Monday, April 4, 2011
A review of "Paul"--- spoilers ahead.
Saw "Paul" with Seth Rogen, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
I want to preface this by saying-- I love Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. I own like, every movie they've made. Shaun of the Dead was hilarious, though I far preferred Hot Fuzz. So a nerd film? By two of the biggest and proudest nerds making movies today? Color me STOKED.
First off, the good parts. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of sci-fi references in here. The Redneck bar where the band is playing the Cantina song from Star Wars? Awesome. The alien ship being shaped like the guitar spaceship from that one music album? Hilarious. The Indiana Jones warehouse, Paul's talk with Spielberg, etc. Too many to list. Great performances from Jason Bateman and Bill Hader,especially Hader's face heel turn and Bateman's reveal.
Now for the bad. Spoiler alert.
I understand that, as a Christian, there's a certain amount of mockery of my religion that is unavoidable and even expected from certain sectors of Hollywood. We're a target that sits on our hands, whereas attacking the other two big monotheistic religions will get you litigated or worse. Add in that fact the Jesus promised we'd be hated for our beliefs, plus the fact most of the country is nominally Christian at best, and you have a recipe for resignation to the fact that there will be something in every comedy film that takes a cheap shot at my faith. It's just the price of doing business (that business being watching movies).
So I don't resent the fact that Pegg and Frost mocked my religion; I knew it was coming when I saw the sign for "Pearly Gates RV Park." What I didn't expect was that it be so relentless, so vicious-- and that it would be so poorly shoe-horned in.
So we have the boys roll into a trailer park, where there are met by Kristen Wiig playing Hollywood's impression of a Protestant Evangelical Christian. Our damsel in distress is blind in one eye and wears a t-shirt with a pistol-packing Jesus blowing the brains out of Charles Darwin, with the totally straight-forward message "Evolve This!" printed beneath. When Pegg and Frost ask why Jesus would shoot Darwin, she replies that it is because of "his blasphemous theory of evolution". She then continues, to their (and presumably our) incredulity, that God "intelligently designed" everything in a six-day creation, and that the world is only "4000 years old." (Apparently Nick and Simon fail to realize that a creative intelligence and evolution aren't mutually compatible-- their lack of subject-matter knowledge will be touched on later.)
Enter the alien hero. "That's garbage!" he says. "If God exists, how do you explain me!" Our Christian parody faints dead away, and upon waking later and finding out its not a dream, she drops to her knees, clasps her hands, starts bellowing "Amazing Grace" at the top of her lungs and speaking in tongues. Exasperated by her refusal to acknowledge whats in front of her, Paul finally-- in a moment that may qualify for an entry in "Fridge Horror" on TVTropes, places his hand on her forehead and beams all his knowledge into her mind. We see a montage of scenes that look like they were pulled straight from "Cosmos", mixed with images of slowly evolving creatures. From this point in the movie on, Kristen Wiig's character is no longer a theist, let alone a Christian one.
She flees the RV, and Simon Pegg's character follows her, smitten with her as he is. Cue a long discussion as she is forced to reconcile what she"knows" with what she has believed. Kristen Wiig paraphrases Dostoyevsky's maxim that "Without God, all things are permissible." Pegg denies this, but never explains exactly why morality still matters. It just does. (An interesting mirror of her now dead faith-- Pegg knows atheism can still be moral the same way she knew God was real-- belief without empirical evidence. I doubt, however, this is intentional on the part of Pegg and Frost.)
She returns to the RV, and Paul asks her to take her glasses off. One lens is blacked out, and this is because she is blind in one eye. She removes the glasses, and Paul (whom we have seen resurrect a dead bird to eat it) heals her a la ET: The Extraterrestrial. Paul quickly answers her awed whisper of "how did you do that?" with something to the effect of "a couple million years of evolutionary mutation, sweetie." Presumably to beat us silly retrogrades over the head with the Aesop that God did nothing for her, while the atheist alien healed her no strings attached.
Now remember that all of this occurs while they are being chased by government agents bent on killing Paul and anyone with him. An intimidating Jason Bateman with a "do whatever I want and get away with it badge" is on their heels-- in fact, the scene just prior has him and his bumbling FBI sidekicks at the very RV park they just abandoned. Yes. Death in the form of shadowy government agents is literally at their heels, but they have time to stop the RV, spend an inordinate amount of time "curing" a Christian of her silly mental shackles and engaging in the attendant philosophical debates, and with no sense of urgency at all or with no consequences.
It really kind of broke the pacing of the film, which until this point was "slipping out of dodge just ahead of the posse" every single time. From then on I had trouble taking the character's urgency all that seriously. "Quick , we gotta get out of here!" Why? I would think. You're just gonna lose them quickly enough for whatever detours you want to take from here on out.
Later, we meet more of the same Christian bashing, as Kristen Wiig refers to her religious father as "these people", she thanks Paul for "freeing her", and Paul angrily dismisses the "God be with you!" of Wiig's father with a "Yeah, whatever dude." All of these scenes could have been dropped from the film with absolutely no impact on the plot. They don't contribute at all to the main plot, either by aiding the villains and increasing tension, or giving the good guys an extra "ace in the hole" to help complete their mission. Completely superfluous. It seems that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who penned the story, had a message they wanted to get across and were willing to do whatever it takes-- even force it in to the detriment of the film itself-- to do so.
There's also an issue that has less to do with the film itself and more a lack of knowledge on the part of Frost and Pegg. Namely, the complete misunderstanding of Christianity, Intelligent Design, Aliens, Evolution, and where those things meet. In interviews, the two Brits have apparently made known the fact that the very idea of aliens disproves God's existence. Not only is this absurd, (as anyone familiar with C.S. Lewis's "Space Trilogy" can attest), but it also displays a lack of understanding of Christianity.
I am aware that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have stated in interviews that Christians shouldn't be offended by their poking fun at a "particular brand" of the religion, not only because it is fiction but also because "if you aren't one of those Christians then its not aimed at you." Unfortunately for them, I'm not so dumb as to fall for that ruse. Sure, I'm not the real life version of Kristen Wiig's character. I'm not Catholic either. But I get offended when they get bashed, because the differences between creationist Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox are practically nonexistent from the outside looking in. Those outside Christianity looking at Christianity itself see essentially the same thing across the board. So anytime the Catholic Church or a young-earth, Bible thumping creationist is portrayed on TV, the target is all Christians everywhere and for all time-- those two "types" are simply the most familiar to audiences-- and those who make the movies who've never in their lives visited "flyover country".
In short, Paul was a good film ruined by an anti-Christian subplot, said subplot also serving to detract from the main story as a whole. Not telling you to skip it, just be aware of what you're shelling out $7.75 for.