As shown by “Battle: Los Angeles,” and hordes of films before it, science fiction is nothing if not mockable. The very extravagance of its imaginings lays it wide open, to the crowing delight of a movie such as “Paul.” Directed by Greg Mottola, it was written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who also star as a pair of hapless British dorks named Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings. They visit San Diego to attend Comic-Con, like pilgrims journeying to Santiago de Compostela, and then rent an R.V. to tour those hot spots beloved of U.F.O.logists—Area 51 and the rest. And then they meet an alien.
***What happened here? I yield to no one in my joy at Frost and Pegg’s earlier films, “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” which also thrived on parody, and stung with satirical precision. But they were set in England, whereas “Paul,” adrift in foreign territory, feels at once secondhand in its eagerness and unknowing in its scorn. The secondary figures look especially thin; just as I was thinking, Oh well, at least the writers haven’t resorted to some crazy-eyed trailer-park Bible-thumper toting a shotgun, in came Moses Buggs (John Carroll Lynch). More vexing, though, is the thought that science fiction is so inherently close to the absurd that the toughest challenge is not to lampoon it—as movies like “Galaxy Quest” have done before, and as Mottola does here with his blatant gestures to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.”—but to play it straight, as Spielberg managed to do. Only thus can we probe, to borrow a key verb from the aficionados, the ridiculous for the sublime: those terrors, or unlikely consolations, that lurk within.
I suppose I could feel outraged; doubtless some reading the final paragraphs of Lane's dual review might take umbrage. Yet, when I stopped for a moment and thought about it, I just didn't. Rather, I find myself agreeing to some extent with Lane's comments, as they are applicable to SF movies. There really is something ridiculous about the presentations in the vast majority of SF movies I've seen. It might have to do with the emphasis on spectacle at the expense of characterizations. In a novel, I can forgive powerful novels who might skimp a bit on character development, but whenever it comes to a movie, if there are not well-realized, dynamic characters, I'm likely going to tune out and become bored at the so-called "eye candy."
Having seen previews of Paul, I have no desire at all to see this movie. I suspect I can chart its probable plot/gag path without straying far from actual events. The same holds true to the few other SF/adventure movies I've seen in recent years (comic and serious alike). It's just so dull and played out, the close following of a particular movie formula, that I just cannot help but sympathize with Lane's disdain for SF (or is that now SyFy?) cinema. Maybe others more knowledgeable than I can weigh in on this?