Omens aren’t good for Paul the Psychic Octopus

Paul the Psychic Octopus review
Paul the Psychic Octopus review

By Ross Maclean

Paul the Octopus caused a stir during the World Cup in 2010 by correctly “predicting” the outcome of eight matches. This was achieved by his eating a clam from a box marked with the flag of one of the competing countries. It wasn’t exactly rigorously scrutinised stuff, so it’s open to debate just how much of an oracle this unassuming cephalopod was.

There’s no denying it made perfect fodder for ‘And Finally…’ sections in news broadcasts, but his moment in the spotlight was restricted to that tournament. That was until he died just a few months later in October 2010. What director Alexandre O. Philippe presents us with here is a light-hearted feature-length look into Paul’s life and attempts to contextualise his place in history.

One has to assume a level of irony in the title because there isn’t actually much to go on here. The legend was so fleeting and disposable that there doesn’t remain much to be said and if it weren’t for the fact that a ‘psychic’ pig was still deemed newsworthy as recently as this month, it’s not something we were presumably ever meant to dwell on. We’ve seen the footage; we’ve made our judgement on his abilities and promptly resigned the story to the dustbin of history. It’s not as if we even have the cult of personality to go on.

In order to give us a fully rounded picture of events the documentary takes in the mathematical probability of Paul’s powers, debates surrounding his nationality and a history of prognosticating critters. It’s in sections like these where the film picks up as they are the only parts with any real depth. Talking head interviews with psychics who open up a dialogue with Paul are good for a laugh (especially as the two they’ve chosen give conflicting reports) but when the doc shoots for deliberately ‘funny’ interviews it frequently falls flat.

Paul’s agent Chris Davies and Hit Factory honcho Mike Stock (of Stock, Aitken & Waterman fame), who was writing a cash-in single for the little fella, speak solely in calculated faux-awkward soundbites (mainly regarding seafood) and their every reappearance in the film is like a wet tentacle across the face. While I don’t begrudge their presence in discussing the bizarre phenomenon, the makers obviously thought they had struck gold judging by just how much screen time they get.

It’s hard to take a documentary like this too seriously but that’s partly the problem. It never knows whether it wants to be a serious look at our culture’s fascination with the trivial and a study of the truth behind paranormal phenomena, or a throwaway bit of fun about cute animals. It’s a bit of both but it never sits entirely comfortably; like if Panorama were to devote an investigation to the sneezing baby panda.

Much like Philippe’s previous documentary, Star Wars fan-rant The People vs. George Lucas, the few genuinely interesting things to be said about the phenomenon are buffered from all sides by YouTube padding and twee animations. There is real warmth in the interviews conducted with Paul’s keepers at the German sea life centre where he lived, and it’s undeniably cheek-moistening to see the way they talk about his death, but unfortunately the makers would rather pursue potential comedy.

While this had the potential to be a semi-serious documentary about why we even care about stories like this, it’s frustratingly heavy on the sillier aspects and brief on the points of real social interest. It can’t justify the running time and as such it ends up going off in more directions that Paul’s legs. The filmmakers should have seen it coming.

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