Paul, the movie

March 25, 2011 • 10:04 am

by Greg Mayer

I saw the new sci-fi comedy Paul (official site US and UK) during its opening weekend last Saturday, and there’s a surprising amount of science vs. religion content. I’d read in some review that there was more criticism of religion in it than was customary in American films, and there sure was.

When we first encounter the lead female character, Ruth (played by Saturday Night Live’s Kristin Wiig), she is a very-young-earth creationist (she says the world is 4000 years old, rather than the standard 6000).  She is referred to as a “god botherer“, a term seldom, if ever, used in American media, and she’s wearing a t-shirt with the slogan “Evolve This”, with a picture of Jesus killing Darwin with a gunshot to the head.

As the plot develops, Ruth is deprogrammed, under the influence of, in part, the two English slacker/nerd heroes of the film (played by the comedy team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame), but, mostly, by their traveling companion Paul, who is an alien. Paul mind melds with her, thus revealing to her the universe beyond her current (limited) understanding. When we first meet Ruth, she is blind in one eye, and Paul cures her blindness. While her blindness serves a minor plot point (changing her glasses, and thus her appearance), it’s primarily a very obvious symbol of Paul’s removal of her intellectual blindness: freed of her religious blinders, she can now see the world as it is.  Her father remains a gun-toting god botherer.  After Paul saves someone’s life with his alien powers, the father yells that God is working a miracle; the daughter, now mentally free, comments about her father’s reaction, “You just can’t win with these people.”

Pegg (the new Scotty in the revived Star Trek films) and Frost play two English fanboys who are making a long anticipated trip to America to attend Comic-Con and to tour UFO hotspots (such as Area 51 and Roswell, N.M.). Along the way, they encounter a real alien, Paul, who has been on Earth for 60 years. The three go on a road trip to evade the men in black, meeting up with Ruth along the way. Pegg and Frost co-wrote the script. It is mostly a sci-fi parody, full of references to the last 40 years of sci-fi film and TV (Star Trek, Star Wars, ET, Battlestar Galactica, etc.; at one point, Nick Frost is dreaming, and says “Not now Boomer“!); and, like the best sci-fi parody ever, Galaxy Quest, it also stars Sigourney Weaver. The film had considerable opportunity to veer off into the paranoid paranormal conspiracy territory that too much of current sci-fi does (see pretty much anything on the SyFy Channel), but largely doesn’t, in part due to the anti-religious content becoming a major plot component.

The reviews have been fairly good. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 71% “fresh” rating, with a user rating of 78%. Metacritic gives it a less positive 57 out of 100, although its users give it a better 7.6 out of 10. A number of reviews I’ve read have complained of how familiar and hackneyed the characterization of the alien, Paul, is, because he’s much like every other character Seth Rogen plays, but this did not bother me, since I don’t know who Seth Rogen is. I give it a thumbs up: three stars out of four.

(I saw this in the theater, not on DVD, so I may not have recalled everything verbatim.)

Minor update: Spurred by alert readers who noted differences between the t-shirt pictured above and the one available for sale at the link I gave above (now removed), I looked into it a bit further and discovered that Jack Wallman did a redesign of the shirt from Paul, because he could not find originals: he is not the original artist. Shirts like the one pictured above, termed “Officially Licensed”, are available from a number of online retailers; just google <“evolve this” t shirt>, or see the link provided by theshortearedowl in the comments below.

47 thoughts on “Paul, the movie

  1. I strongly recommend Ricky Gervais’s films:

    The Invention of Lying
    Ghost Town

    They both take religion down a peg. Especially the invention of lying. It will bring to mind Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein, if you’ve read that (and you should!)

    1. I read _Stranger in a Strange Land_ a long, long time ago and have forgotten most of it. I will read it again; thanks for the suggestion.

    2. I was also going to recommend Invention of Lying. Watching that movie, I was struck by the anti-religious themes – as with Paul, that aspect of the movie was not AT ALL in evidence in the trailers.

    3. I liked Invention of Lying a lot.

      My favorite part is when he presents the list of Ten Things the Man in ther Sky Wants Us To Do on the backs of two Pizza Hut pizza boxes, which look uncannily like stone tablets.

      Seems to me this kind of ridicule in a mass-market vehicle must be genuinely devastating to religion in the long run. How the theocrats must long for the good old days when they could have simply burned Ricky at the stake after the first doubting remark, thus nipping the problem in the bud. Such a policy was not in place for no reason, after all, as this turn of events demonstrates.

      Yet, I think there’s knowledge now extant that’s far more devastating, to Christianity at least, that is being regrettably ignored….

