It’s easy to make sense of how Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and director Edgar Wright became geek gods. The three British pals have the same fixations as many of us do on “Star Wars” and action movies and comics and first-person zombie shooters — and they’ve put it all onscreen. Their 2004 zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead” was a bloody valentine to George Romero, and a cult sensation on DVD. Their 2007 follow-up, “Hot Fuzz,” was a characteristically spot-on ode to the guilty-pleasure mayhem of “Bad Boys” and “Point Break.” Taking time off from the trio, Wright directed the underappreciated comics adaptation “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” while Pegg and Frost made the stoner-alien comedy “Paul” — a movie that opens, fittingly, at Comic-Con.
Now Pegg, Frost, and Wright are back with “The World’s End,” a sci-fi comedy that brought them to Boston for a recent publicity stop. Naturally, they also hit a requisite, sold-out Brattle marathon of their “Three Flavours Cornetto’’ trilogy, so named for an ice cream novelty that pops up in all three of their movies, as diehards have obsessively noted. It’s an inside joke that’s part Kieslowski, part Nutty Buddy. We repeat: cult sensation.
This time, though, fanboy allusions aren’t really the point. Yes, “World’s End” (opening Friday) has echoes of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Village of the Damned,” and “The Stepford Wives.” And because the movie starts out as a reunion story, says Wright, “for like the first 35 minutes, we do play around with this feeling that you’re watching something like ‘The Big Chill’ or ‘Beautiful Girls.’ ” But, says Pegg, “Unlike our other two films, this one isn’t about cinema. With ‘Shaun of the Dead,’ we did our ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’ idea of a Romero film. And then in ‘Hot Fuzz,’ we had to become like Michael Bay characters in order to win the day. Whereas this film has nothing really to say about a genre itself, it just appropriates one in order to get its message across.”
That message has to do with the dangers of clinging too tightly to the past, an understandable meditation from three guys who’ve surfed the pop-subculture wave to career success, yet are now navigating middle-age. In “World’s End,” Pegg, 43, plays Gary King, a hard-living onetime hipster who peaked at 18, and just can’t let those days go — he dresses the same, drives the same junker, and has the same blithely irresponsible outlook. No wonder he gets it into his head that he wants to reenact an epic, 12-stop pub crawl that he and his mates attempted on the last day of high school, but couldn’t finish off. Final establishment on the list: the World’s End.
Gary sets about rounding up the gang (Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan), who’ve all long since moved away and now lead mostly respectable adult lives. Succumbing to their old ringleader’s adolescent charisma, they’re lured back. But can they really go home again — particularly if home has been secretly infiltrated by a soul-swiping paranormal threat dubbed the Network? (First red flag: the corporate-homogenized folksy remodels some of the pubs have received, treatment that the movie labels “Starbucking.” “Our hypocrisy should be noted,” says Pegg, wryly gesturing to his coffee cup.)
Not that this turn of events necessarily ruins Gary’s night. Serial pint-hoisting and sci-fi combat versus Pierce Brosnan? Brilliant! (Credit the fusion in part to Wright’s go-to stunt coordinator, Brad Allan, who appropriately got his start working on the chopsocky entry “Drunken Master III.”) But there’s also a deeper reason everything’s copacetic. “There’s a scene in the movie where Gary has an epiphany about what’s happening, and he’s actually smiling,” says Wright, 39. “If it was Tom Cruise in ‘War of the Worlds,’ he’d be in shock. But Gary is happy, because it’s easier for him to accept [a dystopian scenario] than it is to accept that he’s old, or that he has a rose-tinted view of this town that’s not as amazing as he thought.”
“We were interested in nostalgia being almost like a villain in the film,” says Pegg, who teams with Wright on scripts, and also demonstrated some witty writing chops in a 2011 memoir, “Nerd Do Well.” “Gary hasn’t evolved past that one night, simply because he’s never been as happy again, and that’s led to him falling into depression and alcoholism. Nostalgia’s OK, but if you spend all your time there, then it means there’s something wrong.”
We were interested in nostalgia being almost like a villain in the film. . . . Nostalgia’s OK, but if you spend all your time there, then it means there’s something wrong.
