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.