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March 19, 2011

If you could distill science-fiction film fanservice into a tangible form, it would probably look a lot like Paul. From start to finish it’s packed with geek culture references. Given Seth Rogen’s involvement (and director Greg Mottola’s), it’s also full of stoner, dick-and-fart humor. Unfortunately, once you get past those two categories there’s not very much room left for anything else.

We open on comic-book writer and illustrator team Clive Gollings and Graeme Willy (Nick Frost, and Simon Pegg, who also wrote the screenplay) attending the San Diego Comic-Con, which has been their lives’ dreams since growing up in England. After a few scenes of them indulging their geeky hearts’ desires, they rent an RV and take off for a tour of America’s UFO hotspots. They don’t make it any farther than the infamous “black mailbox” near Rachel, Nevada before almost-literally bumping into Paul (voiced by Rogen), an alien on the run from the nearby Area 51.

Paul is being followed by a ruthless Man in Black (Jason Bateman), along with two rookies (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio), all taking their orders from a mysterious female voice on the radio (Sigourney Weaver), out to return him to government custody. Trying to avoid this fate, Graeme, Clive, and Paul hide out in an RV park overnight, and inadvertently kidnap the fundamentalist manager’s daughter (Kristen Wiig), which brings the manager himself (John Carroll Lynch) onto their tail as well. They have to avoid all these all these pursuers while trying to get back to a rendezvous point where Paul can be rescued.

Along the way, we run into one sci-fi reference after another. Not only do Graeme and Clive live and breathe this stuff — their t-shirts alone pay homage to a half-dozen classics — but line after line name-checks some moderately obscure reference that geeks in the audience are sure to pick up on. And the story actively involves itself in geek culture as well; along with advising the government on advanced technology, Paul was evidently the one who gave Steven Spielberg the idea of E.T.’s healing touch.

Now, I want to be clear that this isn’t just studio geeksploitation going on. It’s clear that everyone involved really does love fandom themselves. The references aren’t just tacked on haphazardly; they come from people who understand and enjoy their sources, and use this common cultural language as a marker of shared community.

But what if you’re not part of that community? If you don’t light up the moment you see Devils Tower or the Vasquez Rocks appear on-screen, there’s a lot that’s going to fall flat. I’m not even sure the latest generation of fandom has even watched half of the movies I recognized, so even within that community it may well mark the creators as old-timers. I can only imagine how the public at large would react.

The Rogen/Mottola axis of involvement does try to make up for it with a lot of stoner-comedy humor, aided and abetted by Wiig’s standard awkwardly-bawdy character. Don’t get me wrong: it isn’t that it’s overwhelming or beyond-the-pale in any way, but once you strip away the fandom references this just isn’t enough to support a movie on its own.

Overall, if you’re not a geek I think you’ll be lost and probably bored by the sense that you’re not in on the joke. On the other hand, if you are a geek you’ll probably have fun picking out references and generally being pandered to. But it would be even more fun to get a bunch of friends together around a DVD to laugh it up than it would be to watch this in the theater. After all, the best parts are ultimately about being part of a community, and they’d be best enjoyed as part of that community.

Also I’m pretty sure it would make one hell of a geeky drinking game, and drinking would probably help to enjoy the movie even more.

Worth It: Probably not as a theatrical event, unless you’re really into geek culture for its own sake.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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