Galaxy Quest (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Back in the years when Star Trek was still a cult phenomenon (instead of a mainstream cash cow for Paramount Pictures), fan fiction was about the only way Trekkies could experience the latest exploits of their favorite characters. One of the more inventive examples of such writing was called "Visit to a Weird Planet Revisited" (by Ruth Berman). The premise underlying this story is that a transporter malfunction causes three Star Trek characters (from an alternate universe) to switch places with the actors playing them. Consequently, William Shatner finds himself in command of a very real starship out in space that is under attack by the nefarious Klingons. This same central conceit forms the basis of the movie Galaxy Quest, except that the TV show in question is only Star Trek in spirit, not in fact.

Since its cancellation in 1982, Galaxy Quest has developed a loyal and fanatical following. However, none of the actors who appeared in the series have gone on to greater glory. Instead, they continue to earn a living by taking bit parts and appearing in costume at Galaxy Quest conventions. Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), who played Commander Peter Quincy Taggart, seems to enjoy being associated with his character, but his opinion is not shared by his fellow cast members. Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver), Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub), and Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell) regard their lot in life with resignation, but Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), who played the alien Dr. Lazarus, is resentful. Then, during one Galaxy Quest convention, Nesmith is approached by a group of fans dressed up (or so he thinks) as aliens. Their leader, Mathesar (Enrico Colantoni), explains that his people, the Thermians, need Commander Taggart's help. In short order, thinking they're going to some sort of low-level acting gig, Nesmith and his fellow actors find themselves transported to a space ship where they are expected to dispatch an intergalactic tyrant. It seems that the Thermians have picked up the Galaxy Quest TV show broadcasts and have mistaken the program for a series of "historical documents." So, believing Nesmith to be Taggart, they expect him to save the day.

In terms of parodying all things Star Trek, Galaxy Quest is often inventive, hitting both obvious and not-so-obvious targets. Fandom receives the sharpest edge of director Dean Parisot's satirical blade, although he and his screenwriters (Robert Gordon and David Howard) are never overtly vicious or cruel in their thrusts (at least no more than William Shatner was in his famous Saturday Night Live appearance). More than one attendee at the Galaxy Quest convention has a hard time differentiating reality from fantasy, and almost everyone there quotes dialogue from episodes with the kind of reverence that deeply religious people reserve for scriptural text.

What we see of the Galaxy Quest TV show looks an awful lot like Star Trek - right down to the indoor planet sets with styrofoam rocks. Taggart is a Kirk clone, and there's more than a passing likeness between Dr. Lazarus and Spock. The tempestuous relationships among the Galaxy Quest actors also recall those of the Trek cast members. Nesmith's colossal ego is undoubtedly supposed to echo the personality trait for which Shatner became best known after the original program went off the air.

From time-to-time, Galaxy Quest does something exceptionally clever. A case in point is the scene where the USS Enterprise - er, make that the NSEA Protector - is leaving spacedock. This is something we have seen in more than one of the Star Trek movies, with the ship gliding smoothly from its moorings as majestic music plays in the background. Unfortunately, in Galaxy Quest, the navigator doesn't quite know what he's doing and the Protector fails to get out of the garage unscathed.

For those few potential viewers who are completely ignorant of Star Trek, the movie still offers a mildly enjoyable (although completely predictable) storyline of normal people who become heroes. In addition, there's the fish out of water aspect of actors having to fly a space ship. In many ways, Galaxy Quest is more fantasy than science fiction. It's a lighthearted romp. If you buy into the infectious (but admittedly corny) spirit, you'll enjoy the experience. Those expecting a heavy dose of action and adventure or some genuine substance will be disappointed. Galaxy Quest isn't always funny, but, for the most part, it is fun. And, in terms of production values, the film looks a lot better than one might expect from a space comedy. Most of the special effects are first-rate.

The actors do solid jobs. Tim Allen, who is almost certainly on hand to broaden the film's appeal, doesn't attempt to mimic Shatner or Kirk, but there are times when certain mannerisms make it apparent that he has seen a few Star Trek episodes. Sigourney Weaver, trying to get as far away from Ripley as possible, goes through the film as a blonde who displays ample cleavage (she credits the costume designers with "supporting" her in this area). Alan Rickman is suitably dour and Tony Shalhoub has his moments. Meanwhile, Sam Rockwell is on hand as someone who had a walk-on part being killed off in a Galaxy Quest episode, and is now afraid the same thing is going to happen in real life.

Galaxy Quest has a good time playing with different aspects of science fiction in general, and Star Trek in particular. And, although it isn't necessary to come armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of the original Star Trek TV series to enjoy this movie, the better you know Galaxy Quest's inspiration, the more you will get out of this picture.

Galaxy Quest (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 1999-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1