About halfway through the second act of my pre-screening of Paul there was a sound error, and the dialogue and soundtrack of the movie became accompanied by a sort of droning, thumping, static sound. At first we thought it was part of the film, but after a few scenes without any justification we determined otherwise. The sound continued unabated for about half an hour, sometimes growing so loud that it was actually impossible to tell what the characters were saying. This might have been a problem, but I found that with Paul, it didn’t actually matter much. No one was saying anything so complicated that it couldn’t be deduced though body language and context. It’s too bad, because Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s previous works (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) both demand to be torn apart word-for-word to root out all the layers of comedy. Paul ditches the high-concept premise and instead becomes a crass homage to science fiction movies without ever being more than a momentary distraction.
Paul begins at San Diego Comic-Con, the first of its many fan services. Graeme and Clive (played by writers Pegg and Frost) are on vacation and taking a road trip to see all the famous UFO sightings in America. Instead, an actual alien crashes a car in front of them. Paul, a wise-cracking little green man, greets them with a snide remark and quickly convinces Pegg to drive to a remote location in Wyoming so that he can get back home. From there the film becomes a race to the finish line, with special agent Jason Bateman hot on Paul’s tail. Various events occur before the end of the movie; we meet Kristen Wiig as a one-eyed Bible-thumper who abruptly becomes a scientific objectivist after Paul uses his convenient healing powers to fix her eye and transfers his collective memory to her brain (don’t ask). Then there are some explosions, some pathos as Paul apologizes to an elderly woman for accidentally killing her dog in the prologue, and then everybody’s running to Forest Clearing A, where Paul uses some store-bought fireworks to signal a mothership the size of New York City. Sigourney Weaver cameos as the villainess, because she’s like a sci-fi staple now, and Paul saves the day by reincorporating his well-established healing powers.
I don’t really know where to start with this movie. I’m really disappointed in Pegg and Frost, who I thought were a lot smarter than this. Compared to their previous work, Paul flat-out sucks. There’s virtually no character development between anyone. Peripheral characters are either unfunny stereotypes or just unfunny. The writing feels bland and lazy, so much so that the same “joke” will be repeated three times with the only variation being that a different person said it at a different time. It doesn’t help that the film’s definition of a jok is creative profanity. The flimsy plot, which never gets beyond a manic “escape the baddies” chase, makes sense only until you actually scrutinize it, upon which it collapses from its own weight. And while the film heaps on the nerd homages, as a science fiction story it’s embarrassingly short-sighted. There’s potential in the script for something worth watching, but they never got past the first glimmer of an idea.
That’s pretty much all you need to know. I’m going to go in depth to the above points, so if you’re not interested in the process just skip to the bottom where I’ve conveniently distilled the film’s qualities into an amount of stars.
The film’s protagonist and main relationship character are naturally, Pegg and Frost. This is fine, and expected, and while it’s disappointing that Frost isn’t given the lead as was originally planned (wonder who axed that one) it’s a false distinction since neither of them really have any agency whatsoever. So they’re friends, one’s a writer and one illustrates science fiction novels. But the film is called Paul, which is neither of them, so how does he fit into the film? Well, the film tries to make him the source of conflict between them. Frost is a little more freaked out by the alien, a little more untrusting. This is kind of hard to believe because literally any nerd would gladly cut off a finger to be in his shoes, but could still work if they had backed it up with some characterization (perhaps his knowledge of science fiction leads him to be suspicious of Paul’s motives?). Instead he’s just a wet blanket. Frost comes around to Paul but becomes jealous of Pegg who, as the protagonist, gets the romantic interest. And Paul bonds with him over that, so everyone’s good and we can go into the climactic action sequence without any lingering uncertainty hanging over our heads.
I’ve compiled a theory that Frost’s character is actually written as gay and secretly pining for Pegg. There are homophobia jokes galore, enough to beg further justification. And honestly, it would completely explain Frost’s resentment and complaints that the trip was supposed to be “just the two of them.” It would even resonate with the themes of fraternal geek culture that Paul tries so hard to embody. But in the end that possibility is left unresolved. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was written in and then cut by the producers for being too “controversial”. I guess nerd audiences are okay with jokes about being perceived as gay, but to actually have a gay character (excluding the self-proclaimed bisexual Paul) would hit too close to home.
Pegg and Frost clearly had something going on with this nerds-encounter-an-alien plot. It has all the elements of their previous genre-bender films, only this time for science fiction. There’s even a formula for us to follow. At first common tropes are undermined amusingly, but they are eventually embraced and reincorporated in the end of the film. It seems like that’s what they tried to do, but for various reasons it doesn’t work, the main one being that they don’t have any kind of investment in the science-fiction portion of the story.
Science fiction is supposed to be about speculating on the vast possibilities of the universe, and what makes a close-encounter story compelling is the chance to interact with an intelligent organism entirely different from humanity. Paul the Alien is basically your college roommate inside the body of a squat grey midget.
The explanation for why his personality is so abrasive is that he’s lived on Earth for 60 years and evidently maturity or tact are qualities less enlightened species are burdened with. His explanation for why his biology is so stereotypical is dismissed as a subconscious conditioning program dispersed through the human population over the years in order to keep humans from freaking out should they ever make contact. This does nothing to explain why he’s humanoid in the first place– I guess because the answer is, “it was convenient.” That’s the answer for pretty much every interesting question the film poses.
Why does Paul have godlike powers of healing, invisibility and telekinesis? He’s the title character for the film, but by the end we know virtually nothing about him. We know nothing of his race, where they come from or what their society is like. All we know is that we have to get somewhere to shoot off fireworks so that the massive, invisible alien mother ship will know where to pick him up. The ship only poses more questions. Did they drive all the way from Alpha Centauri to rendezvous with Paul? Or were they always there? Are they upset that the USA was interested in killing one of their citizens to harvest its stem cells? What kind of diplomatic relations does the government have with these guys, anyways? No one knows, because the movie doesn’t bother to address any of these questions.
You might say (Russ I’m looking at you), that I’m overly scrutinizing what’s just supposed to be a lighthearted romp through some old science fiction tropes. But is it too much to ask that a film riffing off of science fiction actually do its homework? If I can come up with these few questions just sitting here at my computer, couldn’t two guys actually faced with a real-live alien do at least as well? They’re poor representatives of nerd culture if they can’t approach a close encounter with at least a hint of skepticism.
Posted by Sam Julian