When Thomas Wolfe wrote "you can't go home again," it wasn't necessarily because home had been invaded by killer alien robots.
Credit that leap in imagination to director Edgar Wright and actor Simon Pegg, co-writers of the new comedy/thriller "The World's End," which opens nationwide on Friday.
"The film is about that bittersweet feeling when you return to a small town," Wright said. "You sorely underestimated how much has changed. You can't stop the march of time. It's about all of those feelings, losing touch with friends and getting older."
That idea struck, Pegg said, when they were making "Hot Fuzz," their tribute to action-packed cop movies.
Filming in England's West Country where Wright and Pegg grew up, "we had experienced that strange disillusionment where everything has changed," Pegg said. "What you're trying to recapture is a time, not a place. We became obsessed with the idea, that it's like 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers.' "
So, just as their 2004 comedy "Shaun of the Dead" twisted the zombie genre for laughs and pathos, "The World's End" offers a take on the alien-invasion plot to tell a story of the horrors of turning 40.
"We've always used our genres as Trojan horses for something else," Pegg said.
Pegg's character, Gary King, is the catalyst. He is determined to reunite with his four high-school chums and trace the path of an infamous pub crawl through their hometown. The other four, though, have grown up and acquired jobs, families and middle-age spread. Only Gary is still clinging to his high-school life.
As they make their way from pub to pub, the old mates start to realize that something's decidedly off about the townsfolk. They're too nice, too perfect, too similar. When they get in a fight with some local tuffs, they realize that many of the townspeople are, in fact, robots.
The robot invasion, Wright and Pegg point out for those who need to be told, is a metaphor for turning 40, which Pegg did three years ago and Wright will do next April.
"We draw very sharp lines in the movie," Wright said. For example, at one point Gary tells his settled-down friends that "you're jealous because I'm free and you're all slaves" which is followed a few minutes later by a vocabulary lesson, as a character points out that "robot" comes from the Czech word for "slave."
Wright, Pegg and co-star Nick Frost have been friends for 20 years and have worked together constantly.
They first collaborated on the British sitcom "Spaced," which produced only 14 episodes over two seasons but remains a cult favorite. Then came "Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz" and now "The World's End," the three parts of their "Three Flavours: Cornetto Trilogy," named after a British ice-cream-cone treat that appears in each film.
In between, Wright has directed the comic-book romance "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" and co-written Steven Spielberg's animated "The Adventures of Tintin." Frost has worked extensively in British TV and co-starred with Pegg in the alien comedy "Paul," which they both wrote. Pegg has made a big splash in Hollywood action franchises, as tech expert Benjy in two "Mission: Impossible" movies and as Lt. Cmdr. Montgomery Scott aka Scotty in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" movies.
But when the three can work together, they do. "We make time, because we're best mates," Pegg said.
Wright said he and Pegg wrote the story for "The World's End" back in 2007, and it surprised him that it took four years to get the movie made. It was shot in 2011.
"In that time, though, we had gotten older, and it factored into the equation," Wright said. "What's nice is to acknowledge the fact that we're getting older. â¦ When we made 'Shaun of the Dead,' I was 29, and now this movie is about a man who's turning 40."