Galaxy Quest (1999)

2012 Update: I’ve just revisited Galaxy Quest and am happy to report that it holds up very well more than a decade later. It has a special place in my heart for its sense of humor, for its remarkable use of Tim Allen (an actor I can rarely tolerate), and for the way it introduced moviegoers to the talents of Sam Rockwell, who has been vital to many impressive films since then. Its special effects look increasingly shoddy, but that seems to suit the spirit and shape of the movie, which shows affection for slapdash, low-budget, sci-fi movie conventions even as it spoofs them. And for all of its absurdities, the movie remains unapologetic, confident, and sure-footed. I would ask for a sequel if the last 20 years of comedy sequels hadn’t convinced me that comedy sequels are almost always a bad idea.

Here’s my original, hastily written review, which was first published at the original Looking Closer website in 1999.

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Galaxy Quest is a solid, consistently funny, creative, visually impressive sci-fi spoof that stands out from other spoofs because it manages to balance silliness with sincerity.

I initially avoided it, fairly sure that I smelled a stinker. Boy, was I wrong. This is not another waste of special effects and acting talent. This is not the Lost in Space movie. This one’s a keeper, especially for sci-fi fans.

The movie introduces a Star Trek clone, a popular TV phenomenon called Galaxy Quest, and takes us to a convention where maniacal fans line up to meet their TV heroes. The cast of the show signing autographs includes an arrogant captain like Captain Kirk (Tim Allen), a humiliated Shakespearean actor best-known for his limited part as the Spock-clone (Alan Rickman), a big-breasted beauty whose job on the show is to repeat whatever the computer says (Sigourney Weaver), and several more recognizable archetypes. (Even their names are nods to their stereotypes — Rickman plays Alexander Dane, the actor that portrays the Vulcan-like Dr. Lazarus.)

The cast is in for a real surprise. They have fans out there beyond the stratosphere… fans that don’t know the show isn’t real. In fact, these aliens believe that the televised episodes of Galaxy Quest are a historical document. So when the aliens come under attack, they decide to appeal to the universe’s boldest heroes. They steal them away in hopes that these legends can save them from their violent and ugly alien oppressor.

Sound familiar? Yes, this happened when a bunch of Mexicans stole away the Three Amigos to save their village from raiders. And it happened when circus bugs were tricked into defending the ant colony in A Bug’s Life. While I criticized A Bug’s Life for borrowing so blatantly a plot from a previous film, I won’t bother to complain about this one. After all, Galaxy Quest exists to echo old formulas. Every scene is so packed with detailed tributes to this or that sci-fi classic, I’m sure this movie will reward repeated viewings and be as much fun to watch in ten years as it is to watch now.

This is not a mockery of Star Trek. By emphasizing the show’s appealing traits as well as its flaws, Galaxy Quest is clearly an intelligent tribute. And whether you love or hate Star Trek, you’ll find that the cast are warm and enthusiastic, setting a perfect balance between lampooning and honoring the actors and characters they represent. In recent years, the Star Trek franchise has lost that frivolity that makes the original series so much fun to watch even today. It has tried to become more serious, overbearingly meaningful, and politically correct. As a result, its become less entertaining. And because its sermons are paper-thin, there’s little left to make new episodes memorable. (I’m sure I’ll get mail for this. But that’s been my experience.) I hope the Star Trek franchise can learn something from this movie and find once again that balance of sincerity and silliness. I have to agree with a few other critics I’ve read… this is the best Star Trek movie in ages.

I applaud the screenwriters, David Howard and Robert Gordon. They knew when to quit. A spoof like this can wear out its welcome quickly. These writers stuck to the strongest jokes, kept things moving, and never let things become too serious. They even manage to orchestrate a couple of tender moments in the hilarity. Galaxy Quest never stoops to the base and dirty humor that would have been so easy, and as a result, it remains good clean fun for the whole family.

My compliments to the cast for working well together and having the humility to take on roles that are hardly flattering… especially the distinguished Alan Rickman and the always-professional Sigourney Weaver, both consummate actors. It’s good to know these fine talents have not lost the joy of doing something for fun.

Kudos also to Stan Winston, who makes this film distinctive from most serious sci-fi films by creating some truly fascinating and striking alien creatures. The monstrous villains in this film are as impressive as anything we’ve seen in the Star Wars series.

By chuckling at the conventions even as it serves them up, Galaxy Quest affirms that this kind of entertainment can be worthwhile, even inspiring. Legendary heroes like these may be absurdly idealistic to grownups, but for viewers with enough imagination and childlike enthusiasm, they can be an inspiration. Just watch how this whining, insecure bunch gains confidence when they’re forced to behave like their onscreen personalities.

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Director – Dean Parisot; writers – David Howard and Robert Gordon; based on a story by Mr. Howard; director of photography – Jerzy Zielinski; editors – Don Zimmerman; music – David Newman; production designer – Linda DeScenna; producers – Mark Johnson and Charles Newirth. Starring – Tim Allen (Jason Nesmith), Sigourney Weaver (Gwen DeMarco), Alan Rickman (Alexander Dane), Tony Shalhoub (Fred Kwan), Sam Rockwell (Guy Fleegman), Daryl Mitchell (Tommy Webber), Robin Sachs (Sarris) and Enrico Colantoni (Mathesar). Dreamworks Pictures. 102 minutes. Rated PG.
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