Last weekend I did something I don’t do very often. I actually went to the movies. Older DVD’s are usually the genesis of my posts, so you’ll have to excuse me if this week’s post doesn’t follow the usual “Wayback Wednesday” M.O. I promise to return to the regularly scheduled programming next week. But this week, I went to the movies to see “Paul”. I’ve been a fan of Simon Pegg for a while, and the trailer really got me excited. So with a free weekend for a change, it was off to the multiplex I went. There are plenty of places you can look if you want a review of the movie. You will not find it here. I will say that I enjoyed it, but that’s all. My interest is the technology that brings the character of Paul to life and its widening effect on my enjoyment of movies.
Animation has been around for almost as long as movies. But when Walt Disney unleashed “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” on the world, he began a revolution that has continued to this day. His techniques were new, his storytelling was flawless, and his movie was a hit. He created a magical world and we were hooked. Had the movie flopped at the box office, then perhaps animated movies would have gone the way of silent films. But it didn’t. Disney went on a roll. For the next 40 years Disney was a mainstay on the silver screen.
As the years progressed very little changed about the methods used to bring the animation to the screen. Hand drawn cells were photographed and cut together to weave the story. Even into the 80’s Disney was still churning out production after production using the same methods of “Snow White”. Then in 1991 Disney premiered “Beauty and the Beast”, and the age of CGI was born. For the first time, computers were used to create backgrounds and non-character effects in the movie. The sweeping camera movements of the ballroom scene still remain with me all these years later. Finally we were moving in 3D space. The technology made possible things that could not be accomplished with ink and celluloid.
Once that door was open, there was no going back. Over the next few years the technology bloomed and in 1995 we saw the first full length computer animated feature. That movie was “Toy Story”, and the rest is history. Now if it seems that I’m short-changing the Pixar years here, I don’t mean to. Since 1995 they have been the benchmark for what good animated movies can be. Right from the beginning they took the reigns from Disney. It wasn’t just about the visuals. The songs, the story, the characters, they all had to be there for it to work, and Pixar recognized this. Of course it didn’t take long for Pixar and Disney to become one, and the King of Animation was in the Disney camp again. But what Pixar did was push the envelope of the new technology. It wasn’t enough to do part of the movie, or a sweeping landscape in CGI. It was the whole package. With each new year came a new advance at the movies. With each new step the product became more and more real.
Next in line to carry the gauntlet for the industry was Peter Jackson. With the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Jackson gave us a fully realized, digitally rendered character in Gollum. Using motion capture technology to save an actors performance to a computer the actor’s work could still be used in the digital universe but with any “skin” on it that a director could imagine. That process was carried to the extreme by James Cameron in 2009’s Avatar. An entire world populated with digitally rendered copies of ourselves could be programmed, manipulated, and “directed” even after the actor had left the sound stage. A new era of movie making had come to pass.
Well this brings me to “Paul”. The premise was full of potential. Two british nerds travel to Comic-Con and while they are at it, they decide to take a road trip through UFO hotspots of the southwest. Throw in an actual alien encounter and the opportunity for laughs was high. In the end, the movie delivered. Frost and Pegg were great as usual, Kristen Wiig, one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses, was amazing, and Jason Bateman pulled off being and ass and being likeable all in the same movie. But where the movie delivered with an amazing cast and more than enough laughter to justify the price, it lacked the magic that I expected.
I’ve written at length about expectations and how they influence our movie going experience. In this case, I can honestly say it affected my enjoyment of “Paul” at almost every turn. The digital effects used to create the character were amazing. The skin had depth and texture, the eyes were alive and vivid, even giving back reflection when it would have been appropriate, and it moved like you would expect an alien to move. In the end, it seemed like I was just watching another actor and for me that was a bad thing. It needed to be an alien. I forgot that it was green and had a head shaped like a lacrosse stick. Most of the time as I was listening to it, I just pictured Seth Rogen in its place. So all the excitement of the fantasy of little green men was lost on me. I guess the best illustration I could use is that of E.T. That little guy was certainly an alien. He didn’t talk, he had these short stubby legs that made him shuffle when he walked, and the longer he stayed here, the sicker he got. Paul could have been sitting next to me in the theater. Initially I thought that perhaps I wasn’t giving the amazing digital work a fair shake. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized, that the digital work was just the final nail in the coffin. With all the advancements in the visual product on-screen, the film makers had forgotten the most universal tenant of “alien” movies. They have to be different from us to really be an alien. Suddenly we have a character that in so many ways is just a human with a different skin. All our “alien” programming goes out the window. Now is some ways this is good. It allows us to connect with Paul, and like him. We might not be able to do that if he fit the more typical alien mold. The makers of this movie had done an excellent job of making a seamless transition between the digital world and reality. But they took away part of the movie that I came to see. I expected the character to be a little foreign. I wanted him to be a little weird. I even wanted him to be a little dangerous. Aside from an invisibility trick here and there, and the chance that he might bring something back from the dead, he just didn’t seem from another world.
In the end, I guess the disconnect comes from me. I wanted one thing and got something else. Should we really hold the motion picture industry responsible for giving us what we want, or should they just be tasked with turning out good movies. If it’s the latter, then “Paul” does a great job of meeting that edict. They have taken a character that has historically been displayed as foreign, odd, and dangerous and turned it into something almost human. That process makes for a good story, but it left me missing my aliens. I guess I’m just an old-fashioned guy. I like my aliens just that alien, and I think you know what I mean.