A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 335 – Galaxy Quest

Galaxy Quest – January 29th, 2011

Tonight we end our two weeks of Star Trek with a movie that isn’t technically part of the universe but is so obviously an homage not only to the fictional universe in the shows and movies and books, but to the fandom as well. After all, what fan wouldn’t want, one day, to find out that it was all really real? And how better to tell that story than as a parody of the entire thing, so it can’t possibly take itself too seriously? It is a brilliant bit of meta geek love with a fun plot and a clever script and a fantastic cast and scads of references for fans of Star Trek and all science fiction to enjoy.

The similarities to Star Trek are immediately apparent when the movie opens. The subject of it all is a show called Galaxy Quest. It had a short run in the 1980s and has inspired a huge following in the world of the film. We see the ending of a cliffhanger episode as shown at a Galaxy Quest convention and it is so very cheesy and so very perfect. Backstage at the convention the cast are gathered, dressed in costume but older and a little over it all (or in one case, very over it all). There’s the respected British actor, Alexander Dane, who played an alien crewmember on the show and feels he’s been ruined by his association with it, destined to always be the weird alien who played second fiddle to the commander. There’s the token woman, played by Gwen DeMarco, frustrated by her character’s lack of purpose and the media’s obsession with her breasts. There’s Tommy Webber, who was the child prodigy character and is now grown up. There’s Fred Kwan, who seems constantly stoned and well past his glory days. And then there’s Jason Nesmith, the commander of the ship. Still super into the show even years later, with a huge ego and enthusiasm that irritate the hell out of the rest of the cast. Come on, like you can’t see the connections there.

I could go into the specifics of the show and the cast and their relationships, but really, it’s not all that complicated. It’s a fond yet mocking reference to everything Trek. Sure, we’re not talking point by point direct similarities, but they’re close enough to see. The movie starts out a little brutal, to be honest, with Nesmith going into the bathroom at the convention after spending the afternoon being beloved by the fans around him and hearing two teenagers totally rip him apart. It’s demoralizing and it’s painful and he goes back to the autograph table and takes it out on a group of young fans, exhorting them all to realize that it’s all made up. It’s all fake. If you’ve seen the SNL skit where Shatner tells a room full of faux convention-goers to “get a life”? It’s that scene. And according to the movie trivia, it’s based on something that happened to Shatner. Man, how depressing.

But it’s necessary, because the real plot of the movie is what happens when, after that, Nesmith and the rest of the cast (and the fans he snapped at) all find out that no. It’s not fake. It’s real. Dangerously and amazingly real. The cast ends up in space, helping a crew of naive aliens battle a formidable foe. The naive aliens – Thermians – have been receiving the Galaxy Quest broadcasts for years and believe they’re all real. Their entire culture is now based on the ideals of the show. And they need the help of the true crew to defeat their enemy. Of course, the cast are all just actors! But also of course they all rise to meet the challenge.

It’s full of fantastic bits of meta, like when it’s pointed out that everyone can hear what the computer says so why does Gwen keep repeating it? Well, it was built to echo the show, so since Lt. Tawny Madison repeated everything to and from the computer, Gwen has to do it too, just like her character. Stupid! But still necessary. Down on an alien planet to find a necessary item for the ship’s engines, the crew thinks they can waltz right in and grab it until Guy – an extra who’d been working at the convention and tagged along – screams at them “Didn’t you ever watch the show?!” He knows how it works, and he knows he is Galaxy Quest’s version of a Red Shirt. Nesmith ends up losing his shirt (and is mocked for it by Dane). The ship’s self-destruct stops at one second regardless of when the cancellation button is pushed. And then there are the “chompers”, which Gwen demands to know the purpose of before declaring that the episode they’re from was badly written. The movie winks constantly, knowing that every moment is that much funnier for it.

The big space battle and the cast finding themselves and growing to become a true team after years of bickering and boredom is all fantastic stuff. But the true heart of the movie for me is when they call upon the fans back on Earth for help. This is why this movie is perfect to watch not just after the Star Trek feature films but after the documentaries as well. It is a celebration of fandom and fannish pursuits. It’s that impossible wish that some day the bizarrely encyclopedic knowledge that you have of the workings of a fictional starship or the like might actually come in handy. Because after those poor young fans got snapped at and had their big plans ruined by Nesmith, he calls them up from space, knowing they can help him. Because while it was never really real for him, no matter how much he loved it, it is real to them. Justin Long plays the leader of the little crew, Brandon, and he is pitch perfect in the role.

The whole cast is excellent, really. Tim Allen as Nesmith/Commander Taggart, Alan Rickman as Dane/Dr. Lazarus, Sigourney Weaver as Gwen/Lt. Madison, Tony Shalhoub as Fred/Tech Sgt. Chen (who has some of our favorite and most quoted lines), Daryl Mitchell as Tommy/Laredo and Sam Rockwell as Guy, the extra. They all manage to inhabit these wonderfully dual/meta roles. The aliens are fantastic as well and I highly recommend checking the alternate language tracks on the DVD – but not for long. Everyone involved in this movie deserves a huge amount of credit for making it work. Because it could have fallen flat if it hadn’t been handled just right, but everything, from the big rock monster to the alien girlfriend to the final entrance at the convention? It all hits the perfect notes.

