Talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic. One of the best Star Trek movies ever made wasn’t really a Star Trek movie at all. That movie would be Galaxy Quest, the 1999 cult classic sci-fi/comedy that does Trek better than a lot of Trek does Trek.
The film follows a group of actors famous for starring in a cheesy, early-80s sci-fi show called Galaxy Quest. And that’s about all they’re famous for, their careers post-Quest consisting almost entirely of convention appearances and electronic store openings. This changes when an alien race called the Thermians comes to Earth asking for help. They’ve managed to receive transmission of the show and mistaken it for “historical documents”, thinking that the actors really are their characters. With the Thermians having meticulously recreated all the aspects of the show — including a working spaceship — the actors find themselves having to become real interstellar heroes real quick.
Galaxy Quest is a film that can be appreciated on several levels. On the surface, it’s a charming, funny, family-friendly send-up of sci-fi TV with a cast packed full of top tier talent. But if you go beneath that, you’ll find a surprisingly complex, affectionate, metatextual mediation on sci-fi fandom and a subtle yet robust variation on the hero’s journey. And of course, if you’re a Star Trek fan you’ll find a loving parody of Trek so effective that it nearly becomes a Trek film itself.
As a comedy, there is little that Galaxy Quest does wrong, the worst of its sins being a first act that goes a little heavy on the exposition right out of the gate…but only a little. The characters are set-up quickly, the relationships firmly established, and the vibe laid down. It’s flow and pacing is easy but sweeping with nary a bump in the road. It has some incredibly dark moments once it’s revealed just how monstrous the antagonist Sarris (played a suitably hungry Robin Sachs) is, but the tone never seems inconsistent.
A lot of that solidity comes from the excellent chemistry of the main cast, who genuinely feel like they’ve known each other for 20 years. Tim Allen is an excellent distaff William Shatner, all ego and bravado, perfectly mirrored by Alan Rickman, who’s all sarcasm and cynicism as a Shakespearean actor trapped in a rubber-headed alien role. Sigourney Weaver is perhaps one of the brightest points in the film, spoofing both her own sci-fi history and that of the women of Star Trek, playing the fanservice character who’s job seems to amount to repeating what the ship’s computer says. (In a fun twist, the computer on the recreated ship will only accept orders from her voice.) There are also excellent comedic turns from a committed Tony Shaloub and a pleasantly over-enthusiastic Sam Rockwell. Each character has a remarkably distinct resonance, but they all harmonize together perfectly.
The true weight of the film, however, is in how it depicts sci-fi fandom. While there are some jokes early on about the general geekiness of sci-fi fans, this comes into sharp contrast with the Thermians, who might be the ultimate version of dedicated fans. A race with no concept of fiction, they take the Galaxy Quest show completely at face value, modeling their society after the examples in the show and consequently (as their leader states) saving themselves from self-destruction. It’s a nice commentary on how fans often find inspiration from their favorite shows to make their lives or the lives of others better.
As a personal example, I recently told somebody that being a Buffy fan gave me strength. After all, if Buffy Summers can stare down the end of the world multiple times and walk away from it, so can I. Similarly, many people find that the societal ideals expressed in shows like Star Trek inspire them to be better people or to help bring about change in the world. The Thermians, however, also represent the flip side of all of that at the same time: the danger of taking a fandom too seriously. While the film only briefly addresses toxic fandom (since that wasn’t as obvious a thing back in 1999), it does hint at the idea that going too far into the fandom can lead to disappointment when you discover the flaws of the people involved with it.
If all of that isn’t enough, the film is loaded to the brim with easter eggs and references both hidden and overt to Star Trek lore and Star Trek history. A moment early in the film where Tim Allen’s character overhears people badmouthing his lack of career was apparently taken from a real incident that happened to Shatner. Most of the characters are in some way analogues or references to famous Trek characters and actors. Even the score often echoes moments of Jerry Goldsmith’s famous Trek cues. But Galaxy Quest also does a masterful job of replicating Trek’s classic mix of space-ranger action and ethical conundrums. Much better than some of the canon Trek films do, in fact. At a Trek convention in 2013, it was actually voted as the 7th-best Trek film by fans.
There is a lot to love about Galaxy Quest, from its hilarious comedy to its dynamic characters to its fascinating take on sci-fi fandom. As a life-long sci-fi fan myself, I can’t recommend this film highly enough. Even though the world of sci-fi and its fans have exploded and grown exponentially in the years since it came out, this “historical document” will always be worth the watch.
FBOTU Score: 9 out of 10 / A
Galaxy Quest can be streamed through Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, and iTunes.
And that’s it for Johnny’s Movie Club for now. We’ll be taking a little bit of a break. But keep checking back for more reviews and thoughts this summer!