Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy wasn’t necessarily meant to be a trilogy at all. But what started out as a running joke soon became a way of referring to, and thus defining, a mostly undefinable series of films– and I mean that in the best way possible. Yes, there are consistencies across the three films– everything from recurring visual gags (Simon Pegg jumping over and knocking down fences, for example) to themes of friendship and community. But, of course, the primary characteristic that’s consistent in each installment of the trilogy is its homage structure– Shaun of the Dead (2004) is a self-pronounced zombie romcom, while Hot Fuzz (2007) plays with action movie tropes and cop character types, and most recently, The World’s End (2013) provides us with a Body Snatchers-esque sci-fi flick. This truly is a trilogy of three flavors, but what I find most interesting is the ice cream itself– the way Wright uses homage as a means of human storytelling, elevating and reinventing these alleged lower culture forms of entertainment by referencing them so smartly and reverently. What this amounts to is a new cinematic ice cream like no other, whose flavors are somehow both familiar and unique.
For whatever reason (or combination of reasons) these films never felt like parody or recreation, but something more. And the legacy in ten short years has certainly already proven this. Starting with Shaun of the Dead, Wright sets quite the precedent, proving genre boundaries to be permeable and flexible by permeating and flexing those boundaries through his use of hilarious British humor. Plus, these genre homages seem to exist not purely for the sake of homage but, again, for furthering human characters’ stories and conveying themes. Shaun of the Dead succeeds at ushering in a new era of zombie themed comedies, but only Shaun of the Dead features a zombie smacking scene set to a Queen song in a pub that serves as both relationship deal-breaker and apocalyptic safe haven. Shaun of the Dead also references zombie tropes as a way of commenting on the banal, mundane, repetitive nature of the workweek routine, as Shaun yawns, stretches, and shambles– seeming like a zombie even more when he joins the similarly shuffling masses. It is the perfect balance between zombie cliches as humor, zombie cliches as allegory, and zombie cliches as backdrop for human characters’ stories that makes this film a fun, fresh, fascinating formula that is adhered to and built upon by Wright in his next two films.
Hot Fuzz continues the tradition with Pegg in the lead role again, this time as a cop who takes himself and his job too seriously for the small, country town in England where he is transferred. Nick Frost co-stars again as the bumbling buffoon, and cheesy cop capers become the framework for their eventual odd couple friendship as mysterious and comically brutal murders take place. Arguably even lower on the generic totem pole than horror, police procedural tropes support this film in even more sophisticated and satisfying ways– such simple nods as the shooting-while-diving trick are used perfectly.
Arguably his most mature film of the three, Wright’s final installment, The World’s End takes its time and develops its human characters and their relationships with care and poise before ever getting to its genre elements– proof that Wright is not solely concerned with empty genre homage but with something greater. He also swaps character types here, with Pegg in the lead still but in the more reckless, obnoxious role– though still endearing and lovable, just as Frost always manages to be– and Frost as one of a few straight-laced friends. Like in Shaun of the Dead, our would-be saviors are often drunk, even more so here as these friends reunite to attempt an epic pub crawl from their youths, and thus like Hot Fuzz, they seem ill-fit to fight their foes– androids who bleed blue and the aliens who replaced the townspeople with robots. For all of Wright’s admittedly brilliant genre references, what is truly impressive to me is his emphasis on and love for his human characters and the celebration of their very humanity, even (or especially) in the face of the far-fetched or supernatural. While Shaun of the Dead is still my favorite of the three films, it is the climax of The World’s End that drives this point home for me– these characters are us, or they may as well be, and they reflect how we might react to similarly preposterous generic situations.
So, clearly Edgar Wright is a master of the genre homage, but he is also a master of great storytelling. These three films are entertaining and smart, and for most people, they are indeed fun genre homages . But upon repeat viewings of all three, it becomes harder to ignore the fact that genre homage is too simplistic a categorization. If these films were merely referential, they wouldn’t be nearly as special. It’s the way Wright uses homage to test his characters, and the way these tropes allow characters to grow and for themes to emerge. And, like sprinkles on ice cream, the use of humor effectively enhances these elements. There may never be another set of films like Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy– but these films will remain classic, uncontested examples of how to pay homage to genres like horror, science-fiction, and action in a way that is meaningful and funny and somehow unique all at the same time.