Edgar Wright is a filmmaker who speaks fluently in cinematic language. Each of his movies are love letters to a specific genre, but his films elevate themselves beyond mere parody. Watching one of his films is like watching a conversation between the director and the pop culture he loves. Each film is filled with kinetic energy, but is also deeply personal.
How does he accomplish this? In Brad Bird’s commentary of his film THE INCREDIBLES, he frequently discusses the balance between the “mundane and the fantastic” in the movie’s story of a suburban dwelling superhero. Wright’s directorial style has a similar hallmark. The genre of each film is made more realistic through its mundane elements.
Just look at the protagonists of Wright’s movies: a slacker who fights zombies, an action hero in an action-less town, a video game fanboy who lives in an actual video game, and an addict who becomes humanity’s last hope against an alien invasion. Each of them is all too human in impossible circumstances. The combination of the mundane and the fantastic informs Wright’s sensibilities and gives him a vehicle to tell emotional stories through a genre lens.
“The ‘Z’ Word”: Inevitability of Change in SHAUN OF THE DEAD
Before they became as ubiquitous as McDonald’s, zombie movies were an instrument for shocking gore and social commentary. George Romero had it mastered, skewering human cruelty to man and capitalism in his LIVING DEAD trilogy. Edgar Wright brought that satirical edge to the mundane reality of mid-2000s London.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD begins as any slacker comedy does. Shaun (Simon Pegg, the DeNiro to Wright’s Scorsese), an aimless 9 to 5’er, has finally pushed his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) to the brink. He is content with a life of routine. He has his favorite pub, his average job, and his best friend Ed (Nick Frost, the Mifune to Wright’s Kurosawa) who exacerbates the worst of Shaun’s bad habits. Shaun wants his routine to stay the same. As the credits of the film point out, the only difference between people like Shaun and actual zombies is a pulse.
What Wright does so well is balance the trappings of the romantic comedy with the zombie film. SHAUN contains many of the traditional romantic comedy archetypes. The film has the goofy best friend, the envious rival, the well-meaning parents, except they’re all trapped in an undead apocalypse. Wright’s savvy understanding of genre keeps the outlandish horror action grounded in a recognizable reality.
Why is this significant? Ultimately, Shaun’s journey is a personal one. He has to overcome his fear of changing into a zombie in order to overcome his fear of change. Shaun is more comfortable letting his routine calcify instead of facing adulthood. Of course Wright would choose to tell this story through a zombie film. The zombie itself is a symbol of change: a human being forced to become something new and unrecognizable. Shaun fears the uncertainty of change that the zombies represent. It’s only by accepting the inevitability of change that he can grow as a person and restore his relationship with Liz. Of course, Shaun also learns that true maturity does not always mean throwing away childish things. You can still play video games in the garage with your zombie best friend.
“Meet the cop who can’t be stopped”: HOT FUZZ and Finding Your Place
In Edgar Wright’s following film, HOT FUZZ, the structure of SHAUN is turned inside out. In SHAUN, ordinary characters are put into an extraordinary circumstance. Meanwhile, in FUZZ, action movie hero Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is an extraordinary character forced into the ordinary village of Sandford. Angel is banished to this quaint purgatory after being just too good at his job. His impeccable record makes his co-workers look bad. Angel is dismayed by the crime-free banality of his new posting. In the eyes of Officer Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), however, Angel is a god. Even though Angel is a satirical character, his loneliness makes him feel human. Wright uses the tropes of buddy cop films and action movie romances to tell a very real story of two men finding a friendship (and possibly even love).
Ultimately, it’s Butterman’s obsession with action movies that brings the buddy cops together together. The fantastic for Danny is the mundane for Angel. Danny can only imagine a world of gunfights and car chases, but for Angel those things were his everyday reality. Angel has forgotten how to enjoy himself at his job because of his obsession with being the best.
Butterworth’s passion for all the things Angel had taken for granted helps Angel to discover joy in his work again. Following a night of drunken revelry, Butterworth and Angel sit down to watch a double feature of POINT BREAK and BAD BOYS II. What seems like an innocuous night of fun is a turning point in the relationship between these two characters. Following this scene, the truth of Sanford’s secret society slowly begins to unravel. Angel has inadvertently unearthed the dark and fantastic secret of the town and he is hellbent on solving the conspiracy.
Once again, it seems like Angel’s obsessive need to solve problems will result in another excommunication. The difference this time is Angel has love on his side. Butterworth helps Angel defeat the cabal controlling Sanford and gets to live out his action movie fantasies in the process. Meanwhile, Angel has finally found a place where his skills are not only useful, but respected and appreciated. Butterworth’s admiration for Angel finally helps him find where he belongs.
HOT FUZZ is about two geeks finding one another because of their mutual respect. Wright once again blends mundane and fantastic by using an action movie construct to tell a story about loneliness and acceptance. The unstoppable cop thought he belonged in a big city, but a cozy hamlet ended up being the place he found a true home.
Getting a Life: SCOTT PILGRIM and the Gamification of Love
Both the Scott Pilgrim film and graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley capture how young people connect with the pop culture of their youth. Thanks to the internet, young people have access to all of the cultural ephemera from our youth. With a few strokes of the keys we can find information about old television shows, forgotten movies, or emulators of lost video games. Rather than fading away, our childhood has remained preserved in digital amber. That permanent adolescence is literally realized in SCOTT PILGRIM. The mundane is heightened to the fantastic when Wright superimposes the visual elements of retro video games and pop culture onto Scott’s reality.
Each component of SCOTT PILGRIM symbolizes the struggles of young love. Video game style fight scenes are the characters literally fighting off emotional baggage. Of all of Wright’s films, this is perhaps the one that brings the mundane and fantastic closest together. SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD is one of the few films to truly capture that pop culture filter so many of us place on our reality.
For many of us, the fantastic is a way for us to process the mundanities of the real world. The central conflict of SCOTT PILGRIM revolves around the titular character’s (Michael Cera) romance with Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). In order to be with her, Scott discovers he has to defeat Ramona’s 7 evil exes, all of who want to control the future of her love life. Choosing Edgar Wright to adapt this series of graphic novels is a perfect marriage of director and material.
Like all of Wright’s films, SCOTT PILGRIM grafts cinematic madness on to a believable reality. Scott is similar to Shaun in many ways, but Scott needs to learn more about accepting responsibility for his actions. Many of Scott’s actions throughout the film are selfish. He starts dating high schooler Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) to satisfy his own ego. However, Scott quickly dumps her when he discovers Ramona. This is one of the many selfish actions Scott commits in the film that feed his insecurities. As Scott’s relationship with Ramona blossoms, he is forced to confront her past again and again through her evil exes.
Scott at this moment sees himself as “deserving” of Ramona’s love, but he still hasn’t learned to put others before himself. In his final confrontation with Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), the last evil ex, Scott finally fights for Ramona. He is willing to take on her emotional burden to help her move past her past. In this moment, Scott earns “the power of love” but it’s ultimately not enough. Scott has to admit his failings as a friend and a boyfriend first before he can truly find redemption. After admitting that he cheated on Knives with Ramona, Scott is immediately “killed” by Gideon Graves.
Here Wright uses the fantastical nature of video games to give Scott what many of us wish we could have: a second chance. With the knowledge of exactly what to say, Scott breezes through the final action sequence of the film, but this time admitting that he wants to fight Gideon so he can do the right thing for once. Scott had to learn self-respect to truly earn Ramona’s love.
This is reinforced by the sudden appearance of Nega-Scott, an evil version of Scott who appears after Gideon is defeated. Wright subverts our expectations. Rather than another fight sequence, we cut to Scott and Nega-Scott having a friendly conversation. By choosing not to fight Nega-Scott, Wright is using the language of video games to say we all have a dark side that we can’t ever get rid of. However, we can acknowledge it exists and learn to live with it and be better than our worst impulses.
