisual bombardment, extreme violence, etc – I may actually prefer the idea of the world’s end running along the lines of The Last Night Of The World.

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It would indeed be brilliant if we all burned up in a bombastic blaze of vainglory. Informed by the pop cultural cataclysms I’ve ingested over the years, I picture humanity on the brink of destruction holding out for salvation in the form of, say, Will Smith.

Imagine it happening like that, and the tragic demise of Terra and all the creatures who populate the planet takes on a more positive, appealing aspect. We’re going down, but the going down looks good and we got value for the ticket price, right? Plus there’s still hope that Will Smith is going to avert the end of the world and overcome whatever imperils us by knocking its punk ass down.

Nevertheless, it’d probably be a sweeter and more authentic an end if we all just embraced oblivion without theatrics. With a detached “so it goes” spirit, we’d find solace in our loved ones, meditating on the really important things at the final moment. (I’m talking about love, which is a little bit more important in the grand cosmic scheme of things than a Will Smith quip.) This is a more humane, and admittedly cheaper, approach to Judgement Day.

Even so, reflecting on this further (because I’m morbid and like eschatological musing) I come to realise that it doesn’t actually matter if the end of days is spectacular or mundane. What matters most to me is that it comes with humour.

What do I want to hear as the black hole opens up, the Rapture happens, Hell is raised and/or the aliens open fire? Hallelujah choruses? “Awww, hell no!”? “Darling, I love you and I wish I’d told you all those years ago! Kiss me at the climax!”? No, what I’d really like to hear is “Ha ha ha!”

We’re all gonna die! It’s hilarious! Life is absurd, death is absurd and now we find ourselves in the absurd scenario that is Judgement Day! The only rational response to the absurd nature of existence and near-non-existence is to regard everything as ridiculous and laugh out loud in the face of ultimate obliteration.

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At least that’s the way I see it, and that might be because I’ve seen a few funny films about the Day of Reckoning. Comedy movies about the ultimate cataclysm have been pretty prominent recently and it was probably the Mayan Apocalypse of 2012 that prompted a hot wave of apocalypsploitation cinema.

Last summer we saw Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World in which, with a 70-mile-wide meteorite set to collide with Earth, odd-couple Steve Carell and Keira Knightley somehow end up being road trip buddies. It’s a bittersweet weepy film, but it’s also funny and appealingly different from the overdone disaster movie standard. Instantly, Armageddon as a quirky indie romcom is a proposition I’m more enthusiastic about.

More recently, This Is The End rained down Doomsday on Hollywood and gave us an opportunity to appreciate an adaptation of the Book of Revelation through the stoned eyes of America’s leading goofballs (Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson and many, many more).

This Is The End’s masterstroke is having the actors play exaggerated, awful versions of themselves. The Apocalypse becomes surprisingly entertaining when it’s spent with a gang of selfish celebrity assholes more interested in profane in-fighting and gross-out gags than in the gravity of the bleakest of situations.

Babylon is literally burning, but here we are holed up in James Franco’s mansion with drugs, DIY exorcisms and Danny McBride’s masturbation issues. This Is The End shocks and disturbs you, but it’s more because it has Michael Cera as an outrageously obnoxious powder clown, not  because it makes you face grim mortality.

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It may not be as stylish, poignant and thought provoking as Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, but at least you get to experience The End with a grin on your face. (And possibly a twinge in your tickled ribs from all the giggling.)

That brings us up to date right up to The World’s End. Out of all the cataclysm comedies doing the rounds, the final feature in Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy – mint choc-chip-flavoured after strawberry Shaun Of The Dead and ‘blue original’ Hot Fuzz – is the most hotly anticipated.

It’s an alien invasion movie, but that’s simply genre flavouring (specifically, mint choc-chip) to the essential cream. The film’s foundation – the thematic drive and the key reason legions will flock to the cinema to see The World’s End – is the Wright/Pegg/Frost trifecta.

Shaun Of The Dead was a romantic comedy about a bunch of lovable-but-flawed characters finally growing up to assume adult responsibility. The zombie apocalypse acted as contextual backdrop to the crucial authentic human elements and comic chemistry shared by Pegg, Frost and their excellent supporting cast.

So it goes likewise with The World’s End – this is a story centred around relationships and humour that just so happens to occur at the point where all human life may perish. Our heroes’ objective to successfully complete a once-abandoned epic pub crawl is just as important as the whole ‘resist hostile extraterrestrials and save the world’ challenge.

Once again, we’ve got an inspired and unique comedy concept that’s instantly more intriguing than other sci-fi disaster works beaming down over-familiar tropes.

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Recalling other alien invasion flicks intent on annihilating Earth, I appreciate that I have more of an affinity with the films that embrace fun and lightheartedness – Attack The Block, Pacific Rim, The Avengers and the Men In Black movies – than those that wear a constantly sombre tone.

The same goes for any disaster movie in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance. It’s better if there’s a streak of good humour glowing in the embers of our dying civilisation – a luminous light spark of true human spirit shining before all existence is swallowed by overwhelming blackness.

In addition to being more enjoyable (because relentless misery gets wearying), it’s also more authentic and realistic for the End Of Days to be spiced with humour. I repeat again, life, death and the universe are absurd. This whole game is ridiculous, and if you’re going to play it you may as well get into the spirit of things and do it with a cheery outlook and a smile on your soon-to-be destroyed face.

My favourite doomsday movies remember this. See, for instance, Dr Strangelove, where Slim Pickens rodeo-rides the rocket at the hilarious realisation of mutually-assured nuclear destruction. Likewise, for the living dead contagion to feel fresh you need humour, which is why Shaun Of The Dead and Zombieland hit the mark. You can, indeed, have a really good time with death and movies act as entertaining factual evidence.

In conclusion, it doesn’t matter if it’s an immense blockbuster apocalypse or a more quotidian, quiet one along the lines of Bradbury’s The Last Night Of The World. It doesn’t matter whether it’s aliens, angels, epidemics, extreme weather or unleashed atomic energy extinguishing all life on Earth. What matters is that we acknowledge the absurdity of it all and laugh at the grand finale.

Earth and all humanity are doomed! We’re all going to die! It’s hilarious! Ha ha ha!

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