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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ultimate Geek Fu

A friend, the Boy, and I saw the movie Paul last Saturday. If you're not familiar with the movie, the gist of the plot is that two British geeks who have just come from attending the San Diego Comic-Con (like Dragon*Con, only bigger -- much bigger), are finishing up their holiday by taking an RV tour of famous science fiction movie sites with a stop-off as close to Area 51 as possible. The alien held in Area 51, who calls himself Paul (after the dog he accidentally squashed when his spacecraft crashed), escapes from the government and steals a car. Paul crashes the car right in front of our British geeks and convinces them to give him a ride to Montana, where his people are coming to pick him up. Paul is, of course, being pursued by government agents.

The movie has received some negative press on conservative and religious sites for its over-the-top depiction of a fundamentalist father and his adult daughter. I'll go ahead and get this one out of the way first. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost may think their two fundamentalist characters are over-the-top caricatures, but I know people who hold many of the same beliefs held by these two characters. The people I know are mostly sane and generally reasonable people. They hold certain beliefs I do not hold, but they aren't in-your-face about it. Conversely, the daughter spends most of the movie wearing a t-shirt featuring Jesus shooting Charles Darwin with a pistol. The caption reads "Evolve this!"

Did I laugh at some of the jokes stemming from this situation? Yes, I did. I have friends who would have laughed much harder and at more jokes, simply because the jokes reinforce stereotypes they hold. I have other friends who wouldn't have laughed at any of the jokes and would have been offended by most or all of them. And this is the really touchy part about Paul. If you think this kind of situation will offend you, I recommend you see another movie and leave Paul alone.

In a way, Paul reminds of me Blazing Saddles. There is an abundance of swearing and foul language. Some of the humor is drawn from the fundamentalist daughter's fumbling attempts to learn to use foul language. But a lot of the humor comes from science fiction movie references, just as Blazing Saddles drew a lot of its humor from western references.

Some things which have stuck with me (minor spoiler below, one you could figure out anyway):
  • There are plenty of Star Wars references, generally well-handled and funny.
  • There are several Spielberg references, including E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark (that one caught only by the Boy).
  • I don't recall a single Star Trek reference. The friend who went with us suggests this is because most of the references are to science fiction movies rather than TV, but there were a lot of Star Trek movies, too. [Update: I asked the Boy to read this before posting and he reminded that there was a Star Trek reference fairly early in the movie. *Sniff* I'm so proud!] [Update 2: The Boy insists I include this statement from him: "I am not a Trekkie!]
  • Alien gets its due and there's a brief Buck Rogers in the 25th Century bit near the beginning of the movie.
  • The scene where Paul flies off manages to riff two science fiction movies and an arena rock band album cover. I had to point it out to the Boy and my friend and seriously doubt anyone else in the theater caught it.
  • For some reason, the people sitting behind us brought their five year old son. In case you were wondering, five year old boys think bare alien butts are hilarious.
As with Blazing Saddles, this movie could have been endearing and really good, clean fun. As with Blazing Saddles, it's generally too crude for the "clean" part to work. But if you aren't offended by language and can get past the fundamentalist caricatures, Paul is a pretty funny movie for geeks. It's not as funny as Galaxy Quest, but that is a rather high bar to measure against.

Finally, this movie may be too clever for its own good. As best I can tell, my friend, the Boy, and I were the only geeks in the theater last Saturday. At least, there were points when we were the only ones laughing at some of the in-jokes. Even some of the ones I considered blatantly obvious, such as the Mos Eisley Cantina bit, seemed to be completely missed by the rest of the audience. This just further highlights the deplorable state of education in this country.

I don't know if this column will inspire any arguments, but if it does then let them begin!
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