100 Film Favorites – #64: Galaxy Quest
(Dean Parisot, 1999)
Buzz Lightyear, Ellen Ripley, and Severus Snape crew a spaceship. That’s really all I should have to say to convince you to watch today’s selection.
I first saw Galaxy Quest on the last day of Civics class in 8th grade. Well, I saw the first two-thirds of it then, and watched the rest when I found a copy of the VHS in a gas station bargain bin. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever bought at a gas station. Except maybe gas. That stuff’s pretty important.
The film (and even its title) spoofs the successful “Star Trek” franchise. It tells the story of a group of aging actors who were once the cast of the hit science-fiction television series “Galaxy Quest.” Now primarily has-beens, they eke out a living traveling from Con to Con. The only cast member who still truly enjoys the attention from fans is James Nesmith, who played “Commander Taggart” on the show (and is played in the film by Tim Allen). At a convention, Nesmith is approached by a group of people who identify themselves as Thermians, members of an alien race in need of his help. Thinking they are recruiting him for a fan-film, Nesmith tags along. However, he soon finds himself aboard an actual spaceship. The Thermians really are aliens (cloaking themselves in human form, though resembling octopi in their natural state), and “Commander Taggart” is now in the midst of an intergalactic war. Nesmith returns to Earth and rallies his co-stars to help the Thermian cause, though the other actors also assume they are being summoned for an acting gig.
Upon discovering the seriousness of their situation, the cast try to convince the Thermians that they are not a real spaceship crew, but merely actors portraying one. The Thermians, however, have no concept of theater, and believe all “pretending” to be equivalent with lying, a practice which is strictly forbidden in their culture. The Thermians assume this is the case among species everywhere, and interpret all the radio and TV broadcasts they have intercepted from Earth as “historical documents” (going as far as sadly muttering “those poor people” when reminded of the plight of the “Gilligan’s Island” castaways).
Nesmith gradually convinces his co-stars to adopt their television identities to help the Thermians battle Sarris, an evil alien warlord. This convincing proves difficult, though, particularly in the case of Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), who played the Spock-like character “Dr. Lazarus.” Having trained as a Shakespearean actor in his younger days, Dane feels demeaned, being typecast and only remembered as Lazarus, and forced to endlessly repeat his catchphrase, “By Grapthar’s Hammer…you shall be AVENGED!”
After overcoming one epic space obstacle after another, the actors gradually grow into their roles. But when Sarris cripples their spaceship, the cast must rely on their biggest source of support… the fandom. Speaking into a tricorder-like device aboard the ship. Nesmith / Taggart is able to contact several diehard fans of the original Galaxy Quest series. The fans guide the “crew” through the bowels of the ship using detailed homemade maps of its layout. Eventually, they locate the Omega-13, a mysterious superweapon, the true purpose of which was never revealed, as the series ended in a cliffhanger. The fans and crew hope the enigmatic device may help turn the tide of battle.
SPOILERS: It does. The crew rebuffs Sarris and destroys his ship. The Thermians, having discovered the actors’ “deception,” nevertheless commend them for their bravery. They all make ready to return to Earth…and inadvertently crash-land the ship into yet another Galaxy Quest convention. Sarris makes a sudden appearance on stage and “Taggart” vaporizes him. The impressive entry and final showdown receive great applause from the assembled fans, and soon Galaxy Quest is back on the air, with an expanded cast including the Thermian lover of the show’s “Scotty” analogue, and a background actor who had accompanied the rest of the cast on their journey and now has a more major role.
There’s a lot to love about this movie. The film pokes fun at many aspects of the Star Trek franchise, from disposable “red-shirt” actors, to Captain Kirk always losing his own shirt in battle, to the rabid (and very thorough) fanbase. In this regard, Galaxy Quest can be considered one of the best parody films of the last few decades. However, it’s not merely a Star Trek spoof. Much of the film’s humor arises from the absurdity of actors being forced to adopt their roles in reality. This is a theme also explored in Tropic Thunder, another highly-recommended and funny film, though it doesn’t appear in this Countdown.
Another great thing about the movie is its cast. In addition to Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman, the large cast includes appearances by many other comedians, including Tony Shalhoub as the “Scotty” character, Justin Long (a.k.a. the “Mac” guy from the Mac vs. PC commercials) as the leader of the fans, and even Rainn Wilson, 5 years before his breakout role as Dwight Schrute, appears as a Thermian.
Galaxy Quest has even received love from actual Star Trek actors. In the words of original cast member (and eminent Facebook poster) George Takei,
“I think it’s a chillingly realistic documentary. The details in it, I recognized every one of them. It is a powerful piece of documentary filmmaking. And I do believe that when we get kidnapped by aliens, it’s going to be the genuine, true Star Trek fans who will save the day. I was rolling in the aisles.”