GALAXY QUEST (1999)
David Howard and Robert Gordon; story by Howard
Why It's Here
When you hear the term "feel-good movie," what do you picture in your mind? Odds are you're thinking about a heartwarming dramatic feature, most likely based on a true story, in which a misunderstood and disrespected underdog finds their inner strength, defeats their demons, and wins the big game / gets the girl / saves the orphanage. What most people struggle to recognize is that the feel-good formula can exist within a broad range of genres and styles. One of my earlier entries in this series is precisely that sort of underdog-wins-the-big-game story I just described. Does it make it any less valid a feel-good scenario if the underdog in question was really a pig? An equally unlikely and just as stirring entry in the feel-good pantheon is 1999's Galaxy Quest, a beautifully rendered and affectionate sci-fi satire in which the hard-luck cast of a mothball-scented Star Trek-style cult TV show lands the role of a lifetime…as the crew of a genuine space mission to battle an honest-to-God alien warlord. It would be hard to imagine a pack of dogs more under than the "crew" of the NSEA Protector, nor a bigger game than the fate of an entire benevolent race menaced by warrior lizards from another galaxy. But this is an aspect of Galaxy Quest that snuck up on most of its earliest audiences, who likely attended this Christmas Day release expecting some wacky sci-fi-fueled hijinks and nothing more. I know that's all my brother and I were aiming for when we bought our tickets, but when we walked out of the theater two hours later, we were stunned to find not only how many laughs we had enjoyed, but how happy the film had made both of us feel. I believe that it is this heartwarming and inspirational tone, slipped in amidst all the admittedly dynamite jokes packed into the screenplay by David Howard and Robert Gordon, that helped to transform the film into a solid holiday-season hit.
The film blasts off with images from the glory days of Galaxy Quest, a Trek manqué right down to its none-too-convincing plywood bridge set and the awkward camera jostles used to simulate a space-laser direct hit. These images are being screened for an enthusiastic audience of conventioneers, a gang of super-fans who Howard and Gordon wisely never milk for easy at-the-expense-of-nerds laughs. Sure, it's funny to see a bunch of Klingons shoulder to shoulder at a men's room urinal, but the people behind the elaborate makeup and headpieces are never condescended to or treated as if they're inferior to the viewer simply for loving a piece of niche-taste genre material. This indicates that, as with previous countdown entries Fear of a Black Hat and This is Spinal Tap, Galaxy Quest is that increasingly rare beast: A parody with genuine affection for its satirical subject. Howard and Gordon clearly love Star Trek, cheesy production values and all, and that delight in the source material translates to the screen in its unabashed and sincere appreciation for even the most obsessive Galaxy Quest TV series fans, an unspoken understanding most clearly embodied in the character of Brandon (Justin Long in his feature-film debut), who brings his "crew" of geek buddies to the convention to riddle the cast members with questions about the most minute Galaxy Quest esoterica imaginable.