Doing a bit of evolving themselves, Pegg and Frost deliberately invert their familiar screen dynamic in “World’s End,” with Pegg playing the bad influence for a change, while Frost’s Andy Knightley is a straight arrow. Think Homer Simpson’s drinking buddy Barney Gumble on those rare occasions we’ve seen him sober and Mensa-sharp.
Frost first worked alongside Pegg, his onetime London flatmate, on “Spaced” (1999-2001), a British slacker sitcom whose gleefully expert homages to “Pulp Fiction,” “The Matrix,” etc., made fans of Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and “South Park” co-creator Matt Stone. (All supplied guest commentary on the series’ long-anticipated stateside DVD debut a few years back — essential viewing.) But Frost, 41, recognizes that his “Shaun of the Dead” layabout was a defining role: “I think people just assume that I’m Ed,” he says with a smile. “And I think I was, at one point. But I’m more like Andy now. I don’t know who I’m going to be next — maybe some kind of divorcé trying to date a stripper.”
Up to this point, an interviewer had gotten a fleeting sense of the trio: casual, mainly, in a way that says, Hey, we might be stuck at a hotel meeting room table, but we’re still in hangout mode. As they talk themes and film references, Pegg nibbles on a necklace he’s wearing, while Wright sits sideways in his chair — not being rude, just doing the idle things they do when they’re shooting the breeze. But when Frost chimes in with his cheery inclination to go off-topic, the picture instantly turns hi-def vivid. It’s obvious how their rapport has proved so accessible. “I wanted Nick to play Andy with the same kind of deadly seriousness as when I see him talk to customer service on the phone,” Wright jokes.
“Even now I feel angry,” says Frost, taking the bait. He turns his voice phone-menu soothing: “‘You have been charged a 10-pence service charge.’ Well, why? And it’s like [the facelessness of] the Network — you’ll never get an answer.” Suddenly, he pretends to overturn the table in a mock fit of rage: “I’m going home!” OK, not really — but don’t be surprised to see the “Cornetto Trilogy” succeeded by the “Customer @#$% Service Trilogy.”
The group’s schedule for the next couple of years further indicates their substantial cred with the Comic-Con crowd. Pegg, whose mainstream visibility has spiked with roles as Scotty in the rebooted “Star Trek” series and as Tom Cruise’s tech guy, Benji Dunn, in “Mission: Impossible,” figures to do more of both. He says it’s a fair bet that production on a new “Mission” will start in 2014, in fact. The “Star Trek” plan seems less clear now that franchise steward J.J. Abrams is working on “Star Wars,” but the Hollywood trades did report recently that a couple of Abrams’s “Trek” writers are in negotiations to return. (And oh, to have been a Tatooinian fly on the wall for whatever “Episode VII” bull sessions Abrams and Pegg might have had during last spring’s “Trek” publicity tour, given Pegg’s impassioned evisceration of the “Star Wars” prequels in his book. Which was almost subdued, really, compared to Pegg’s “Spaced” alter-ego heartbrokenly torching his “Star Wars” collection like Darth Vader’s funeral pyre.)
Next up for Wright, meanwhile, looks like “Ant-Man,” a Marvel superhero project that he’s been teasing fans with for several years, and that now has a confirmed release date of November 2015. Frost will put his burly physical comedy skills to the test in next year’s “Cuban Fury,” which casts him as a derailed salsa dancing prodigy attempting a comeback. And Pegg and Frost plan to join Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg for another “Tintin” collaboration, reprising their motion-capture roles as bumbling detective duo Thompson and Thomson. “We saw Peter a couple of weeks ago,” says Frost. “He’s pretty keen to get that going.”
As for what material and themes they might all be chewing over when their creative itineraries finally align again, they can’t really say. “These films have always been a reflection of our lives at the time,” Pegg says. “I think whatever we do next will be the same.”
Wright laughs, partly about the fresh cup of Starbucks he’s just been handed, but also apparently sensing where his friends might be headed with this. “Maybe it’ll be a movie about having kids and stuff, something that Nick and I have been doing,” Pegg says. Or, says Frost, “about two divorcés trying to buy a house in France.”Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.