GALAXY QUEST was one of 2000’s nicest surprises; a sci-fi comedy that was neither snarky nor silly with a cast of both seasoned comic and more traditionally dramatic actors. The sci-fi spoof genre is littered with titles like Quark and Homeboys from Outer Space – not the sort of heap that anyone would want to be at the top of. It’s possible that the genre’s only real success has been Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, which had only a partly-successful film adaptation. Galaxy Quest’s clever conceit was to skewer Hollywood’s presentation of sci-fi while respecting the tenets that drew in fans in the first place. The initial ads brought in people looking forward to laughing at the typical convention-going fanatics, only to find it taking a surprising, welcome turn to affectionate homage. As Nicholas Meyer says in the supplemental features, “it’s a ‘have your cake and eat it too’ movie.”
The inspired beginning of the film finds the cast of early 80s television show “Galaxy Quest” making their umpteenth appearance at a sci-fi convention. Tensions among the cast are rising as aging ingénue Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver), frustrated thespian Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), burnt out Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub), and former child star Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell) discover that leading man Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) has agreed to a personal appearance sans castmates at the home of a fan. From someone who has been to more than a few horror/sci-fi conventions in his life, the accuracy with which the details are rendered here is depressingly impressive. As the actors are introduced to the audience, a giant screen plays images from the long canceled TV show behind them, and we’re treated to the first of many terrific Alan Rickman moments when he cringes at hearing his character’s catch phrase “By Grabthar’s Hammer…” but the film makes takes a brilliant turn when Nesmith takes the stage. Instead of playing off the famous SNL bit where Bill Shatner famously (and hilariously) berated conventioneers to “get a life!” Tim Allen relishes his celebrity and greedily soaks up the adoration of the fans. When he goes into a bathroom at the hotel (complete with a line of Klingons standing at the urinals) and overhears a civilian mocking both the actors and fans, it sucks the wind from his sails, depressing him to the point where he rudely dismisses a young fan (Justin Long).
After spending the night tucked into a scotch bottle, he wakes to find 4 people waiting outside his home in unusually detailed alien costumes (including an amazingly recognizable Rainn Wilson) ready to take him to his solo fan gig, and Jason passes out in the limo just before it turns into an alleyway and lifts off. Jason awakens in what he assumes to be an expensive set built in a fan’s basement. Allen is particularly good here, with a convincing weaving around asking for soda and complimenting them on how realistic everything looks. Of course everything is absolutely real, and the Thermians (as the benign alien race is called) have been intently watching the Galaxy Quest “historical documents” and designed their entire ship and all the technology on it after what they’ve seen on those records. The Thermians believe that the characters are all real space explorers and have no conception of what a television show is; an attempt to describe what an actor does simply translates as a “liar” to them. They have traveled to Earth to secure the services of Nesmith’s alter ego “Capt. Taggart” in the tense negotiations with the evil, lizard-like Sarris, who has already destroyed much of their civilization looking for a device on the Thermian ship called the Omega 13. The problem is, no one knows what the Omega 13 actually does – “Galaxy Quest” was cancelled before the plotline could be resolved. A still clueless Nesmith orders the Thermians to open fire on Sarris and blithely walks off the bridge, looking for his limo ride home. Only after being transported across the galaxy in a gelatinous pod does he realize that everything was real, but it’s tougher to convince the rest of the cast when he arrives late to the opening of an electronics store. This is one of the film’s most hilariously uncomfortable moments, with Rickman despondently hissing out his catch phrase and adding the suffix ” … what savings!” just prior to the release of about 4 small helium balloons. Even the arrival of the Thermians, who need urgently Taggart to return to their ship before it is destroyed by an enraged Sarris, fails to convince them – until the thought of turning down a paying job convinces them to go with Nesmith, with bit player Guy Fleegman (Sam Rockwell) insisting on tagging along.
As good as Allen is here (and this is his best screen work by a wide margin) the show really takes off once the rest of the cast has arrived aboard the Thermian ship. The film’s unexpected charm is that each member of the large ensemble cast is given room to maneuver; some roles, like Shalhoub’s engineer and Rockwell’s glorified extra (Guy would have been the red-shirted security officer killed before the first commercial break on Star Trek – the ‘no-duh’ inspiration for the Galaxy Quest show-within-a-show) would have been lost in the shuffle in lesser hands, but director Dean Parisot and writers David Howard and Robert Gordon keep most of the humor character based, and actor-dependant. We never cared much for Wings, but before Monk made him a viable star, Shalhoub was perpetrating minor comic masterpieces in films like Quick Change and Men in Black and his deadpan delivery is murderously funny. Ditto Sam Rockwell, whose reaction to being probed by the Thermians in their un-disguised form is a brilliant moment, and one that we wouldn’t be surprised to learn wasn’t always on the page. it’s also great to see Sigourney Weaver as loose and funny as she is here; even though she’s no stranger to the setting, the comedic element of the story – and blond bombshell wig – seems to have lit a spark, even if one of her best lines was clipped to avoid a PG-13 rating (watch her lip movements when she and Allen first arrive at the “chompers”). In this company, it seems disingenuous to say than any one actor steals the film; Galaxy Quest is definitely a case where every actor is given at least a handful of opportunities, but Rickman might have the juiciest role. Serving as the Spock surrogate to Allen’s Kirk, he wears an amazingly uncomfortable looking head appliance to give his Dr. Lazarus a nicely generic alien appearance, and spits venom at the aliens who worship him. Lazarus has the most interesting character arc; when an unexpected death late in the film breaks his resolve and he recites his hated catch phrase in utter earnestness, Rickman nails a difficult moment, and earns the scene a large measure of pathos. That’s the not-so-secret secret of Galaxy Quest’s success – a character-based comedy that walks the finest of lines; an affectionate parody that pokes gentle fun at a genre that it clearly loves.
Apparently, Galaxy Quest is still considered enough of a cult item to deny it a higher profile Blu-Ray release – a real shame, as Paramount and DreamWorks have assembled a very respectable array of extras. No commentary track is present, though it’s hard to imagine watching this film without listening to the actors.
Here’s what is:
- Historical Documents: The Story of Galaxy Quest – Here we get a general overview of the production, from screenwriting and casting through shooting and reception. Impressively, each major player – both in front of and behind the camera – is on hand for interviews, an impressive feat for a 10 year old comedy that was far from a blockbuster.
- Never Give Up, Never Surrender: The Intrepid Crew of the NSEA Protector – This featurette concentrates on the cast, all of whom remember the film fondly. Sigourney Weaver has a particularly take, having been part of the sci-fi universe with the Alien series for so long, she clearly relished the chance to play such a different character.
- By Grabthar’s Hammer, What Amazing Effects – a bittersweet recollection, as it features a vintage interview with one of the great creature creators of all time, Stan Winston, who passed away last year.
- Alien School: Creating the Thermian Race – This piece focuses on Enrico Colantoni, who played Thermian leader Mathesar. During his audition, Colantoni came up with the distinctive method of Thermian movement and speech.
- Actors in Space – Similar to the Crew featurette, the actors discuss certain aspects of their characters that might his too close to home.
- Sigourney Weaver Raps – Unable to attend her agent’s birthday party in New York, Weaver, with help from Mitchell and Rockwell, perform a brief hip hop tribute from the set.
There are also about 12 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, which include two hysterical moments, including Dr. Lazarus being shown his Spartan quarters aboard the Thermian ship, and Rockwell’s reaction to a malfunctioning gun in a scrapped version of the finale. The set is rounded out with the original trailer and a Thermian language track which is funny for about the same length of time it takes to go back to the menu and turn it off.