Paul Goes West

Although at first glance a new comedy by British comedians  might not seem to provide likely subject matter for the WLA Blog, but the film Paul, starring (and written by) Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, is surprisingly a film about the American West—as it explores a vision of the American West as constructed by a combination of UFO conspiracy buffs and science fiction films. To adapt the language of Paul itself, this is the nerd’s version of the American West, and when our intrepid British explorers set off on their first trip to America to explore the West they’ve been consuming through comic books, UFO websites, television shows such as Star Trek and films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, they are seeking (like many a western adventurer before them) an authentic encounter with this fictional West while traveling through a real western landscape (the film was mostly shot in New Mexico). And, of course,  this being a fantasy, they get that authentic encounter with the real West (that is, the West of their pop-culture saturated dreams) when they meet Paul, the title character, an extra-terrestrial being (voice by Seth Rogen) who just wants to go home.

And from the moment they encounter this real E. T. on a New Mexico desert highway, you just know that a trip to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming,  isn’t far away. Most of the narrative of the film consists of a mock epic journey across the American West, from Roswell, New Mexico, to Devil’s Tower, sprinkled with comic episodes along the way.

Starting with the pop culture Mecca of Comic-Con, the boys skip traditional tourist spots such as the Grand Canyon in favor of places like the site of  the black mailbox (near Area 51 in New Mexico), Area 51 itself, the Little Aleinn (where they pick up an Alien on Board bumper sticker for their RV), locations where scenes from  Star Trek were filmed, Big Chief convenient stories, and RV parks. The film is fun in part for the different angle it provides on the idea of “westernness” usually seen in film. The West of Paul is not a place of sublime landscapes but kitschy tourist traps and cheap roadside attractions.

There are lots of nice moments in the film when the mixture of science fiction allusions and the contemporary western setting work quite well. When the boys go into a country music bar, the string band onstage is playing the same song as the band in the Cantina scene in Star Wars.  To hide Paul’s alien presence on a busy street of a small western town, they dress him up in a cowboy outfit to conceal his bulbous head (with an oversized cowboy hat) and alien features (a kerchief, pulled up outlaw-style).

The film has not received many positive reviews, and it’s certainly not a weighty film, but it makes for an entertaining hour and half, especially for those of us who, like Graeme and Clive, have seen far too many science fiction films and thus can enjoy the many allusions and references.

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