  2. Greg, it’s customary to start a review like that with the words “Spoiler Alert” since you’ve given away a lot of the story and might spoil the enjoyment of someone watching it for the first time.
    By the way, there was an interview recently on the Mark Kermode podcast (Hi to Jason Isaacs!) with the stars and writers of the film who mentioned that they had included a lot more religion in the original cut but the studio asked them to remove most of it!

    1. That sounds interesting, perhaps we can look forward to an uncut version DVD.

      That remninds me of the uncut version DVD of Team American, World Police, the marionette movie from the South Park guys. I saw there was an uncut version DVD, and really had to wonder what could have poosibly been so awful that they had to cut it out, after seeing what the left in. So I asked my nephew. (Spoiler Alert!) In the theatrical release, there is an explicit (marionette) sex scene between the two main protagonists, at the end of which the marionette woman says, “Nothing could ruin this moment,” then the movie cuts to the next scene. On the uncut DVD, the scene continues, the male then takes a giant steamer on her chest.

      Just had to share that. You’re welcome.

  3. The writers are British so the anti-religious humour is no surprise.

    I’ve never heard of Seth Rogen either. At first the accent grated but you soon get used to it.

    1. One of the characters in _City Homicide_, an Australian television drama series, uses the term “god botherer”in a recent episode. I was surprised but pleased to hear the term used.

    2. ** The writers are British so the anti-religious humour is no surprise. **

      that’s why ..
      Britishers are E.T.s

      if one thinks everything is created by GOD than tell me who has created GOD . .

  4. I loved this movie! I’ve been meaning to blog about it or something since I saw it last weekend.

    What was weird for me was watching it as a Brit in West Virginia – the anti-religious sentiments wouldn’t be considered even out-of-mainstream in the UK, but it was quite refreshing here.

    1. Well, in America it is considered offensive for humans to criticize religion, so alien surrogates are used for that purpose.

      1. That’s because Christians are narrow minded sheep that follow anything they are told and think that the world is only 4000 years old and refuse to open their mind to any other possibilities because they are afraid to be wrong. Rude enough for ya!?!

    2. Well seeing how this is supposed to be a scifi parody making the alien humanoid is kind of the point, wouldn’t you say?

  5. Simon Pegg is an out atheist, so no surprise there. I’m a big fan of Pegg and Frost and plan on hitting the movie this weekend if I can. I also like Seth Rogen, but he’s really been worn out lately.

  6. Sounds promising, I might go and see it this weekend. If a mainstream movie can use a term like “god botherer”, then maybe there is hope for mankind !

  7. The “evolve this” t-shirt is hilarious (taken in the proper spirit, of course). However, the quality of the art in the thumbnail you show here seems to be much better than the art on the shirt you linked to.

    1. I linked to the site that seemed to be associated with the artist. The artwork on various t shirt versions available online does differ. I don’t know why. Is anyone familiar with other work by Jack Wallman? Update: see minor update to post for further info.


  8. Pretty good show. Took my wife to it tonight and she liked it too.

    The chick in the movie doesn’t cuss/swear properly in the beginning, but gets better later on. :-).

    I give it a 3.75 out of 5 fat c*cks 🙂

  9. I saw this last weekend as well. The reviews I had seen were mediocre but I chanced it anyway. Besides, I don’t often agree with movie critics. I am glad I took the risk because I really enjoyed it. It has been a long time since a movie made me laugh out loud.

    I didn’t know who Seth Rogen was either, so I found the Paul character to be quite funny.

    I was not expecting the religious content, and at some points in the film I was a bit scared. I am working out of town at the moment, in an extremely religious and conservative small town in western North Carolina. There are giant white crosses all around town with sayings like “Jesus died for you” and “the blood of Christ is on you”. So as Paul is schooling Ruth on her religious beliefs, and similar points throughout the movie, the entire movie theater would be dead silent, except for me laughing out loud. I hope I didn’t offend anyone too much.

    1. That’s very interesting. I wonder what thoughts are going through those persons’ heads during that period of non-laughter, and whether there is a long-term effect. This is not how it was in the days of my youth. I remember Charleton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments. There was not the slightest moment of doubt, even, let alone ridicule, present there. That’s the proper way to keep the Youth of America thinking right! Who knows what the long-term implications of such expressions of doubt in mass media will have on our impressionable youth? Dire tidings indeed for the religionists, they must surely be aware, ha ha.