A final note: I don’t usually link to fanfiction in my reviews as it usually doesn’t seem quite appropriate. After all, there’s a ton of fanfic out there and if people want to go looking it’s not like it’s hard to find. That being said, I think there’s something about this particular movie that makes it appropriate here. After all, it’s a Star Trek parody (itself a form of fan work) where fans of a show find out that the show is real and use fan knowledge to help out. That’s so deliciously meta. And it begs for more fannish content. And so I present links to two of my personal favorite works, one of which deals with the “real world” in the movie and one of which deals with the “fiction”.
Secret Lives of the Cast of Galaxy Quest – Five scenes detailing the lives of five of the cast members and how they ended up on the show and what it did to/for them. For humor, my favorite is Fred’s.
Artificial Devotion – A fantastic piece that is more fanfic for the show within the movie, explaining just why it is that Tawny Madison has to be the one to talk to the computer. Creepy and a little sad, but excellent.

January 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Galaxy Quest

January 29, 2011

Galaxy Quest

How else could we possibly conclude our Star Trek extravaganza than to watch this hilarious, wonderful, meta masterpiece? It may not be a Star Trek movie, but this movie, especially after the fun of Trekkies and Trekkies Two, is clearly a giant love note to Trek fans.

Indeed the movie begins at a fan convention. It’s full of folks in uniforms and dressed as various aliens buying merchandise and waiting in lines to get signatures from the fans of the show. Of course in this movie the show is not Star Trek (in spite of the many resemblances) but is Galaxy Quest – a cheesy 1980s program about the adventures of the NSEA Protector and her crew. There’s the brash captain, the young pilot, the sexy communications officer, the brilliant engineer and the alien science officer. As we join the actors who played these parts back in the day it is eighteen years later. They are washed up has-beens working the con circuit with no particular careers to speak of. Jason Nesbith in particular (who played Commander Taggart on the show) is caught up in his own legend. As one of his co-stars puts it: the fans love him – almost as much as he loves himself.

The twist here is that far off on the other side of the galaxy a naive race of aliens called Thermians have been watching the old Galaxy Quest programs and are under the mistaken belief that all the events portrayed in the show were historical fact. They have built their civilization and technology on what they observed of Galaxy Quest, and as a result there is a real Protector with a real beryllium sphere and real energy armor and real transporter pods. When their civilization is threatened by an evil overlord they turn to Jason Nesbith and his fellow actors, thinking that they are the actual Commander and crew they have seen so much of in the “historical documents.”

The joy of this movie is that it is the dream of every sci-fi fan. Everything that was on the old Galaxy Quest program turns out to be real. What if it turned out that all those unimaginative thugs throughout the lives of every fan with their “get a life” taunts about what a waste of time your dedication to your fandom is ere actually completely wrong all along? What if you could actually take part in the adventures you’ve always felt were more important than reality anyhow? It’s just spectacular to see these washed up actors discovering that they actually have it inside themselves to be the heroes they used to portray. There’s a dedicated young fan of the show played by Justin Long who seems to be directly modeled on Gabriel Koerner from our last two movies – and he gets probably the most enviable character arc since his lowly nerd is actually able to save the crew of the Protector using his knowledge of the show. Every fan’s dream.

This movie is packed with wonderful performances and memorable moments and lines. Tim Allen is wonderful as William Shatner Jason Nesmith. Alan Rickman is perfectly cast as the weary Shakespearean actor Alexander Dane – who portrayed the alien on the bridge (apparently a sort of combination of the logic of a Vulcan with the nobility of a Klingon.) His complete disdain for his character’s catch phrase not only makes for some laughs at the start of the film, but gives the movie one of its most touching and tender moments near the end. Sigourney Weaver plays the only female member of the bridge crew, and her character is well aware of how stupid and demeaning her role is. One of my favorite parts of the whole movie is Tony Shalhoub as the perpetually stoned and completely unflappable Fred Kwan, who is unfazed by the discovery that there are people who believe the role he once played was real. I’ll admit that I never watched Monk while it was on TV, but I was tempted because I so loved Tony’s performance here. He has most of the best lines and deliveries in the movie. Then there’s my other favorite part – Sam Rockwell as Guy, the character so unimportant that he doesn’t even have a last name. In one of those self-aware bits of humor that makes this movie so great Guy is perfectly aware that since he is the only human who is not a member of the bridge crew he is expendable and will probably die at any moment. Sam Rockwell is just fantastic in every role I’ve ever seen him in from this to Zaphod Beeblebrox to the trapped space miner Sam Bell to Iron Man’s nemesis Justin Hammer to anti-Nixon journalist James Reston Jr. Go read some of our other reviews – Sam Rockwell is all over our collection and discovering him as an actor has been one of the joys of this project.

I once kicked a hole in a wall because my sister teased me by telling me that something I cared deeply about was just fantasy. Of course I know that – I knew it then. I don’t think that there are many fans of anything who cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy (hint: reality is unfair and difficult to win at) but I also don’t think there are many fans who don’t wish deep in their heart that what they love and obsess over was actually real. This film is an exploration of just how wonderful it would be if that were true. (For a darker and much more upsetting take on the same basic theme I recommend Lev Grossman’s The Magicians: A Novel.)

January 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment