I’m guessing there are still people out there who like science fiction movies but have never seen Galaxy Quest. This review is a shameless plug. Galaxy Quest is a comedy, in fact, one of that very rare species, a science fiction comedy. It says something for Galaxy Quest that it is still available on the shelves of big box stores that sell DVD/Blu-ray. How many other movies made before 2000 (1998) survive in that fervid retail climate?
Galaxy Quest is a satire of Star Trek and its fan culture, so right away I need to answer the question, “Do you have to be a fan of Star Trek or know the Star Trek series/movies to enjoy Galaxy Quest?” No, you don’t. It helps. There are many plot points and references to Star Trek, which add to the depth of enjoyment, but it’s not necessary to get them. On the other hand if you never watch science fiction (or hate the genre)…don’t bother.
I realize that the deeper we pull into the 21st century, the further away are all things Star Trek and even Star Wars, so I can’t vouch for the ultimate shelf life of Galaxy Quest. For now, however, those people who grew up with science fiction culture at the end of last century will find Galaxy Quest a hoot. Better than that, most people who see Galaxy Quest and even the actors in it, comment on how much ‘heart’ it has. There are genuine emotional undercurrents which are affecting and not what you’d expect from satire. The story sets this up.
Almost two decades after the television series “Galaxy Quest” was cancelled, it retains popularity. The actors who played the main characters have never been able to move on; they exist by taking paid gigs at Galaxy Quest conventions, promoting electronics stores, and doing amateur theatricals. It’s a peculiar existence, a kind of love-hate with their fans and the show. The actors snipe at each other and suffer bouts of ego torment. This is especially true of “The Commander,” Peter Quincy Taggart (as actor Jason Nesmith, played by Tim Allen), who is thoughtlessly egotistical, yet likeable.
At a Galaxy Quest convention, the Commander is approached by a pod of Thermians. He thinks, “Good costumes and they talk funny.” In fact, they are real aliens. They have come to Earth to ask for help from the crew of Galaxy Quest. The Thermians have been watching the “historical records” (TV shows) for years and have tried to imitate what they have seen. For example, they built the spacecraft of the show, the NSEA Protector and travel around the galaxy with it. It is a real spacecraft.
The Thermians are desperate. Their civilization has been all but destroyed by the evil space lord, Sarris, who now threatens the last refugees aboard the Protector if they do not give him the “Omega-13.” This was a device introduced in a Galaxy Quest episode, but never explained. The Thermians built it anyway, but they don’t know what it does. Now they would like Commander Taggart to help them against Sarris and to explain the Omega-13. Thinking this is just another amateur theatrical, ‘the Commander’ agrees.
So, a group of loser-actors are called upon to play their ‘roles’ in reality. The Thermians, themselves losers to the evil Sarris, believe the actors to be their characters, and expect they will perform heroically just as they always do in the ‘historical documents.’ Much of the fun of the first part of the movie is watching the actors slowly realizing the actual situation. Later, however, they must deal with reality – or Sarris will kill them. Under pressure, they change and grow, not as characters but as people. This too is not in your average satire.
Written by David Howard, Galaxy Quest has a very clever story and a script to match. Like Monty Python’s Holy Grail and a few other comedies, Galaxy Quest tends to poke bits and pieces into permanent memory. Here’s one of mine: The Commander is chased by a living pile of rocks. Science Officer Dane: “You’re just going to have to figure out what it wants. What is its motivation?” Commander: “It’s a rock monster. It doesn’t have motivation!” Dane: “See, that’s your problem, Jason. You were never serious about the craft.”
The script aggressively explores the actors as a dysfunctional family, and the real actors eat it up – they are an ensemble of exceptionally good actors working for an engaging level of emotional truth as well as the comic bits. For a movie few seem to know, this is a very strong cast. I’ll list the well known, briefly as I can, but it needs to sink in that there is a lot of talent at work in Galaxy Quest: Tim Allen (Tim the Tool Man), Sigourney Weaver (Ripley, Alien series), Allan Rickman (Severus Snape, Harry Potter series), Tony Shaloub (Adrian Monk, Monk), Sam Rockwell (Sam Bell, Moon), Daryl Mitchell (Chill Trainor, Brothers), Enrico Colantoni (Sgt. Greg Parker, Flashpoint), Robin Sachs (Ethan Rayne, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Patrick Breen (George Weiss, Kevin Hill), Jed Rees (Larry, The Con Man), Justin Long (Warren Cheswick, Ed), Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute, The Office). Everyone will have their favorites. I give special kudos to Enrico Colantoni for making the character of Mathesar, leader of the Thermians, convincingly ‘alien’ and yet a fully formed and growing character. Everyone, especially Tim Allen and Sig Weaver seem to be having fun. It’s infectious.
Comedy is hard enough for actors when it’s based on familiar situations and normal surroundings. Comedy in science fiction is essentially impossible. You have to find humor in situations that have never existed – like dealing with a rock monster. For another thing, the mechanics of science fiction filmmaking are generally even more intrusive than typical filmmaking. Fighting with massive costuming, heavy makeup, unfamiliar sets, green-screen staging, unseen (CGI) characters are routine. How do you find comedic timing in this milieu? For the actor it’s a lot of guesswork, and whenever possible hanging with the timing of the other actors. That’s why ensemble acting really means something for Galaxy Quest. It has it. It had to have it.
It also had to have good direction (Dean Parisot), often terrific editing (note the final crash landing scenes), and outstanding sets and costumes. Money was not spared: Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) did the CGI and other effects, the late great Stan Winston designed the aliens. The set for the bridge of the Protector is ‘articulated,’ it moves. When a missile explodes, the entire floor shifts. Actors are not faking their panicked responses. The overall effect is a visually classy science fiction movie, again not something you’d expect from a satire (see, for example, Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs).
Sometimes I think great comedies are like great journalism – they’re great for as long as they’re contemporary. A few comedies have ‘legs’ – they persist in popularity despite the continuing flood of new material. Meanwhile, comedies (like most journalism) don’t get many publicly visible awards. So “Galaxy Quest,” while almost unarguably one of the best science fiction comedies ever made – and in fact, an outstanding comedy/satire – lives at the margin of awareness…hanging on to the shelves at Wal-Mart. If you haven’t seen Galaxy Quest, give it a look.