  10. Dr. Greg Mayer, thanks for the review, and you have caused me to be interested in this movie when I probably wouldn’t have been otherwise. On an OT note, though, what you said about Paul curing Ruth’s vision problem being an obvious metaphor for removing her religious blinders makes me think youy might enjoy reading what Joseph Atwill has to say about the canonical gospels of the New Testament being satirical depictions of events from the military campaign of the Roman caesar Titus Flavius in crushing the first Jewish rebellion in the late 60s to early 702 CE. Note that Titus is the unique individual who fulfills the biblical Jesus’ prophecy that a “Son of Man” will encircle and lay low Jerusalem, and raze the temple so that no stone is upon another. This should be the first clue that maybe the meaning of the gospels is being deliberately misrepresented (with respect to some future “Second Coming,” in particular). (Also, he does it while some of those who would have been present at the prophesizing would have been yet living. In other words, the Second Coming happened right on cue, 2000 years ago, because that is the major point of the gospel story.) It turns out that many of the most major events of the gospels, the ones even non- or the most casual former Christians have heard about, like the fishing for men, demoniac(s) of Gadara, the Good Samaritan, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the kurfuffle with the moneylenders, and on, can be related in a fairly obvious (but always slightly obscured, just enough to throw the humorless off the trail, and to give it the necessary plausible deniability) fashion to the major events of Titus’ campaign, as described in (Flavius) Josephus’ War of the Jews. Furthermore, the ordering of these events is preserved between the two sources (the canonical gospels on the one hand and Josephus on the other), making it extremely unlikely for them to be accidental or haphazard later insertions.

    Seems to me a major part of the apparent power of the gospels is that they seem to have some hidden and deep meaning that can’t quite be pinned down. Atwill has revealed it all by simply noticing that Josephus decodes it, and it is quite astonishing, I think. More importantly, it’s very valuable knowledge that should not be overlooked by those who would not mind if Christianity went the way of Odinism.

    Unfortunately the book is currently out of print, but can be doiwnloaded for freee from esnips:—Caesars-Messiah—The-Roman-Conspiracy-to-Invent-Jesus

    There is a new electronic edition that costs $12 from Scribd, that has a long new chapter, of 34 close and in-line parallels between G. Luke and Josephus, that Atwill calls the “Flavian Signature.” He says it will end Christianity, and I think he’s right, provided it isn’t crushed out of existence somehow. The question is then will it be sooner or later. I think the gnu atheists can and should use it. It is simply obviously true, seems to me. We don’t need the likes of R. Joseph Hoffman to determine for us if it’s true or not. As far as truth is concerned, we have now seen he doesn’t have anything particularly to do with it.

  11. You know, the language used here proves my point I am always ridiculed for. The people who hate Religion are really themselves Religious Fundamentalists. yes I know, you lot are Atheists, Atheism is not a Religion, you think for yourselves… yet you all say the same things and have a clearly defined belief system that is shared amongst you and that obviously derives from earlier cultural developments.

    Really, you have a Religion yourselves. And part of this Religion says that Religion is bad, so you don’t call yourselves Religious and call those who are blinked fools. The Science VS Religion Theme and Slack Jawed Christian Morons in this film really fit into the accepted narrative too, because Religion is really just Christianity the majority of the time.

    But, the depictions of Christianity in the film are wrong. Even the Young Earth Creationism is wrong, or its reference to Intelligent Design.

    It is also wrong for Paul to say “My existence doesn’t disprove Religion, just all Judeo-Christian Denominations” as if all Christendom (and Judaism) hinges on Life being unique to Earth. A Funny thing to say as most Churches, and notably the Vatican, really say the opposite. (Also, why would a Fundamentalist Young Earth Family have a Catholic Depiction of Jesus on their Wall?)

    Ruth was just a Strawman, an Image of what Christians are in the minds of those who want to feel superior.

    If this film and others in recent distribution do have an impact, or will only be to increase ignorance and bigoted hatred base don said Ignorance. It won’t free minds, or make people think for themselves, it will lead them away from learning what people really believe in and towards a ridged Religious Dogmatism that simply masks itself as Freethought and reason, but that actually has a tightly controlled Orthodoxy that refuses to allow itself to be Questioned. It also teaches that Mockery and insolence are a good way to win an argument, which surely is Unhealthy.

    1. Wrong. Just plain wrong. You also do not represent all Christians nor do you know what we have each seen relating to religion in our individual lives, so you have no basis to claim otherwise. And lastly, it is a film. It is fiction–just like the Bible. Films live and die by the strength of their story and how well that story is told, not on how well they fit reality.

  12. Let me respont in Bullet Point.

    1: I never claimed to represent anyone here.

    2: You are still all basically in agreement to a shared Philosophical understanding of the world. This is why I say you are all really followers of the same Religion, not really Freethinkers as you think.

    3: Do you really think its cute to say the Bible is fiction? At this point its just Trite. I mean, it doesn’t make you look cleaver to repeat this cobbler, and its fairly obvious that anyone who says “The Bible is Fiction’ is ignorant of what the Bible even is. Its not even a single book, and no one whose studied it, including Atheists (Like Bart Ehrman, who I have read, by the way) would call it “Fiction”.

