Paul: An Alien Too Familiar
Is the parody movie genre an inevitable handicap? I want to say, “no, of course not, what a stupid question and stupid introductory sentence.” Yet, after seeing the movie, “Paul” I can’t shake the feeling that parody is a seasoning, appropriate, even delicious, in small dosages—whereas your night is ruined if you eat a full course meal of oregano. The real probe in my ear about “Paul,” though, is that the movie is not explicitly a parody, yet the movie barely exists if you take away the audience’s pre-existing, collective, cultural memory.
The movie’s first shots are imitations of “Close Encounter’s of the Third Kind,” culminating in a crash landing and the killing of some dog. Funny? In a different world perhaps. Here, what is really accomplished? Nothing. An hour later, our effortless expert, occasionally nude, alien protagonist asks for Reese’s Pieces, ala “E.T.” This isn’t really a joke so much as it is the filmmakers nudging the audience, asking if we remember the previous friendly alien. Had Paul said anything else, it could have been characterization, thematic, insightful or plot-moving rather than an unaffecting quip. This is not to say a good movie should be stripped of jokes, but rather the jokes need a zest to them. “Paul” could have been a road trip, multi-national, stoner-comedy and still not have numerous, blunt, movie references; and had this been the case, “Paul” could, at the very least, achieve a cult following. As is, this won’t happen because why would anybody follow banality that clings to the shoulders of giants?
Story-wise, the film has a solid set-up of four different groups of people trying to catch Paul and help/stop him reaching his destination: Devil’s Tower--a parody deserving a yawn. These ensemble-type stories work best when characters are arranged and rearranged in groups throughout the story because they don’t have to like or know each but all want the same thing. “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” did this to an iconic, three-hour degree years ago. Enemies or strangers teaming up travel across county is dramatic, cinematic and hilarious. Alas, “Paul” would much rather wallow in nothingness around a campfire, at times even mocking this notion of character/plot evolution.
In fact, “Paul” uses the concept of “evolution,” but only to take awkward swipes at the religious right in America. Of course characters are allowed to be atheists and films can talk about the false dichotomy between religion and science, but movies should not be allowed to plunge into the territory with relentless ‘straw man’ attacks. The connection between God-believers and alien-believers is tentative, to where the freaking Catholic Pope has said one does not (dis)prove the other—perhaps paving the way for a startling, interstellar, Vatican confession. The lines poking at the religious characters aren’t so much jokes as they are resorts to “clapter” (def: the audience clapping in approval, not to be confused with laughter). The movie pushes this science-only, demagogue ideology into stereotype symbolism by having Paul literally correct Ruth’s vision—a sort of secular baptism.
With Ruth (played by Kristen Wigg) now an atheist-convert, the movie takes (probably unintentional) jabs at atheism, as intertwined with alien-belief. Ruth’s character development starts and ends with her now profanity-laced vocabulary. For whatever reason God doesn’t exist because Paul does and for whatever reason, because God doesn’t exist, neither does morality nor societal/language organization. More simply, she can now say curse words—though the chosen words are absent of any religious connotation. Do atheists swear more? Apparently. And they drink, smoke pot and like aliens, all things this movie would have the viewer assume is forbidden in the Christian Bible. Conversely, if these things are “immoral,” why are they treated with more sickly sincerity than say the film’s vehicular homicide? That atheism is so admittedly and nihilistically immoral in the film, one almost thinks this movie is pro-Christian (it’s really not). Ultimately, no God-believer has the self-assured intelligence to roll their eyes at the crazed musings of an alien-believer, in the film.
Fortunately, the characters are not so explicitly placed on one side of the religious discussion that they could be wearing team jerseys. No, the best friend characters (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) are actually at their best when allowed to enjoy and discuss elements of the sci-fi, alien, pop culture canon. Their enthusiasm and casual expertise showed a love for the material. “The material,” in this case, being previous alien movies, not necessarily this one. Because what is there to love? The movie, a parody/tribute/homage/lovefest to alien movies, does not add or deepen the audience’s love or intellect. Comedies can be great films so I just don’t understand how “Paul” is so determinedly ambivalent.
Making an original alien movie is not difficult, conceptually. What it really takes is just courage. Courage to say we don’t need “Star Wars” parodies. Courage to throw a curveball or to jump off a ledge because the audience knows the movie will be over in two hours and wants to remember the movie for longer. “Paul” is not a worse movie than any movie I chose not to see (“Beastly”?); for a movie’s execution can be commended while it’s concept is criticized. But “Paul” remains a deeply disappointing trudge for what should have been a fun romp.
Also, yet another alien movie fails to make use of the phrase, “What not on Earth is that?!”