But not everyone in Galaxy Quest loves Galaxy Quest. The cast members' feelings about the show that made them famous and straitjacketed them into sci-fi personae for the rest of their lives are, at best, extremely mixed. Some of them, like blonde eye-candy-with-a-brain Gwen DeMarco (a lively Sigourney Weaver) and former child star / ship's pilot Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell), seem to have settled into their pigeonhole and made relative peace with it, while Protector science officer Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub…and no, I don't know why a Lebanese man is named "Kwan" either) has retreated into a foggy mental haze that indicates either severe I-don't-give-a-shitness or a fairly extended history with depressants. (In the original, harder-edged draft of the screenplay, Kwan was specifically portrayed as a pothead; this aspect of the character was excised to obtain a more family-friendly PG rating, but his space-cadet persona was retained.) For classically trained British thespian Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman, dryly hilarious), on the other hand, the role of fish-fin-headed Dr. Lazarus has murdered both his credibility and his love for his craft; he woefully laments his past as a celebrated Shakespearean ("I played Richard III…I had nine curtain calls," he whines in a lament his castmates can now recite by heart) and is only coaxed onto the convention stage with the age-old actor's exhortation "The show must go on." That encouragement is provided by the Protector's "captain" and the bane of his costars' existences, Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen, blessedly free of Shatner mannerisms and never better in a live-action film). Jason seems to be the only Galaxy Quest performer who relishes the dubious perks of once-upon-a-time stardom; he swaggers like he's still at the top of the ratings, he throws come-ons at Gwen like it's part of his job description, and his commitment to the role earns him swoons from the ladies and wide eyes from the little kids. All is well in Jason's world…until he overhears a pair of dickhead teenagers in the convention hall men's room as they insult the pathetic fanboys at the con and the has-been "actors" they've all queued up to see. Jason responds to this with a signing-table meltdown directed at hapless Brandon; when hammered with minutiae-driven questions by the eager super-fan, he responds by assuring him that "There's no quantum flux, there's no auxiliary, there's no goddamn ship!" It's the legendary William Shatner "get a life" Saturday Night Live sketch played for poignance rather than laughs, and the heart-tugging continues when we see Jason later that night, in his lavish but notably empty Hollywood Hills home (Howard and Gordon make a point of showing that the fame of the Galaxy Quest cast has failed them in one respect, as Jason, Gwen and Dane all seem to live alone), drunken and forlorn as he stumbles to recite a stirring speech along with his character on TV. The writers smartly refrain from making the actor characters too similar to one another or giving them all the same attitude about the show that made them famous; they all have different actorly dreams and neuroses, and these conflicting personalities keep the energy high and the clashing of characters piquant even as they find themselves engaged in a genuine deep-space conflict.
That battle kicks into gear when the Thermians, a docile and peace-loving race of aliens led by the endlessly grinning Mathasar (Enrico Colantoni, in a goofily inspired performance), approach Jason begging for the kind of space-hopping help that only the Protector's intrepid crew can provide. The Thermians are under siege from a race of malevolent reptilian space monsters led by the dastardly Sarris (Robin Sachs, genuinely menacing in fantastic old-school makeup by the late, great Stan Winston), and they, having intercepted satellite feeds of old Galaxy Quest reruns that they believe to be "historical documents," talk Jason in to corralling his old castmates for a genuine, real-life space adventure. Howard and Gordon smartly have Jason react with enthusiasm rather than Peter Venkman-like skepticism to this fantastical proposition. He of course at first thinks it's just more fans taking it too far (the hung-over Jason, staggering obliviously through the corridors of a real-life starship, mutters to the Thermians, "So do you have pages or do you just want me to wing this?"), but when the illusion becomes reality, Jason, the man amongst the Protector crew who most depends on maintaining that illusion in order to give his life any meaning whatsoever, leaps at the chance to become a space captain for real. This reaction on his part shows how Howard and Gordon have really thought about how these people, with these particular personalities, would react to this unbelievable scenario. Dane pushes back the most, Gwen and Tommy just assume it's Jason drunkenly rambling again, while Kwan…well, nothing rattles this moon-headed drug casualty (beamed aboard the Thermians' ship, he merely mutters, "That was a hell of a thing…").
As the battle intensifies between Sarris and the Thermians, Howard and Gordon have ample opportunity to showcase the Thermians' culture, which they have modeled entirely after the futuristic "reality" of Galaxy Quest, which they consider to be a reflection of the ideal society (this is not dissimilar to deeply religious people attempting to live "as Christ would have", but the writers never address this connection head on, and it is perhaps best left as subtext in a movie that is, after all, basically light entertainment). This slavish devotion to a world that the Protector's crew of course knows to be phony is, naturally, not without its problems. Dining with the Thermians, who have programmed their food machines to produce the prototypical cuisine of the Galaxy Quest characters' home regions, Dane finds himself turning up his nose at a goblet full of hideous space beetles "just like Mama used to make". Tommy is forced to pilot a spacecraft whose controls are based entirely on his own mimed hand motions…never mind that he's never actually flown a spaceship, or even an airplane, in his life (bringing the ship out of its hangar causes no end of tension and more than a few scraped-free wing panels). During a race against time to rescue the Protector, Gwen and Jason encounter a corridor lined with raising and crushing pylons, seemingly there for no reason other than that the Protector housed just such a nonsensical death-trap hallway in one particular episode (Gwen refuses to run through the gauntlet, screaming that "This episode was badly written!"). It's a marvelous example of the logic of popular entertainment smacking up against the cold hard truth of the real world, and the Thermians, ultimate fanboys that they are, never once question that Dane might not want to eat bugs, that there's no reason the Protector would house a corridor that seems designed merely to attempt to kill its own crew members. After all, it happened on the show…so it must have happened for a reason. Right?