THE WORLD’S END and Childhood’s End
The worst impulses we have becomes the subject of Wright’s most recent film THE WORLD’S END. This film reunites Wright with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost; both are cast against type in this film. Pegg plays Gary King, whose hard drinking party animal personality masks an incredible amount of inner pain. Frost plays Andy Knightley, the straight-laced recovering wild man who wants to nothing to do with Gary’s attempts to relieve former glory.
In the film, Gary is desperate to reunite his group of boyhood friends to complete “the Golden Mile,” a pub crawl consisting of twelve different locations in Newton Haven. Their attempt is thwarted when they discover Newton has been taken over by an alien race. The once colorful characters of the town have been replaced by a hive mind of robot duplicates.
The Slow Invasion
What’s interesting about THE WORLD’S END is how it functions as a response to the themes of SHAUN OF THE DEAD. You don’t get much more mundane than the small London suburbs where THE WORLD’S END takes place. In fact, the sinister quality of the mundane is the antagonist of THE WORLD”S END. In an interview with GQ UK, Wright explained the homogeneous nature of small towns as an inspiration for THE WORLD’S END:
“If you live in a small town and you move to London, which I did when I was 20, then when you go back out into the other small towns in England you go ‘oh my god, it’s all the same!’ It’s like BODYSNATCHERS: literally our towns are being changed to death.”
THE WORLD’S END is the saying “you can’t go home again” with a sci-fi twist. The changing town is contrasted with Gary’s inability to change. Gary exists in a state of arrested development that’s so extreme he doesn’t appear to have even changed clothes since he was a teenager. Much like Shaun in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, Gary’s resistance to change is to his detriment. His addiction and his inability to relive the events of the past drives him to an attempt at suicide. Unlike in SHAUN, however, where Shaun’s mundane life is thrust into chaos, in THE WORLD’S END, Gary’s chaos is thrust deep into a pit of mundane.
Levity and Depth
Although the film does use the trappings of a sci-fi film, THE WORLD’S END tackles these serious issues in a much more direct way than Wright’s previous films. The climactic confrontation between Gary and Andy is direct and honest, featuring some of the finest acting that Pegg and Frost have done in their careers.
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Ironically, it’s Gary’s stubborn drunkenness that both frees and damns humanity. Gary tells the aliens that their “benevolent” plan to pacify the Earth is impossible to complete. According to Gary, humanity is too loud and stupid (in a good way) to ever be tamed. The alien, exhausted by Gary and Andy’s drunken revelry, agrees and abandons Earth, leaving behind an EMP that knocks out all technology in its wake.
Humanity endures in spite of being sent back to the dark ages, as we see in the closing moments of the film. In fact, humanity seems to be better off in a tech-free world. In SHAUN, change is a positive thing that can provide new opportunities. By contrast, THE WORLD’S END warns of too much change too quickly. If change comes at the expense of a person’s identity and uniqueness, it’s not worth it.
In the final scene, Gary is wandering the ruined Earth with teenage robot versions of his friends. Gary enters the bar and cheerfully requests from the bartender, a water. Gary may not have grown-up, but he has found a way to break his destructive habits. He has found a way to change and still stay true to himself. A story about the end of the world, in Wright’s hands, becomes a story about recovery.
The Wright Stuff
As our culture becomes more and more obsessed with past cinema, it can become easy for filmmakers to create lazy “homage” films. These are movies that are filled with nods and references to past movies with no real substance. What sets Edgar Wright apart is that he understands an audience’s connection to a movie is personal, and that the fantastic world of cinema helps us to better understand our mundane reality.
These larger-than-life adventures give us personal catharsis from our everyday worries and fears. By using the world of cinema to speak to common fears and anxieties, Wright has crafted unique and spectacular genre films that will be loved for generations.