David’s Favorite Films, #21: GALAXY QUEST

It’s not actually a Star Trek film, but it’s my favorite, and better than almost all that actually bear the name.

You’re just going to have to figure out what the rock monster wants. What’s it’s motivation?

–Alexander Dane

On the eve of the 21st Century, the venerable space-faring franchise known as Star Trek was in deep trouble. Drowning under the weight of its own canon, a string of unimpressive releases had led to it being known more as a shorthand for “NERD!” than cinematic adventure. So leave it to this brilliant satire, matching the Trek formula beat for beat, to provide the most exciting, inventive, and hysterically funny trip to the stars in years.

Directed by Dean Parisot from a script by David Howard and Robert Gordon, Galaxy Quest centers on the cast of a short-lived science-fiction television series of the same name. The show has an enormous, convention-attending fanbase, but most of the actors would much prefer to move on with their lives. One day, their “Captain,” the arrogant leading man Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen, never better), is approached by an actual group of aliens with no concept of television or “acting,” and is begged to help save their people from extinction. Naturally at first he assumes he’s just doing a bit for a quick paycheck, but a sudden trip into space disproves that notion, and the plot is on to get the other actors on board…who quickly — and hilariously — realize they’re in way over their heads.

The cast is exceptional from top to bottom. They have incredible chemistry together, and this film helped launch a few careers (Sam Rockwell, Justin Long) in the bargain. As the swaggering, Shatner-esque Nesmith, Tim Allen capitalizes on his Everyman charm in the best (non-animated) role he’s ever been handed. Sigourney Weaver (as the more-or-less “female lead” of the show-within-a-show, whose only job on the ship is to repeat the computer) has a fun time in direct contrast to her hard-charging reputation from the Alien series. Rockwell is hilarious as “Guy,” who died in the opening minute of one episode and is terrified it’ll happen again; Tony Shalhoub and Daryl Mitchell also excel in their roles as the detached “engineer” and former child actor/”pilot,” respectively; but the real scene-stealer here is Alan Rickman, playing a knighted stage actor stuck in awful alien makeup, repeating the same stupid lines for the rest of his career. (At the grand opening of a computer supply store: “By Grabthar’s hammer…what a savings.”) He’s an absolute blast, and his Alexander has perhaps the best arc in the story.

The Thermians, the alien race that has hired the “crew,” has viewed the original Quest series as “historical documents,” and modeled their entire civilization on what they’ve seen. Their ship is an exact replica of the NSEA Protector, down to the mysterious device at its heart: the Omega-13, which has attracted the attention of the evil warlord Sarris. Led by their commander Mathesar (Enrico Colantoni, whose stiff, childlike line readings are an endless delight), the Thermians need the “original” owners of the ship to control the device and defeat the alien menace, like they have a hundred times before. Only this time, it’s all real.

As satirical send-ups go, Galaxy Quest is far from mean-spirited. It takes a few affectionate potshots at the tropes of Trek and its genre (to Nesmith: “I see you had to get your shirt off;” the misuse — to uproarious effect — of a transporter beam; convention weirdos, and so much more), but the filmmakers obviously have enormous respect both for the original series and its raving fans. In particular, the “Questerians” become a huge factor in the film’s third act, as their intimate knowledge of the Protector’s inner workings saves the day.  And even Trek alums agree: George Takei, Patrick Stewart, Wil Wheaton and more have gone on record to say how much they love the film (with Takei jokingly calling it a “chillingly realistic documentary.”) Everything from the production design, to the sound effects, to the throwaway dialogue impeccably references the Trek style and ethos.

Surprisingly, the film was originally written to be quite a bit darker and more violent. We get a taste of this in the film’s opening sequence at the Galaxy Quest Convention, where Nesmith overhears kids making fun of him while in the restroom (an experience that actually happened to Shatner), but the film was re-cut after test screenings to more emphasize the comedy. That was obviously the right decision, because above all things a space adventure should be fun. And Quest is nothing but fun from the opening frames.  It has more quotable lines than I can count, the characters have impressive depth for a film in this genre, and it’s exceptional from a technical standpoint. The score (from David Newman) is memorable, The CGI has held up well over the years, and the use of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop led to the design and execution of one of cinema’s great alien villains in Sarris. Galaxy Quest is an under-seen classic, one of the funniest comedies of the ’90s, and in many ways the best distillation of what a Trek film should be in the entire decade leading up to it.  “Never give up…never surrender.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *