Although actor, writer, and comedian Simon Pegg titled his memoir Nerd Do Well, he has frequently voiced a preference for “geek” over “nerd.” In 2007, he defined the difference for talk show host Jonathan Ross, arguing that “geek” implies “an enthusiast” rather than “the specky idiot” implied by the word “nerd.” And indeed, the unbridled enthusiasm for pop culture that defines modern geekdom runs through much of Pegg’s most notable work. The turn-of-the-millennium British sitcom Spaced, which marked Pegg’s first major onscreen collaboration with his real-life best friend Nick Frost, is rife with references to the geek touchstones of the latter decades of the twentieth century: Star Wars, The Matrix, Evil Dead II, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to name just a few. Pegg and Frost’s big screen collaborations have followed suit: Shaun of the Dead pays tribute to George Romero’s zombie splatter fests, Hot Fuzz affectionately tweaks the buddy-action nonsense of cult films like Point Break, and The World’s End is a comic twist on Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style alien takeover movies. But the 2011 road movie Paul – which marked Frost’s debut as Pegg’s co-writer as well as co-star – is perhaps the comic duo’s most affectionate take on geekdom.
Paul introduces its protagonists – Frost as struggling sci-fi writer Clive and Pegg as aspiring illustrator Graham – at San Diego Comic Con. Browsing vendor booths, surrounded by cosplayers, Clive and Graham marvel at how “right” the convention feels, even though they’re far from their native England. “We’re 5,339 miles from home, and yet somehow I feel like we belong,” Clive says, and the pair’s excitement shines through even when one of their heroes – novelist Adam Shadowchild (amusingly played by Jeffrey Tambor) – treats them with brusque disinterest. After the pair departs Comic Con and embarks on an alien-themed sightseeing road trip in the American southwest, the film sweetly captures the sense of two friends sharing their own world of highly specific obsessions. When they pose for pictures with The Black Mailbox – an alien-related landmark that is, indeed, little more than a mailbox – and Clive calls it “probably the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” it’s hard not to be a little moved by his geeky gushing, especially for those (like me) who’ve ever gotten a thrill out of a close encounter with a place or artifact that other, less geeky passersby are apt to ignore.
As screenwriters, Pegg and Frost generate laughs both by leaning into sci-fi fans’ knowledge and expectations (“He looks too obvious,” Clive worries upon meeting the eponymous character, a little gray-green man with enormous eyes.) and by flouting those same expectations (starting with Paul’s jarringly common name). In a neat conceit, Paul the explains that images resembling his species have been purposely planted in pop culture for years to help lessen humans’ shock at the aliens’ appearances. He also purports to have served as a consultant on everything from E.T. to The X-Files, neatly accounting for his similarities to the fictional aliens that have frequented our screens for decades. At the same time, Paul’s casual demeanor, potbelly and cargo shorts distinguish him from his pop culture brethren, adding an element of comic incongruity that is underscored by Seth Rogen’s laidback performance as the voice of Paul. The film cheerfully serves up sci-fi geek wish fulfillment with its story of an alien who looks cool and has powers like the ones in TV shows, films, and comics, but who is also happy to hang out with some ordinary Earthlings and maybe dance to a little Marvin Gaye.
While sci-fi and its fans have proven an easy target for outright mockery – the kind typified by the well-known 1986 Saturday Night Live sketch in which William Shatner exhorts a roomful of Trekkies to “get a life,” Paul has genuine love for its central characters and their unabashed fandoms. It’s a refreshing stance, and one that makes sense coming from Frost and Pegg, who famously bonded over Frost’s ability to imitate a specific Star Wars droid sound effect. Yet, in 2015, four years after Paul’s release, Pegg came under fire online for some comments he made to Britain’s Radio Times regarding geek culture. “Obviously I’m a self-confessed fan of science-fiction and genre cinema,” Pegg said in the interview, “But part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilized by our own taste.” Pegg went on to say that adults were consuming “very childish things” at the cinema, alluding specifically to comic book films, and called the trend, “a kind of dumbing down in a way.” Some fans bristled. Was this Pegg’s “get a life” moment? After co-writing a geek valentine like Paul, had he done a sudden about-face?
Pegg posted a thoughtful blog on his official website following the uproar, saying, “The ‘dumbing-down’ comment came off as a huge generalization by a grade-A asshorn,” and asserting that his real concern was with how “the more spectacle becomes the driving creative priority, the less thoughtful or challenging films can become.” Pegg also challenged, “it’s good to ask why we like this stuff, what makes it so alluring, so discussed, so sacred. Do we channel our passion and indignation into ephemera, rather than reality? Not just science fiction and fantasy but gossip and talent shows and nostalgia and people’s arses. Is it right? Is it dangerous?” It’s hard to disagree with Pegg’s argument that such questions are worth asking. And indeed, it’s important that such questions can come from people with a genuine love for geeky ephemera in its many forms. There is room enough for Paul’s exuberant pop culture love and for Pegg’s more recent and introspective concerns about the growing mainstream dominance of sci-fi and fantasy stories. Perhaps the best way to tackle the current wave of genre cinema and TV is not just with open hearts but with critical eyes.