An Alien Theological Encounter

New Pop Theology contributor Tony Mills reviews the recent Simon Pegg/Nick Frost comedy, Paul. Check it out after the jump.

The recently released comedy Paul (dir. Greg Mottola) is a great fit for Pop Theology for two reasons: it contains countless pop culture (mostly sci-fi) references and much fodder for theological debate. Co-written by and starring Simon Pegg (Graeme) and Nick Frost (Clive) as two British sci-fi and comicbook geeks who are finally taking a trip to America to revel in their love of both. After starting out at San Diego’s Comic-Con, they venture through the American southwest in an RV to visit several significant sites related to UFOs. Early on, they encounter the alien Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) as he attempts to escape detainment at Area 51 and return to his mothership several hundred miles north. As a result, the film fits solidly in the road-trip subgenre.

Geeky readers/viewers will of course remember Pegg and Frost from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, both directed by Edgar Wright, with whom Pegg usually writes. The even geekier reader will know that all three of these Brits worked together on the TV show Spaced, itself an homage to the American sci-fi/comicbook phenomena on which Pegg and Frost were weaned. At this point, their canonization as saints in the cult of geekdom is official.

Geek Saints Nick Frost and Simon Pegg.

It would be repetitive to summarize the rest of the plot here; there are plenty of reviews available for that. What makes the film pertinent for consideration here is the theological vista opened by an encounter between Paul and Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a fundamentalist Christian who takes a liking to Graeme and comes along for the ride when the gang needs to leave an RV camp in a hurry to avoid capture. When she reveals that she is a six-day creationist who believes that all living things were designed and directly created by God, Paul challenges her and says that they are a product of evolution. Having only heard but not yet seen Paul, Ruth reacts in fear when she finally sees him, taking him for a demon. To calm her paranoia, Paul touches her head and performs a sort of mind-meld whereby he is able to transfer his knowledge about the universe to her instantly. Upon recovering, Ruth is shaken and realizes that the universe is much older and more different than she had been taught, and that, possibly, God does not exist.

This does not only open a theological discussion, but a cultural one as well. Both Ruth and her gun-toting, Bible-carrying father Moses (John Carroll Lynch) are more caricatures than characters, portrayals of the people that certain New Atheists would have you believe exhaust the categories of believers. I would like to think that Pegg and Frost, both atheists who grew up with Christian backgrounds, know better and wrote Ruth and Moses in tongue-in-cheek fashion. However, as I move further away from the creationist paradigm, I am more sensitive to the ways in which many fundamentalists actually are caricatures, how ridiculous they look from the outside, and how potentially dangerous they can be (a Florida pastor threatening to burn Korans, for instance). That Ruth initially wears a t-shirt with a drawing of Jesus shooting Darwin in the head makes for great comedy, but only because it is not a far cry from the attitude to evolution and Darwinists found in certain parts of Christian America.

And yet Pegg and Frost are quick to point out that Paul is not an attack on faith nor “a manifesto for atheism,” as Pegg puts it. Rather, they wanted to challenge humanity’s anthropocentrism regarding the attitude to possible alien life, that we, including most religions, tend to look at the world as if we are the only ones in the universe. Moreover, both he and director Mottola express a desire for Ruth and the others to have their minds broadened beyond their narrow worldviews. Religious convictions limit Ruth, while obsession with the world of comic books limits Graeme and Clive. Paul confronts most of the humans he encounters, then, as a presence that demands a new look at life.

Paul (Seth Rogen) alien theological encounter.

The way this plays out for Ruth is quite interesting. After the mind-meld experience, her new attitude toward the world exemplifies a level of freedom impossible given her previous closed-mindedness. She tells the others that she can now swear, drink, and fornicate, presumably without fear of divine retribution. The various scenes where she tries to cuss are funny and awkward because we know that she has not done it before. The film does not take this lightly, although as a comedy, the dramatic intensity of it is somewhat precluded. I believe that Frost, Pegg, and Mottola genuinely see this as a liberating experience. For those of us who have journeyed from fundamentalism to a friendlier faith, or even no faith at all, Ruth’s shift illustrates a legitimate unburdening of psycho-social weight and terror.

Ultimately, the film does not so much speculate on the existence or nature of God as on matters of ignorance, fear, control, nature, and humanity. Far from taking pride in being the catalyst for Ruth’s de-conversion, in the end Paul confesses remorse for all the trouble he has brought on his companions, including shaking Ruth’s faith. He tells them that it would be best for him to proceed to his destination alone in order to not cause his new friends any further harm. They refuse to abandon him and insist on accompanying him, and this, if there is one at all, is the philosophical crux of the film. Even if we live in a world without God or eternal life, it does not have to be one without hope, love, and sacrifice, as is aptly demonstrated in the very end (I’ll save the spoiler). By letting go of the things of which we are so certain, even religious or cultural worldviews, we may finally be able to embrace others and the future in a more fulfilling and honest way. And just maybe, we may come to find that this was the work of God all along.