Author: Jack Greenbaum
Just because you reference a whole bunch of really cool sci-fi films doesn’t mean you’ve made a really cool sci-fi film. This is the lesson I learned from watching “Paul,” the alien road-trip comedy that’s chock full of post-modern parody and pastiche but lacking in fun.
Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) are two uber-nerds who first meet at Comic-Con and love all things super: supernatural, superhero, etc. After the convention, they decide to drive cross-country, hitting up all the great American extraterrestrial landmarks. However, shortly after embarking on their trip, they have their own encounter of the third kind.
After stopping to investigate a car accident, Graeme and Clive discover that the driver Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) is a four-foot tall alien who’s broken out of a government facility. He enlists them to help him elude government agents on a high-speed chase across the country, meeting some out-of-this-world characters along the way.
The road-trip film formula is fairly straightforward: characters jump from one place to the next in search of their goal, typically with someone chasing them to speed everything up. “Paul” follows this blueprint faithfully but is even more underwhelming than traditional, cliche road-trip movies because the inclusion of an otherworldly creature fails to add anything to the story.
What wants to be a galactic send-up in the vein of “Spaceballs” winds up as a feeble excuse of homage to sci-fi films. “Paul” is rich with references to “E.T.,” “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which is fun if you’re in on the joke, but aside from that, the story is not captivating enough to hold interest.
The characters try to breathe new life into stereotypical action-adventure roles, but the lack of successful humor makes them fall flat into insipid fare. The supporting cast is extensive and includes Kristin Wiig, Bill Hader, Jason Bateman and Sigourney Weaver, but their roles are conventional, and the audience knows where the characters will end up the moment they are introduced. Even the eponymous alien and his American assimilation, supposed to impress and entertain viewers, has a trite back story and makes a few too many stale jokes.
“Paul” is not a bad movie. It has its moments, but the constant allusions to some of the greatest science fiction films of all time remind audiences that those films did it all better. In a world of fan fiction, “The Phantom Edit,” Comic-Con and Ain’t It Cool News, sci-fi aficionados have more outlets than ever to discuss and praise the work of the sci-fi genre, but making a big-budget movie should not be one of them.
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