Then again, of course, the Thermians don't know it's only a show…until a harrowing moment in which Sarris makes his way onto the Thermians' ship and, torturing Mathasar, demands that Jason tell him the truth about the Protector and its crew. Jason, to his credit, had already attempted to explain this to Mathasar and the others when the action had gotten particularly hairy. But the nonplussed aliens, having the concept of acting explained to them, could only recognize it as "deception…lies", something that Sarris had done to them before: "He will say one thing and do another." Of course, they could never conceive of "Peter Quincy Taggart", stalwart commander of the greatest starship in the galaxy, doing something that their mortal enemy would do…and they certainly can't comprehend the idea of someone doing it merely to amuse others. But Jason comes clean, reveals the truth about who he and his crew really are…and still is able to marshall his team to stand up to Sarris, unleash the power of the ship's classic MacGuffin, the "Omega-13", and save the galaxy. As much as anything, Galaxy Quest is a parable about the power of belief, in others and in oneself. Jason, Dane, Gwen and the others know that to most of their home planet, they are nothing but a bunch of has-beens hawking 8x10 glossies at a convention table for forty bucks a pop. But if an entire race of beings sees you as noble, upstanding saviors, the very exemplars of all they have wanted their society to be…at the end of the day, don't you owe it to them to at least try to live up to the standard to which they've held you? For that matter, don't you owe it to yourself? Doesn't the show, indeed, need to go on, even if it puts you and the rest of the galaxy squarely in the balance? It's a stirring subject for what is ostensibly a piece of cinematic family fun to take on, and it puts Galaxy Quest proudly alongside the best entertainment-with-a-message that Disney and Pixar have ever given to the mass audience.
By embracing the power of the Thermians' belief in the Protector's crew, Galaxy Quest stands as a paean to that much-maligned cultural figure: the fanboy. This film was made in an era before fanboys and their favorite media and literature stood astride the pop-cultural universe like cape-wearing colossi, when portraying obsessive Star Trek fans, indeed science fiction fans in general, as pimply, nitpicking perpetual virgins was de rigueur in comedy. Howard and Gordon, on the other hand, choose to present obsessive fandom as a potential force for universal salvation. The Thermians would never be able to defeat Sarris on their own; their benevolent gentleness is no match for his deceptive, brutal manner of conquest. Only by banking their faith on their love for a decades-old, past-its-prime TV show and its crew are they able to harness the technological savvy, tactical acumen, and spiritual strength ("Never give up! Never surrender!") to defend themselves, defeat Sarris, and bring order to the galaxy. The power of one's love for cheesy old TV can be so powerful in the world of Galaxy Quest that it can save your life even if you don't realize it's just a TV show that you love. And it's not just the Thermians who benefit from the love they have for Galaxy Quest; it ultimately saves the cast members as well, as poor, put-upon Brandon is called upon for his expertise about the Protector's infrastructure to guide Gwen and Jason (who accidentally switched Brandon's toy communicator for a real Thermian one during a parking lot mishap at a supermarket opening) through the ship's bowels to stop a self-destruct device that threatens to destroy the ship. Howard and Gordon have rendered Galaxy Quest as a testament to the ways in which fanboy culture has enriched the knowledge base, empathic abilities, and spiritual intelligence of its adherents. When you hear die hard Star Wars and Doctor Who fans discuss the objects of their cultural devotion, the zeal and passion with which they outline the metaphysical undergirdings of their beloved entertainments borders on religious fervor. It has clearly touched their lives, made them different people, often better people, than they were before. Galaxy Quest understands this truth intimately, and deftly illustrates how such cultural forces can work to the good of both their consumers and creators alike.
