By the geeks for the geeks

Paul looks to the stars — and reaches them

All is not well in the realm of the fanboy. Sure Marvel’s making every effort to put as many of their most obscure back-catalogue heroes on screen as possible and alien invasions are back on the big screen this year with Battle: Los Angeles and Super 8 but the cost of producing those films makes catering to a mainstream audience a necessity.

And after the high-profile flops of last year’s Kick Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World two films that catered to the specific sensibilities of the geek audience the elusive dork dollar is becoming increasingly risky for Hollywood to chase. Both of those films received ringing endorsements from the Internet’s most influential fanboy critics — Harry Knowles from Aintitcoolnews named Pilgrim his top film of 2010 — but neither managed to turn a profit. The fanboy audience is a fickle one and its tastes are proving difficult for the studios to properly predict.

Into these murky waters wades Paul the latest offering from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Reuniting for the first time since the beloved Hot Fuzz they play a couple of British sci-fi geeks whose American road trip takes a turn to the fantastic when they pick up a stray alien who’s on the run from the law.

From Hot Fuzz to Shaun of the Dead to Spaced the show that introduced them to the world the Pegg and Frost team is at its best when it’s lovingly poking fun at geek culture. And Paul is no exception.

It’s a movie that’s made unapologetically for sci-fi geeks by sci-fi geeks. Those who’ve spent time staring in wonderment at the night sky will leave the theatre feeling like Paul paid tribute to their culture rather than deriding it. The relentless sci-fi cultural references only serve as a distraction when the narrative slows down midway through but those in the audience who didn’t grow up worshipping at the altar of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas still won’t feel left out.

That’s at least in part because of the easy chemistry of Pegg and Frost. Both actors have taken their shot at going solo in recent years but seeing them onscreen together again is a reminder that they’re so much more than the sum of their parts. They look like they’re having the time of their lives and it’s easy to get the feeling that making a movie about a road trip with an alien was as much a dream for the actors as the film’s road trip itself.

Oddly though it’s Paul himself who ends up stealing the show. The foul-mouthed alien is given most of the script’s best one-liners and is voiced to perfection by Seth Rogen who’s been on a rough run lately but his vocal performance is spot-on here and allows Paul to be not just the film’s comic highlight but also its emotional core.

For all its charm Paul never ascends to the heights of Pegg and Frost’s previous offerings. Greg Mottola ( Superbad Adventureland ) takes over directing duties from the duo’s usual partner in crime Edgar Wright and puts in an admirable if not inspiring showing. The film’s opening Comic-Con sequence feels flat but Mottola finds his groove shortly thereafter and shoots the big action set-pieces competently. He doesn’t have Wright’s visual flare but the film’s bountiful eye-catching references to the canonical sci-fi films are spot-on.

Ultimately Paul accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s a love letter to sci-fi and geekdom and to all the people who dream about galaxies far far away.