    Its this sort of Childish barb that really reduces the claim to intellectual superiority to me.

    4: The “It’s just Faction’ excuse for the movie doesn’t undermine my point. If there was a movie out that was attacking Atheists in the same way this one did Christians you’d be up in arms complaining and this blog would be writing lengthy rants about it.

    Its an excuse.

    This movie is like any other in media, it may be Fiction but conveys actual ideas. And the ideas are still rooted in an infantile need to use profane language for no real reason and to mock something that someone else believes In, using that sort of cheap mockery as a substitute for being serious or even really intelligent about it.

    5: My comment about the Christianity this film depicts are still Strawmen. I do not know, nor do I care, what sort of Christians you’ve been around. I’d bet my bottom Dollar that not all Christians you’ve ever met all act the same, much less like he ones in this film.

    I’d also bet good money that you know full well that most Christians do not really reflect the behaviours depicted here, even in a tamer way, allowing for comedic licence to exaggerate.

    I mean, come on! Jesus shooting Darwin in the Head? Is that really something you think the Average Christian would wear? Please don’t bring up Westboro Baptists, I want to know of you think that’s a fair depiction of Christianity in general.

    Or, have you really heard the whole “Blasphemous Theory of Evolution’ comment from a real person?

    Its simply a boring Caricature.

    6: Which leads me to my central point. The idea that Science and Religion are at odds is mythical. Its not a reality, but a culturally accepted Truism. Faith is not blind belief in things you have no evidence for, Intelligent Design is not the same as Pure creationism, no one thinks the Earth is 4000 years Old, Even Young Earth creationists, Christians aren’t entirely restricted an sheltered and living oppressed, Miserable lives, nor do all Christians have a problem with life elsewhere, so his comment about his existence disproving all Judeo-Christian Denominations makes no sense, nor do all Christians reject Evolutionary Theory for that matter.

    This films depiction of Christianity is shallow, and is nothing but a cheap embodiment of how Militant Atheist depict Christians, with no attempt at a realistic or fair picture.

    The fact that you enjoy this sort of thing only proves that this is more about supporting your prejudices, because its not really funny to mock and degrade someone in a spiteful or mean spirited way.

    1. You claimed to know that there are no such things as “slack jawed Christian morons” when in fact I have met plenty of them, and from Pharyngula I have known theists who readily rely on the tactic, as you do for the makers of Paul, of telling me that I couldn’t have seen what I saw in a Christian who was standing right in front of me! It is utter hypocrisy to tell us that what we have experienced directly is false while you Christians are running around with your totally unevidenced belief that your god is real.

      As for telling atheists that we have a religion, all that does is mark you as an ignoramous, which is something that can be overcome and a dictionary may help in this case. Coming to the same conclusion (that gods are not real) does not equate to a religion.

      And it isn’t cute to say that the Bible is fiction; it is plainly fiction with everything from men that live for centuries and parthenogenesis to ceaselessly burning bushes, nimble zombies, ghosts, and monsters. Bart Ehrman’s best known example of this is how you can read the Gospels in parallel and find significant differences, meaning the stories play fast and loose with the facts: fiction.

      As for the film hurting your feelings, you really should get over it. Christians playing the victim card is getting old, about as old as Christians accusing atheism or science of being a religions.

      #5: There you go again! You even name one of the most infamous group of godbots, the Phelpses. NEWSFLASH: The Westboro Baptist Church is a real church in the USA! They have protested me to my face! I laughed in theirs! And if you believe in Hell and are a Christian, you are on their side no matter how nice you are.

      #6: Well, you are wrong again. There are Christians we call “young earth creationists” who really do think that time began only 4000 years before the supposed appearance of Christ. Intelligent Design is creationism; this has been proven in a court of law in the USA. Science and religion are at fundamental odds, and you came to the right website to learn more about that (search around some here in the history and learn; Jerry Coyne has written beautifully about it). Christians do not and cannot view evolution as entirely unguided or undirected given their belief in being special pets of a deity, so while a Christian might accept evolution almost completely, there is always a catch (see Ken Miller or Francis Collins for more on that). And if aliens are real, then that does blow the entire foundation of Christianity out of the water, doesn’t it? Or will Christianity simply evolve?

      I haven’t seen Paul, but OK, it is shallow and you didn’t like it. So what? Move on.

  13. twice i have seen PaUL so far…and intend another tomorrow…and then another…later when finances permit here in n.c., usa. touching his left brow at the beginning I HEARD ! as my fun Aunt Julia used to say with Julia Child’s accent-“Say No More!” depth speechless, I am.

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