And none of this even takes into account the film's magnificent trickster element: Guy Fleegman, a former one-off Galaxy Quest cast member played, in a brilliant performance, by the always reliably entertaining Sam Rockwell. (And just because I can't let this review pass without at least a little fanboy-baiting…Rockwell's Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2 is one of the best performances in any Marvel film. Deal with it.) Guy was a classic redshirt, a cannon-fodder crew member who bought it in a single Galaxy Quest episode years ago and now makes his bones huckstering at conventions, introducing the regular cast members at their signings and milking his one moment standing in the shadow of greatness for all it is worth. Anyone who has ever been to any convention can tell you that Guy is not a figment of the Galaxy Quest's writers' imaginations; these individuals exist by the dozens. He manages to get himself swept up into the Thermians' recruitment and finds himself along on the Protector crew's greatest mission ever…and his reaction, naturally, is that of the perpetual not-ready-for-prime-time player. He screams in hysterics the first time he lays eyes on an alien, whimpers about the certainty that he will die first when the crew touches down on an alien planet to harvest an energy-giving beryllium sphere (in his defense, he's not the only one convinced on this last point; when a group of razor-toothed aliens threatens to attack, Gwen bleats, in a quick throwaway that might be the single funniest line in the whole film, "We gotta get outta here before one of those things kills Guy!"), and is so torn about the tenuous nature of his necessity to the Protector crew and its mission that he starts to question whether he, the actor, not the character he played, even has a last name. The film subjects Guy to some of its most merciless jokes. A reluctant groupie, in another cough-and-you'll-miss-it laugh line, shoves a grabby Guy away backstage with a snide "You live with your mom!", and even in the film's spectacular climax, when the real ship crashes right into the stage at a Galaxy Quest convention, the con's MC (played, in a nice quick cameo, by The Kids in the Hall's Kevin McDonald), introducing the emerging crew members, can only dub Guy, "Uh…another shipmate!" But it's impossible to deny that one-off grunts like Guy are the heart and soul of Galaxy Quest and franchises just like it, with most fans knowing, deep in their hearts, that if they lived in this world, the chances of them being Luke Skywalker or Captain Picard are much smaller than the odds that they'd be just another Guy. Just ask the countless Wedge Antilles fans out there about this; they'll tell you exactly what I mean. And the film gets it too, giving Guy the ultimate hero's reward at the end when he joins Galaxy Quest: The New Adventures as a full-fledged cast member. His character's got a last name and everything.
J.J. Abrams, director of the highly acclaimed Star Trek reboot and helmsman for the currently-in-production, formally untitled Star Wars: Episode VII, has called Galaxy Quest "one of the best Star Trek movies ever made." While you may or may not agree with that assessment, it's hard to deny that it is arguably the best movie ever made about Star Trek, about what it means to its fans, and about all of the unexpected adventures, dangerous, desultory and delightful, that it has brought to the lives of those who made it and live it. I'm not a particular adherent of any one fanboy culture, but many of my friends are. I've got friends who can quote chapter and verse from Doctor Who, and my brother knew a young man who wept when the Enterprise crew was forced to sacrifice the beloved starship to save themselves in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. (Having not seen the film in years, I eagerly await the comments: "Well, actually, they had to destroy the Enterprise to…") My ex-Zombette, a die-hard Marvel fangirl, cried at the end of Iron Man Three last summer. I hope they're all reading this, and I hope they all know: Galaxy Quest feels you, it understands you, and it loves you. Guys, gals, and every fanboy and fangirl out there in Pop Culture Land, on behalf of David Howard, Robert Gordon, and myself…this one's for you.
AWARDS WON: Silver Raven, Best Screenplay, Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film; Hugo Award, Best Dramatic Presentation (shared with director Dean Parisot); Nebula Award, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Best Script