“Paul” is Out of This World

Courtesy of Universal Studios

By the end of “Paul,” you’ll think a little alien has felt you. For a film that meditates on the mediation of human experience through fantasy and technology, as well as on the many scales and meanings of exploration, that’s a real accomplishment.

To be sure, the film offers all of the thrills of a fish-out-of-water, sci-fi, action-comedy chase film through the eccentricities and attractions of America’s southwestern flyover states, but the film is, and (sometimes) isn’t, much more.

This latest outing from British cult superheroes, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz”), is a loving, lively homage to the tropes, quirks and smirks of science fiction film and fandom, and offers a genuinely touching reiteration of the old moral that, to borrow from the film, “sometimes it’s good to feel a little alien.”

An appropriate moral for the film itself, which is torn between two sides of the Atlantic: a British comedy wrung through the American film industry. Pegg and Frost, as Graeme Willy and “the writer” Clive Gollings, two British nerds on holiday in the USA, negotiate American filmmaking as valiantly as their characters negotiate the charred backwaters of UFO country, although neither pair is left unscathed.

Graeme and Clive plan an RV tour of America’s UFO hotspots, from Area 51 in Nevada to Roswell, New Mexico and get on their way. But their first stop is at Vasquez Rocks in the California desert, a beautiful tribute to Captain Kirk’s fight with the Gorn in the “Arena” episode of Star Trek.

The trip hits a snag when they meet Paul, an escaped alien running for his life from government agents. The three bond, more or less, and then meet Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), a sheltered paleo-Christian cyclops who is liberated (fitfully) by a mind-meld with Paul and joins the trio on their quest to get Paul home, adding an ingénue’s vulgarity to the mix. A formulaic plot, no doubt, but the genius of the film is the mileage Pegg, Frost and director Greg Mottola (“Superbad”) get from the conventions of the several genres they work through.

The titular little grey man is brought to life by Double Negative, the Oscar-winning team behind “Inception,” with such organic ease that it’s easy to forget he’s CGI. It is, however, hard to ignore Seth Rogen’s presence as Paul. Rogen (“Observe and Report,” “The Green Hornet”) is an odd choice for Paul, who too often comes off as the stoned slacker that Rogen himself so frequently plays in interviews. In the time-honored tradition of studio attempts to broaden the appeal of (i.e. to dumb down) a film, the casting of Rogen as Paul cynically undermines the ethos of a film anchored by the unbridled sincerity and humanism of nerd culture.

The rest of the cast is stellar, featuring a batch of America’s finest comic and character actors. Jeffrey Tambor steals his scenes in a guest role that recalls his revelatory work as a big deal trapped in a minor celebrity’s body on The Larry Sanders Show.

Jane Lynch (“Glee”) and John Carroll Lynch as a deep-fried diner waitress and an evangelical RV camp proprietor, respectively, play their characters with a generosity rarely reserved for the flotsam of Middle America. The trio of FBI agents chasing Paul and co. — Jason Bateman, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio — are a pleasant set of comic foils, and Sigourney Weaver also shows up to squeeze big laughs out of a small role (similar to her recent appearance in the slept on and hilarious “Cedar Rapids”).

The attention to detail — from the re-creation of Comic-Con to the country-western version of a Star Wars’ cantina theme to an “Aliens” reference that almost knocked me out of my seat — offers the most rewards for the careful viewer, and what is a sci-fi fan if not a careful viewer? All of Pegg and Frost’s works have understood the value, personal and cultural, of proper referencing, and “Paul” is no exception.

On that score, the film, like its characters, works to authentically embody the magic of science fiction story-telling. Such disparate luminaries of modern humanism as Steven Spielberg (who has a delightful off-screen cameo) and Charles Darwin (their rented RV is The Traveller Beagle, a nod to the HMS Beagle aboard which Darwin travelled the world) are marshaled to comment on the nature of exploration.

Complicating the adage that the journey is more important than the destination, the film quietly foregrounds the ways we make sense of our explorations. From Ruth’s religion to Paul’s science to Graeme and Willy’s sci-fi fantasy to the ubiquitous digital cameras, everyone in the film has a way of mediating experience, of putting some belief or technology between what is happening and their perception of what is happening.

Thankfully, the film is faithful to the lessons of science fiction fandom, reveling in, rather than condemning, this mediation. As “Paul” shows us, the ways we mediate experience, “Paul” shows us, are as important as our experiences, and they are what really allow us to feel, and be felt by, a little alien.

Rating: 5/5 Stars