It’s not often that an argument about the fundamentals of the existence of a higher power takes place in an RV toilet, but it’s somehow the perfect setting for a character moment that stands as the centerpiece of Paul.
Ruth (played by Kristen Wiig) is convinced of her belief in God without reservation, but when the foul-mouthed, chain smoking alien steps out of the water closet, it shakes her to the core.
That’s not the sole example of religion or faith in the film. In fact, faith is the main theme of the entire movie. It just happens to be wrapped in a science fiction narrative and sprinkled with comedy and curse words.
The most obvious example is Ruth, but the first two paragons of faith that we meet are Graeme and Clive (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost). They’re introduced by way of a check list of geek street cred while at Comic-Con (check one). Insane love for obscure sci-fi author? Check. Desperate need to own crappy movie prop replica? Check. Planning a road trip of famous UFO sites? Check mate.
Despite their classic geek stereotype veneer, the two characters are defined most by their belief in something they can’t see. They’re invested, committed, and passionate about the world beyond the night sky, and there’s no doubt in their minds that extra terrestrials exist. It’s a strong faith; it’s just not a religious one.
It’s a little ironic then, that when they come face to face with what they’ve always believed to exist, they are fundamentally changed as well. It’s one thing to lose faith to schoolyard bullies who don’t like The X-Files. It’s another to lose that faith when it’s confirmed and turned into knowledge.
The unlikely trio then meets Ruth in an RV park, and the symbolism explodes. Ruth is blind in one eye and takes everything Graeme says literally. However, she’s not a character of faith even if she can recite scripture and drops to her knees in prayer automatically in times of need. Her belief isn’t a childlike wonderment of her God. It’s the childish belief of someone who’s been yelled at to go pray by the unseen voice of her zealous father – an Old Testament-style figure who is just as happy grabbing his shotgun to solve a problem as he is to grab his Bible.
She’s in a state of spiritual slavery, where she’s been brought up to believe one thing unquestioningly, but where she doesn’t take any joy in it. She goes through the motions out of conditioning, not out of true faith.
If there was any doubt that her faith isn’t real, it comes with how easily she disregards it after the argument in the RV toilet. The movie doesn’t invest in characters enough to do more than give a short-hand argument against the existence God, but that becomes incredibly important because that short-hand argument (an alien simply existing) works wholesale on Ruth. She goes from listening to the unseen voice of her father to contending with the unseen voice of what turns out to be a living wrench in her religious works.
She then sheds both her connection to God and her ethics faster than a Mardi Gras tube top with beads dangling in front of it. Either her faith was shattered completely, or it wasn’t there to begin with, but she’s forcing curse words into her conversation and ready to fornicate by the time she wakes up from fainting.
The book ends for her character development are Graeme and Clive saying they’re men of science and Paul telling her to have a little faith before he cures her blindness.
And then, of course, there’s the Christ-like figure of Paul.
Paul itself is a Biblical name. Paul of Tarsus began as Saul, a figure who persecuted true believers before being called to become a disciple. He wrote several important books of the New Testament and was one of the most powerful and influential of the early missionaries.
Paul The Alien stays hidden to the world at large but chooses to reveal himself to a chosen few who end up traveling with him through the desert and also end up keeping him safe from the vicious law enforcement that seeks to kill him. It’s unclear whether Jesus could become invisible, but Paul can, and he can resurrect the dead and cure blindness just like Joshua Bar Joseph. He has the job of teaching each character about what’s truly important in this world, and there’s the Superman-like parallel of him coming from above and needing to leave this world in order to return to his home in the sky by the end.
The similarities between Paul and Jesus are surface level to be sure, but they are there in consistent numbers, which is telling especially considering how the movie barely scratches that surface in a trade off between comedy and character development. Above all else, Paul’s recurring advice to “roll the dice” is a completely faith-based response to a world descending into chaos all around. In not telling Graeme or Clive where they’re going, he trusts them to believe in him and take a journey of faith even when bullets are flying by and farmhouses are exploding behind them.
As for the commentary on religion, the first glance is one of mockery and derision. However, even as the uncomfortable theological argument in the RV makes too-quick work of disproving God (in the way that most world religions know it), and even as Ruth is transformed for the better from a mindless servant to a life-affirming (almost Nietzschean) free woman, there is still the character of her father there to make the counter-argument.
He’s a rough customer at the outset, but he also steps up Taken-style to go get his daughter back from the thugs that have kidnapped her. He doesn’t let a bar brawl or even federal officials stand in his way of saving his daughter, and that act is admirable beyond his faults. What’s more, even with aliens walking around all over the place, he still keeps his faith in God in tact with no problem (even if he is used as the easy butt of one more joke in the final scene). He reunites with his daughter, no doubt changed in humanistic ways, but otherwise still rock solid in his faith in a higher power.
Graeme and Clive start off with faith and are rewarded for it ten-fold by the end; Ruth has a rigid religious structure without faith and gains something far more celebratory; Ruth’s father earns a sense of duty and decency while holding onto his beliefs; and Paul is at the center of it all, speaking calmly, performing miracles, and teaching loving lessons. He’s also showing his junk to anyone who’ll look, smoking way too many cigarettes, and violently eating road kill, but Paul works in mysterious ways.
As much as Paul is hiding behind a rubber mask bought at a comic book store, it’s also bathed in faith, the people who have it, and the challenges it presents. It’s a comedy about two misfits who find an alien on a road trip, but it also leaves the audience staring up at the sky.