Simon Pegg: ‘The World’s End’ shows how do-gooder paternalism undermines ‘free will’

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A well-known actor, in Washington recently to promote an upcoming film, did what many creative types do when they visit the nation’s capital: He got a little philosophical.

“Your childhood is everything,” Simon Pegg mused while talking to The Washington Times about his new, nostalgia-laden film, “The World’s End,” which opened this past weekend to love from critics and audiences alike. The apocalyptic comedy stars Mr. Pegg as a 40-year-old who returns to his changed hometown determined to re-create with four former friends what was supposed to be the legendary pub crawl of their youth.

“It’s even more relevant now, with this extended adolescence we seemingly have now,” the actor reflected. “I think of my dad when I was a kid.” When his father was 25, he struck his son as older, in retrospect, than the 43-year-old Mr. Pegg feels now.

“Suddenly, we’ve been given extensions to our youths, where we don’t have to have kids right away,” he said. “I didn’t have my first child until I was 39. The impetus to grow up is lessened, but there’s nothing to fill that void, particularly, except what we did as kids. Which is why you have guys collecting action figures at 35. Or why we’re all watching films about superheroes and spaceships when we’re grown-ups.”

It’s a surprising soliloquy from the man who’s best known to moviegoers worldwide as Scotty, the chief engineer of the starship Enterprise. “Star Trek Into Darkness,” the second film in the rebooted franchise, is currently this year’s seventh-highest-grossing movie.

The trend has surely helped his career. But Mr. Pegg actually bemoaned the fact that we’ve become, as he put it, “infantilized.” And while “The World’s End,” with its stars tearing the heads and limbs off zombielike creatures in a desperate bid to survive long enough to make it to all 12 planned pubs, looks like a typical late-summer popcorn flick, it turns out to be a solid shot against the nanny state.

“The whole argument in the film really is, to use AA-speak, about the higher power,” Mr. Pegg explained, referring to Alcoholics Anonymous, whose meetings his character reluctantly attends. “Is it right to give yourself over to a higher power? Maybe it is. Maybe we are so erratic and dangerous as a species that maybe our free will isn’t always such a great thing. Maybe there should be somebody to tell us how many guns we can own, or that kind of stuff, because that way maybe less people would die, to use just one example.”

But clearly Mr. Pegg, who stars as Gary King — alcoholic, perpetual adolescent and unlikely champion of human autonomy — doesn’t think so. “The key to that is it comes at the expense of free will. And that is something that we all hold so very dear,” he said.

“The World’s End,” which Mr. Pegg wrote with Edgar Wright, who also directed, is the final film in a loose trilogy and opened with the strongest showing of the trio. “Shaun of the Dead” made $3.3 million during its U.S. opening weekend in 2004, and “Hot Fuzz” topped it with $5.8 million in 2007. “The World’s End” earned nearly $9 million last weekend.

Mr. Pegg and Mr. Wright, along with Nick Frost, their friend, frequent collaborator and co-star of the three films, all recalled the raucous shoot in between sips from Starbucks cups here in Washington. Their choice of drinks was noticeable because the characters of “The World’s End” continually grumble about the phenomenon they call “Starbucking,” in which corporate chains have planted firm roots in their previously humble hometown.

The film subtly undermines such common complaints, Mr. Pegg contended. “Maybe the coffeeshop or pub that was there before the new one wasn’t as good as we thought it was.”

He and the film take a different view of the town’s other invaders, however. In the climatic scene, Mr. Pegg’s Gary King delivers a defiant speech to the intelligence bent on taking over the planet, dubbed “the Network.” The Network tells Gary it wants to improve, not eradicate, the human race. Think of it as a benevolent bureaucrat who understands our needs better than we do ourselves.

“We’re not saying that the Earth wouldn’t have been a better place with the Network. Because maybe it would have been,” Mr. Pegg said, making the Network sound a lot like one of the many paternalistic politicians who would protect us from our own unruly choices. But the ability to make them, the actor argued, is what makes us human. The Network could choose for us — and it might even choose correctly. “But it comes at one price. What is that price? Everything.”

Mr. Wright echoed Mr. Pegg’s paean to self-determination. “The point of this film is to bring us this theme of what makes us human, and what makes us different from the perfect aliens is that we are flawed. To be human to is make mistakes and learn from your mistakes,” he concluded.

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