Both written by and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Paul‘s success was always going depend to quite some extent on their interplay. Luckily, we know from Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz that they can make a great blend. If there was any question of this smooth mix being repeated here, it was down to their off-screen collaborator, Edgar Wright, no longer being part of the recipe.
The new gooseberries at this date would be Greg Mottola, off-screen, and Seth Rogen… well, actually, also off-screen, but manifest on-screen in the CG guise of Paul the alien.
This is a different style of filmmaking for Mottola, almost entirely. There are stunts, there are widescreen compositions intended to awe, there is beauty lighting. Sadly, it’s not a transition he’s made perfectly smoothly.
But that’s just the skin. The character interplay is what you’ll take away from the film, and that’s where Mottola, Pegg and Frost all excel.
There were two major hurdles bringing Paul the alien to the screen. Firstly, Seth Rogen could not be on set to provide his voice to the rest of the cast. This was lept adroitly (but more on that in my interview with Mottola, coming soon). The second is the perennial issue with CG creations – making them look like they’re there, that they’re solid, but also thinking, reacting, living.
While the success of Paul’s integration into the shot is variable – sometimes he looks tangible, a few times he looks flat – his performance is much more consistent. Amazingly, some of the best moments in the film come from his acting. A little look here, a bit of timing there, a reaction, an expression. It’s a great demonstration of how much CG animation can deliver, even when added into the complex context of live action footage that already has it’s own rhythm and locked-off elements. This is not only good acting, it’s good acting that most often seems free and loose and natural when it was, in fact limited by any number of technical shackles.
Kudos are also due to Paul’s co-stars for seeming like they’re acting with him, and not a little bit of thin air. They’ve done the full Bob Hoskins.
It was interesting to see how an audience of bloggers and film critics, which should be a relatively well-schooled, safe crowd for a film as loaded with geek-culture references as Paul is, reacted to the film’s steady drip of in-jokes. Some seemed to go over unnaturally loudly, with enthusiastic hoots of recognition, while others landed a little more slowly. They weren’t all meant to be laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes intended to create colour and shade things in a touch, and when I see this again (and I will) in a more randomised, public audience who don’t want to score points by “getting the reference first”, I expect the film will play a little more as intended.
Favourite reference: the cantina music from Star Wars, which gets a nice country re-arrangement. But that’s just one of dozens.
I’m not sure the portrayal of nerds and geeks is as realistic as I’d hoped. There’s a character played by Jeffrey Tambor, the sci-fi writer Adam Shadowchild, who has published a series of appallingly-titled, naff-sounding works (think Gentlemen Broncos‘ Ronald Chevalier) that Pegg and Frost’s characters seem to revere. But Shadowchild seems too much like a creation of people who don’t know sci-fi, don’t know Comic-Con. It can’t be that Pegg and Frost are so out of touch, so they must have some motivation here – I’m just not sure what it is.
From time to time, the film seems ready to start biting off a little more and get stuck into some interesting thematic ideas – religious faith versus personal faith, being careful what you wish for, the politics of gun control, America as seen by an outsider. Ultimately, it just skims across them. This doesn’t do anything to compromise how fun the film is, and it won’t even impair future viewings – I’m just not sure my relationship with the film will deepen over time.
Paul hits UK screens on Valentine’s Day. I’d most certainly recommend it.