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Looking Back at ‘Paul’

The onscreen teaming of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost has produced some real gems over the years, from Spaced, to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz—all co-written and dynamically directed by Edgar Wright. Their 2013 sci-fi, The World’s End, put a slightly disappointing cap on their “Cornetto Trilogy” (so-called for each of the instalments—Shaun, Fuzz, and End—featuring a different flavoured Cornetto ice cream). But before The World’s End, Pegg and Frost gave us another sci-fi outing, this time without their favored director, Edgar Wright.

Pegg and Frost.

2011 saw the release of Paul, a foul-mouthed, sweet-hearted story of geekdom and friendship set against the rich tapestry of American UFO lore. In the movie, directed by Greg Mottola, writers Pegg and Frost play Graeme and Clive, two British sci-fi enthusiasts who embark upon a UFO road trip across the United States with the goal of hitting all the key pilgrimage sites, including Roswell and Area 51. While in the Nevada desert en route to the famous Area 51 perimeter, Graeme and Clive stumble across a Gray alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) who has just escaped from the base, where he had been a “guest” (i.e. prisoner) since 1947. Graeme and Clive agree to help the benevolent but potty-mouthed Paul flee his Men in Black pursuers and eventually return to his home planet.

The idea for Paul traces back to the filming of Shaun of the Dead in 2003 when the crew had lost so many days to the torrential English rain that they started wondering how great it would be to shoot a movie where it never, ever rained. “We just spit-balled from there,” Frost told MTV. “No rain became the desert, the desert became Area 51 and then it was a short step to thinking about these two guys encountering an alien.” They proceeded to watch more than 50 movies about aliens and road trips. “Then we just sat opposite one another and banged it out, line by line,” recalled Frost.

Paul is a witty movie that utilizes almost every ingredient of modern UFO conspiracy lore to enrich its plot, from the Roswell Incident and Men in Black, to aliens in the custody of the US government inspiring human technological developments. It even draws our attention to the interplay between UFOs and Hollywood and makes light of the idea that pop-culture has been deliberately seeded with alien imagery in an effort to prepare the masses for open contact. At one point in the movie, Clive remarks of Paul’s archetypal appearance, “He looks too obvious!” Paul responds: “There’s a reason for that, Clive! Over the last 60 years, the human race has been drip-fed images of my face, on lunchboxes and T-shirts and shit. It’s in case our species do meet, you don’t have a fucking spaz attack!”

Rain-free shoot: Greg Mottola directs Nick Frost and Simon Pegg on location for ‘Paul’ (2011).

Later in the movie it is revealed that, while at Area 51, Paul worked closely with Hollywood filmmakers, inspiring iconic movie and TV characters, including Fox Mulder and Steven Spielberg’s E.T. In a flashback scene set in 1980, we see Paul at Area 51 on the phone to Spielberg (appearing as himself in vocal form only), who is seeking Paul’s advice on a future movie about a friendly little alien. The conversation plays out as follows:

Paul: Okay Steven, how about cellular revivification?
Spielberg: I don’t know what that is.
Paul: Oh. Restoration of damaged tissue through telepathic manipulation of intrinsic field memory.
Spielberg: What’s that mean?
Paul: It means healing, Mr. Spielberg.
Spielberg: Yeah right, healing. Like by touch or something like that. Like maybe his finger lights up on the end when he reaches out and touches?
Paul: Maybe… You know, sometimes I find less is more.
Spielberg: Hey, trust me.

Today, seven years after its original release, Paul stands up well. Change comes so slowly in the UFO subculture that none of its UFOlogical references have dated even a day. The special effects still look strong too. This is thanks to Mottola and his team spending a huge portion of their production budget on bringing the CGI Paul to life. The director recognized that, for the movie to work, Paul had to look absolutely real—no expense could be spared.

“To do the CGI of Paul was one-third of our budget,” Mottola told recalled. “The actual production budget was kind of small… so we gave up 10 days of shooting and a second unit for the action scenes, just to pour more money into getting Paul right.”

It may not be as sharp as some of Frost and Pegg’s earlier outings (the absence of Edgar Wright can be felt in both script and direction), but Paul is still bags more brains and fun than most Hollywood comedies today. If you’re a fan of toilet humor, there’s a shit load. If you’re a sci-fi or UFO enthusiast, you might just feel you’ve died and gone to geek heaven.

Robbie Graham has lectured around the world on the UFO subject and has been interviewed for the BBC, Coast to Coast AM, Canal+ TV, Channel 4, and Vanity Fair, among many others. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including The Guardian, New Statesman, Filmfax, and Fortean Times. He holds first class degrees in Film, Television and Radio Studies (BA hons) and Cinema Studies (MA) from Staffordshire University and the University of Bristol respectively. He is the author of Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies (White Crow Books, 2015) and the editor of UFOs: Reframing the Debate (White Crow Books, 2017). Visit robbiegraham.uk
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