Funky Geek

Galaxy Quest

If a visitor from another galaxy landed on Earth to study the phenomenon of devoted Star Trek fans, I’d recommend a pair of films from 1999: Trekkies and Galaxy Quest.  The former is a superb documentary about the fans and the lengths they go to study and emulate the series.  Galaxy Quest is a more conventional movie, but while it creates a universe of its own, it remains firmly—and fondly—grounded in one we know.

Screenwriters David Howard and Robert Gordon give us a world where a certain science fiction show enjoys a huge and obsessive following, despite its dubious production values.  The cast of the show finds themselves caught up in a real-life mission to save a race of aliens who don’t understand that their heroic exploits are fictional.  The similarities to a certain real-life science fiction show are no accident, as the film both once celebrates and lampoons the Star Trek phenomenon.

The plot involves the cast of Galaxy Quest, a now-cancelled 1980s science fiction adventure show that still enjoys a large and devoted fan base.  The film opens at one of many fan conventions, where admirers dressed as crew and aliens from the series dutifully line up for autographs from the series stars, forking over their money for the privilege.  Other fans question the crew members over minutiae from the series, unaware that the cast has long forgotten their lines.  The cast is obviously weary of the routine yet just as obviously hasn’t had another job since the series was cancelled, due perhaps to the limited acting ability shared by all but the show’s token alien, played with relish by Alan Rickman.  He laments his former career as a Shakespearean leading man and resolves never to speak his catch-phrase line again.

Tim Allen and Alan Rickman in Galaxy Quest

Space Captain Tim Allen defends alien Alan Rickman in an episode of the sci-fi hit Galaxy Quest.

Also blissfully unaware of his limitations is the show’s captain (Tim Allen), a rampaging egotist who never for a second considers that the show was about anyone but him.  Allen’s insensitivity and the raw nerves of his fellow cast members cause them to bicker, especially when they’re reduced to personal appearances at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for new electronics stores.  Rickman gets a big laugh as he delivers a variation of his famous line—now morphed into a sales pitch—in a leaden monotone. 

Into this situation stumble a group of Thermians, aliens from another galaxy that’s being ravaged by the evil warlord Sarris.  Appearing in the midst of the convention crowd, they hardly raise an eyebrow despite the fact that their awkward gait and even-more-awkward speech patterns clearly mark them as aliens.  Hey, they’re just really into their fanboy roles!  The Thermians have intercepted broadcasts of Earth TV, which they mistake for “historical documents” (“those poor people,” one laments when Gilligan’s Island is mentioned). 

Thermians in human form

The Thermians, led by Mathesar (second from left), appear at a Galaxy Quest convention. 

Having no concept of pretending or acting, they assume that Allen is, in fact, the heroic captain he portrayed on the series and beg him to intervene in their conflict with Sarris.  Allen takes this plea as an offer for a solo gig and agrees to join them on their ship, which he concedes is much more impressive-looking than the cardboard sets he’s used to playing in. 

Of special note here is the performance of all the Thermians, especially Enrico Colantoni as their leader, Mathesar.  The awkwardness of their human guises is magnified by their hero-worship of the Galaxy Quest crew, and they speak as if they’re constantly on the verge of running out of breath. 

On being returned to Earth via an impressive special-effects display, Allen realizes the aliens are real and longs to return to playing his starring role as the adored captain.  He rounds up the crew, including Sigourney Weaver, nearly-unrecognizable in a blonde wig, whose character was pretty much relegated to set decoration on the show.  Her only role on the show was to repeat the computer’s dialogue, and to her dismay she adopts the same habit on the real ship’s bridge. 

Also on board is one hapless extra (Sam Rockwell)—who treasures his fifteen minutes of fame from a brief appearance as an extra on the show.  At first he insists tagging along with the crew, then realizes to his horror that he’s playing the role of the hapless extra who gets killed to demonstrate how serious the situation is. 

The film’s brilliance is that it parallels the Star Trek experience in so many ways without becoming too obvious or condescending about it.  Although the adventure story is more than entertaining enough to satisfy the average filmgoer, even casual Star Trek fans will appreciate the many references, 

The Galaxy Quest crew on an alien planet

The Galaxy Quest crew explores an alien planet in search of the rare Beryllium Sphere. 

from the cheesy Styrofoam rocks in the series clips to the way Tim Allen leans on the arm of his captain’s chair to the vital element powering the ship that of course breaks, forcing the crew to search for a replacement.  (Trivia note: Rather than “dilithium crystals,” the crew must locate a “beryllium sphere,” which also makes an appearance in 1994’s The Shadow.) 

The film’s action is kicked off by the captain’s vast ego—mistaking the bridge of the new ship for a cardboard set, he interrupts Sarris’ demands with a volley of cannon fire and then blithely returns to Earth, unaware that real aliens hold grudges that don’t defer to the captain’s star status. 

Sarris interrogates Captain Taggart

The evil Sarris disrespects Tim Allen's egotistical captain. 

The film indulges in many other clichés as well, that will strike familiar chords with Star Trek fans.  At one point, Allen is in a desperate fight with a giant creature, and naturally the matter transporter is on the blink, and only the chief engineer can operate it.  (The engineer, otherwise played with hilarious nonchalance by Tony Shalhoub, has a wonderful moment of panic, protesting that not only is he not the engineer “Tech Sgt. Chen,” but that he isn’t even “Fred Kwan”—it’s a stage name.)  Naturally, during the fight, Allen’s shirt is ripped to shreds, revealing the softening remains of a once-buff torso.  

Allen’s fitness trainer receives a screen credit, and Allen deserves credit too—he obviously worked hard to get in shape, and then allowed his physique to deteriorate just enough to indicate that his captain is well past his prime.  When the transporting is finally successful, Rickman dryly observes that Allen managed to get his shirt off once again.

Another of the film’s strengths is in the way the characters change as a result of their experiences.  At their core, that’s what films are about—not just what happens to a character but how he or she changes as a result.  (And a lack of attention to this fact is why so many of the films Hollywood spews out are so lame.)  The filmmakers don’t just give us an affectionate look at the world of sci-fi heroes and fanboys—they give us a movie in which the Shatner-analogue realizes he’s a jerk, then realizes that he really can be a hero. 

Even the fans of the show get to shine, as a group of the more-obsessive followers turn out to possess knowledge vital to the ship’s survival.  Contacted by long-range communicator, they revel in having their belief that the show was real all along confirmed.  And what sci-fi fan hasn’t secretly yearned that all that trivia knowledge would some day put turn out to be vital to save the world?  Director Dean Parisot, who also helmed the Drew Barrymore comedy Home Fries, manages to provide abundant entertainment while remaining an intelligent and good-humored film.

Rating StarStarStarStar

All images are © 1999 Dreamworks and are reproduced here under fair use.  No credit for original composition of images should be implied.

Rating Scheme:

Star: A stinker.  Bad beyond any “so-bad-it’s-good” value.

StarStar: Fair.  Bad yet entertaining, or a failed but interesting attempt to make a good movie

StarStarStar: Decent. A nice little movie, not outstanding but thoroughly entertaining.

StarStarStarStar: Very good.  A solid evening’s entertainment, or an excellent example of a genre.

StarStarStarStarStar: A classic.  One of the all time best.  If you haven’t seen it, see it at once or hang your head in shame.


Galaxy Quest on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)

Galaxy Quest Official Site

Galaxy Quest Official Fan Site


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