A (not so) long time ago, in a galaxy (not so) far, far away…
It is a period of intergalactically-themed humor. A group of friends, striking at George Lucas‘s fortified base, have launched an attempt to steal a copy of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace before its 1999 release date.
Meanwhile, two British nerds, fresh from attending their first ComicCon, attempt to help a drug-addled alien with the voice of Seth Rogen escape our planet.
They are loving and raucous odes to science fiction fandom, locked in deadly combat. Two films will enter, one will leave. Even now, the first bell rings, and the epic battle of Paul vs. Fanboys is under way…
Two fanboy road trips, two very different results. Paul starts innocently enough; Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Colin (Nick Frost) are a British comic book illustrator and writer, respectively, who have come to America to attend the San Diego ComicCon. Following the big event, they set out to visit famous UFO/alien sites across the country, and they run into a genuine alien outside Area 51. From there, it’s a big homage to E.T. (if E.T. was a foul-mouthed chain smoker, that is) as they help the little green man escape from his 40-plus-year imprisonment on Earth.
Meanwhile, the goal itself sparks the journey in Fanboys. The year is 1999, and a group of comic book nerds (because, of course, all true fanboys must be heavily involved in comic books) learns that one of their own is dying. Thus, it becomes necessary for them to break into George Lucas‘s Skywalker Ranch and sneak a peek at Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace before it released into theaters.
Of course both of these films are loaded with sci-fi references, though Fanboys is much more specifically devoted to Star Wars, while Paul is a love letter to the genre as a whole. Even so, the main thrust of the plot in Paul is nothing that hasn’t been done before. But the idea of breaking in to get a sneak peek of a new Star Wars movie before its release is a move that just screams “fanboy”. Fanboys wins the first round, 10-9.
Both of these films are quite humorous, with most of the jokes hitting just the right funny bone – at least in a guy like me, who is exactly the target audience. Paul weaves a bit more of a cohesive narrative, while Fanboys feels rather episodic. But the latter film actually manages something that feels like a bit more than just laughs. When the title character returns to his own people at the end of Paul, it’s a satisfying conclusion, but it doesn’t match what Fanboys achieves: In the end, four friends suffer the loss of one of their own. Obviously, the cancer that Linus (Chris Marquette) suffers is a gimmick to get the central quest going, but it’s handled well; it manages not to devolve into melodrama, and doesn’t overshadow the humor, but it has a touch of poignancy in the end that Paul doesn’t match. Since both films seem equally adept in the nerd-joke department, this last element gives a slight advantage to Fanboys in this round.
There are three elements to this round: The one actor both films have in common, Seth Rogen; the other major players; and the cameos. Let’s start with Rogen.
In Paul, Rogen (or, at least, his voice) is one of the three main characters. And sure enough, he just comes across as Seth Rogen in the body of a little green man. Fanboys actually makes better use of him, in a couple of small roles. Most memorable is his turn as Admiral Seasholtz, leader of a group of evil Trekkies, in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. From my perspective, as someone who has always liked Star Trek better than Star Wars, it’s quite hilarious to see the Trek fans portrayed as the villains, and Rogen really sells the stereotype Trekkie nerd. Plus, his delivery of Captain Kirk’s famous “KHAAANNN!!” from The Wrath of Khan is spot-on.
Still, Rogen aside, there’s not a lot that the main cast of Fanboys can do against that of Paul. Obviously, when you put Simon Pegg and Nick Frost on the screen together, you get comedy gold (as anybody who has seen Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz will attest to). Add Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader and Jason Bateman (as Agent Lorenzo Zoil – funny!) to the mix, and the Fanboys cast falls behind.
The bright spot among Fanboys’ main characters is Jay Baruchel as Windows, but then, since I saw Tropic Thunder, I’ve always thought Baruchel was a bright spot. (He even managed to make his starring turn in the typical and predictable romcom She’s Out of My League something worth watching.) Kristen Bell is ridiculously cute, and comes across as every comic-book nerd’s fantasy (particularly when she dons the famous Princess Leia gold bikini). But Dan Fogler strikes me as a guy who would be much tolerable in smaller doses, and Sam Huntington and Chris Marquette are a little vanilla in comparison to the other actors present in both movies.
Then, there’s the cameos: Sigourney Weaver‘s turn as The Big Guy is totally inspired. Even at the age of 62, Ms. Weaver still kicks butt, and – though it is not delivered by her – the “Get away from her, you bitch!” line from Aliens is used at just the right moment.
Still, Sigourney comes up against some fantastic cameos in Fanboys. Never mind appearances by Billy Dee Williams and Carrie Fisher (who even gets her best Star Wars line, “I know”); it’s all about William Shatner (who can “score anything”) as himself. The cameos in these films had me geeking out more than anything else.
Ultimately, the principal cast members in Paul outclass those in Fanboys, but the latter film makes better use of Seth Rogen and its celebrity cameos. Round three is a draw.
In a lot of ways, Paul seems like more of the same for the director of Superbad, Greg Mottola. Just with more visual effects and a couple of action sequences. With Fanboys, Kyle Newman has less experience than Mottola, but his film works on a lot of the same levels: There’s good comedic timing, and most of the jokes hit.
Still, it’s worth noting that Fanboys was a tremendously delayed production, and reshoots were even done with a different director at the insistence of producer Harvey Weinstein. Fanboys was released almost two years after it was originally supposed to, and had an extremely limited run in theaters.
In some ways, it’s almost miraculous that Fanboys still works, despite all the meddling. Still, it’s hard to deny that Paul comes across as a more polished production, and thus wins this round, 10-9.
It’s obvious the creators of both of these films have a great affinity for the source material they spoof. Both are tremendous fun for a fanboy like myself. (I like to think they’d be great fun for almost anybody, but I have to admit that I am exactly the target audience, and thus, not so impartial.)
Still, while both films tickle my funny bone, and Paul is a more polished film, I feel the love a little more from Fanboys. Given the choice, I admit, I would rather watch Fanboys again. It’s close, but the winner of this bout, by a nose, is Fanboys.