Clive (Nick Frost) and Graeme (Simon Pegg) are British science fiction geeks. Just so, they make a pilgrimage to Comic-Con in San Diego. Not content to spend their entire American vacation in nerd Mecca, they hop into a rented RV to tour other UFO holy sites scattered around the Southwestern U.S. and end up finding an actual alien.
Paul is a road trip movie where the landmarks are Area 51 and the black mailbox. And Clive and Graeme—until now, happiest when they’re reenacting the iconic fight scene between Captain Kirk and the Gorn—are exactly the people who should find an alien on a deserted highway. They react exactly as you’d expect. Clive passes out and pees in his pants; Graeme asks if he’s going to be anal-probed.
The alien is less what you’d expect. Paul (Seth Rogen) is rude and cynical, with perfect command of profanity-laced English developed during his 60-year stay at an undisclosed U.S. military facility. He sounds like he just walked off the set of an Apatow movie. Such behavior clashes a bit with his stereotypical alien look—vaguely greenish, big head, oval eyes, skinny, short, and draped in baggy skin. He also possesses the powers that have come to define the benign variety of extraterrestrial, like the ability to turn invisible, conduct mind melds, or bring the dead back to life.
His familiarity doesn’t make him an easy target, however. Too many recent movie parodies have showed disdain for their source material, an attitude on display repeatedly in the Scary/Epic/Date/Disaster/Whatever Movies. Paul succeeds because it respects its sources, embracing the clichés of alien movies while simultaneously subverting them. Thus, we learn that Paul looks like a Hollywood alien is because he actually is the prototype for the others and has been consulting on alien movies for years. He takes credit for everything from E.T. to Agent Mulder.
Co-writers Pegg and Frost are also responsible for Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, parodies that take similar approaches to other genres. In Paul, they take on the canon of Spielberg and Lucas to wonderful effect. Without their careful attention, this might have turned into Alien Movie. In the ‘70s, Mel Brooks had a similar run. He took aim at the Western (Blazing Saddles), Hitchcock (High Anxiety), and classic monster movie (Young Frankenstein) during a few feverish years of serious inspiration. Brooks was broadly borscht belt, where Pegg and Frost are reservedly British, but they deliver their material in similarly fresh ways.
In Paul, the references fly by faster than you can keep up with them, which will keep the true fanboy’s head spinning. Reese’s Pieces. The tune from the Star Wars cantina. Devil’s Tower. Keep an eye out for the less obvious allusions too, such as when someone pulls out the Blues Brothers line, “I’m on a mission from God.”
The comparisons between religious fervor and faith in UFOs come into view when Clive and Graeme accidentally kidnap Ruth Buggs (Kristin Wiig), a fundamentalist Christian wearing a t-shirt with Jesus shooting Darwin in the head. Granted, the debate that ensues it is hardly a fair fight, as it allows no deference to her viewpoint. But the episode provides for a defense of evolution by a three-foot-tall being who calls into question Buggs’ position on “in God’s image.”
This digression into current events doesn’t distract from Paul‘s true purpose, which is deftly dissecting the SF genre. While it checks off the usual touchstones—the government’s men in black, the earthling who is the alien’s soul mate—the movie’s attention to detail makes it great. At one point, Clive says that he hasn’t been so excited since he saw the 1988 E.T. rip-off, Mac and Me. Just wait until he sees Paul.