Simon Pegg and his pals Nick Frost and Edgar Wright are not only fabulous and hilarious filmmakers: they represent the ethos of the geek, and are therefore tremendously important cultural figures. In 2004, these Brits half-stumbled-half-exploded onto the film scene with their zombie parody Shaun of the Dead and it was met with nearly universal praise. Since then, Pegg has made several more genre parodies: Hot Fuzz, Paul, and The World’s End (he even played Scotty in the recent Star Trek reboot), giving him perhaps the strongest claim to the throne of the geek kingdom.
It is a recent phenomenon, largely spurned on by the existence of the Internet (but that’s another discussion entirely), that “geek culture” has emerged from the basement and become acceptable, and even cool. In its most romantic classification, the geek is identified by cultural effusiveness, nostalgia, and non-ironic devotion to current and bygone cultural artifacts. Here is Pegg’s oft-quoted explanation:
“Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.”
To be honest about this sort of adoration is to admit the enormity of a niche in your own life and its humorous smallness in the grand scheme of things. Each of his films is set in a painfully plain context from Pegg’s humdrum upbringing, from the drone of city life to the quiet English countryside to the milquetoast suburbs. When Pegg actually lived as a young geek in such places, his affections turned to supernatural and heroic stories.
In an interview with Marc Maron, Pegg called himself a child of popular culture. He described Star Wars as changing his whole perspective on culture and media. On the silver screen, Pegg takes on fantasy villains in his hometown; he imports the imagination of George Lucas into his simple circumstances. From the zombies in Shaun, to killer robots in The World’s End, to a secret cult of serial killers in Hot Fuzz, he brings all his dorky Hollywood nostalgia into the places where real-life geeks live and work. Along the way he lampoons genres, film tropes, British culture, and most poignantly, himself.
Contrast that with Scary Movie or its many horrible derivations (Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Superhero Movie, etc. ad infinitum). Scary Movie lacks real characters and affection for the genres it attempts to satirize. Those films lack a geeky mentality toward themselves and toward their genre. They rework the surfaces of other films rather than getting into the deep logic of a genre. As a result, they are less funny, less interesting, and generally bad films. In the words of Michael McKean (co-writer and co-star of “mockumentary” films like Spinal Tap, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind), “We couldn’t make fun of these topics if we didn’t truly love and revere them.”
Shaun of the Dead faithfully adhered to the formula of the great George Romero zombie classics Day of the Dead and Dawn of the Dead, but jokingly focused on the charming, admittedly inane relationships of the characters instead of the struggle against zombies. Where Romero used zombies as a device to critique Capitalism and Consumerism, Pegg and Wright used zombies to joke about the genre itself, and their own depressing lives.
Shaun, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End focus on humanness and culture in the face of sensational action, and in many ways, that’s what drives the comedy. Frost and Pegg’s characters remain largely unfazed by the turmoil around them, preoccupied with drinking beer, how best to channel the spirit of Keanu Reeves in Point Break as a reference point for good police work, or deciding which vinyl records are disposable enough to be thrown at a zombies as a weapon (Purple Rain? “No!” The Batman Soundtrack? “Throw it.”)
Nostalgia, unfortunately, can limit as much as it can inspire. All of Pegg’s protagonists are driven by something they once had but cannot get back, whether that be their youth, their girlfriend, or their job. In The World’s End, Pegg, Frost, and their other 40-something friends go home to finish an epic pub crawl they couldn’t finish in high school. It turns impressively dark in the scenes when Gary (Pegg) is confronted by his ex-buddy about his pettiness and his alcoholism.
In Pegg’s complex psychological profile of the geek, perhaps the most compelling idea is that all of his villains threaten to homogenize. Tellingly, the first hint that their hometown has been overrun by robots is that all the colorful, unique pubs of yesteryear have been “Starbucks’d” into an identical chain of pubs. Pierce Brosnan’s character reasons with them, “[The robots are] here to straighten us out, to prepare us for the big league… And guess what? They want us along for the ride! Pretty cool, huh?” Behind the veneer of the robots’ normalcy, their Britishisms, and their niceness, there’s something sinister. It’s just like the cordial townspeople in Hot Fuzz with murderous night jobs who offer Pegg and Frost life if (and only if) they join the cult. The most obvious manifestation of homogenization is the image of the zombie hoard in Shaun of the Dead mindlessly devouring, short-circuiting brainwaves, and forcing their victims to join the group.
The plight of the geek is to resist homogeneity and to cling unflinchingly to his collection of shitty records. That plight is actually much cooler than clinging to something cool. Pegg’s geekiness is like punk that is too punk to be hip. And now, with the rising acceptance of geeks in the mainstream, the plight becomes more complex: like all subcultures, won’t geeks lose some of their realness if Hollywood likes them? Will that spurn on a new derivative form of nostalgia for a time when dorky nostalgia wasn’t cool? Are you still a geek if you’re a geek at a time when it’s respectable to effusively love Sci-Fi?
Regardless of abstract wondering, these films embody the mind of the geek in vivid and hilarious detail. The nostalgia is palpable, but not obnoxious. The characters are sad, but not quite pathetic. The laugh lines are ridiculous, but not overblown. Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and especially The World’s End walk a razor-thin line between stupid and brilliant, and somehow manage not to teeter. As a microcosm of geek-acceptance in pop culture, their movies are partially comforting and partially awkward, but also sincerely relatable and honest to their own geekiness.