A look at the film ‘Galaxy Quest’ directed by Dean Parisot.
Exploration is probably one of the defining qualities of Humans as a species. Cats live for the hunt and also to occasionally urinate on the bed when you least expect it, bees live to support the eco system and penguins… Well, admittedly, nobody has really worked out what the penguins are there for yet but they’re not doing anyone any harm and they’re quite sweet so we don’t mind.
Humans are different. Our more evolved awareness gives us a curiosity to continually expand on where we are. Hence we have space programmes to learn about the galaxy and where the building blocks of life originated from, we have medical research to try and help make life a bit less fragile and we have soap operas like ‘Eastenders’ to test our willpower not to kill ourselves whilst watching the television.
But exploration isn’t reserved to the frontiers of science, it can be a deeply personal thing too. We are all exploring our own limits in life; looking to improve ourselves and the world around us. There are those who tread water without seeking to explore but they do not represent us a species much like those who exclusively rely on the Daily Mail for their news fix do not represent those of us capable of being rational and balanced.
This need to explore drives us to ask “what if” and it’s that spirit that makes us invent possible futures in science fiction. Some did it better than others, some endured for decades and some dissipated into the ether never to be seen again.
‘Star Trek’ was one of the big ones, maybe even the biggest of them all. Until more recently when a bunch of grunting morons turned ‘Star Trek’ into any-other-generic-action-sci-fi-nonsense, it used to be a name synonymous with aspirational self improvement and strong, relevant story telling with philosophical underpinnings. It was also very much about the people rather than things blowing up and fist fights.
I have always been a ‘Trek’ fan. It clicked with me much better than ‘Star Wars’ did. This was why I was able to have a good laugh at Mel Brooks’ ‘Spaceballs’ which stuck it to ‘Wars’ and then-some. So I was incredibly hurt when I was told of a film that seemed to be poking fun at ‘Star Trek’ and I made a point to ignore the disrespectful and – quite frankly – blasphemous nonsense with extreme prejudice.
Eventually though, I caved in and sat down, albeit a little reluctantly, to see what it was about.
‘Galaxy Quest’ is the title of a television series that was popular in its day, but has long since been cancelled and has left behind legions of loyal fans who still attend conventions. We are treated to a scene of a horribly dated show being played, complete with wobbly sets, cheesy acting and vague but almost acceptable pseudo-science. This ends and we pull out to a fan convention where legions of loyal supporters flock to try and get a glimpse of their childhood heroes.
But as we soon learn, the stars of the show are not a happy crew…
Tim Allen, the captain of ship; once young and cocky but now deeply middle aged and suffering from burnout, especially after accidentally overhearing someone engaging in a bit of character assassination.
The late but great Alan Rickman as an Alien science officer; once a celebrated Shakespearian actor who’s life has been reduced to reciting his famous catchphrase from the show at conventions and promotional events and has a deep hatred for Tim Allen due to scene-stealing and poaching of all the good material back in the shows heyday
Daryl Mitchell, the ship’s pilot; a child star in the days of the show but now a young man who has grown up in the ‘Galaxy Quest’ show. Someone whose career never did much else and relies on the few gigs ‘Quest’ still chucks out for work.
Tony Shalhoub, ship’s engineer; calm, mild mannered, unflappable and eccentric, he is the quietest and most laid back of the crew and seems to take everything in his stride.
Sigourney Weaver stars as the token female; apparently with no discernable function aboard the ship other than to have breasts, she is one of the most bitter of the group having been given no opportunity to really create a proper character who does anything.
Last but not least, Sam Rockwell as Crewman#6; a one time ‘Galaxy Quest’ extra who briefly appeared in an episode before being instantly killed off, he considered himself one of the crew, keen to cash in the stars popularity to try and kick-start his own career which has never managed to launch.
The way these characters and their mannerisms are delivered to us is seamlessly and faultlessly perfect. Dialogue is not forced, exposition is non-existent and instead we get some terrific, character foundations laid with minimal work and time spent doing so. This is just one of several very clever things the film does.
What becomes abundantly clear immediately is that this is a high quality film, made by people who wanted to get it right – as opposed to people who just wanted to get it done – and performed by the only people who could have done it justice. Every single person you see on screen nails their performance so perfectly that to try and put any other actor in their place seems impossible.
The film gets going properly when Tim Allen is confronted at a convention by a pale-faced alien speaking perfect English who wishes to enlist him to help with a diplomatic mission. Believing he’s accepting a fan request he agrees and takes the job.
Before long, he realises that the aliens are real, there really is an interplanetary war going on and he will need his crew to help him with it. And thus we have the setup for one of the greatest interpretations of the “fish out of water” concept you’re likely to see in a long time.
The aliens thought that the ‘Galaxy Quest’ broadcasts were historical documents of a brave and fearless crew. They have no concept of subterfuge or pretending and take them purely at face value. So when the actors have to do for real what they only ever did on a soundstage, things get a little out of hand.
The entire film is a string of magical moments that build up to a terrific whole. But it’s far from being a sketch show or an engine simply to punch out a series of good gags. Everything has relevance. Each scene sets us up for the next and this is achieved with tight pacing that never misses a beat, never dragging and never running away. Like any good story, it has busy sections and some quiet, reflective moments, but each of them happens with no detriment to the story and how it unfolds.
This is a the point where I’d normally say, “however,” and then raise a few negatives to show that I can be balanced and rational.
But I can’t.
While I wouldn’t go as far as saying it is the perfect film – if such a thing even exists – ‘Galaxy Quest’ doesn’t do anything badly. It doesn’t stumble or falter and leaves the viewer feeling satisfied when the end credits eventually roll.
If forced, I would say the only weak element are some of the CGI creature effects. Not because they’re badly done, but because I dislike CGI and it is ruining the purity of cinema. It is used minimally in ‘Quest’ and this is very much a good thing.
David Newman’s score consists of some fairly typical ‘film stuff’ bookended by a bold and enjoyable main theme that serves as a signature for a handful of cues throughout the story. The theme almost becomes a character of its own, instantly recognisable when heard and never unwelcome.
The villain of the film, a sort of humanoid reptile thing played by Robin Sachs, is perfectly over the top for the Sci-Fi genre, yet remains brilliantly menacing and cold to counter the naive, almost childlike friendly aliens who enlisted the actors for their space crew.
Perhaps the cleverest part about this film is that you don’t have to be a geek to enjoy it. Sure, having encyclopaedic knowledge of ‘Star Trek’, the feuds behind the scenes and the little things that were the memes of their day would help (the captain managing to lose his shirt being just one example), there is still plenty for the ‘normal’ person to enjoy without being an avid fan of the genre.
So while you’re exploring your boundaries as a human being and seeking to find experiences that enrich your life, do yourself a favour and expand your library of knowledge to include at least one good run through of ‘Galaxy Quest’. It may have been completely forgotten in the mists of time and it may not have won a litany of awards, but when you look at some of the dross that has won accolades in the past, you can see that ‘Quest’ is in an exclusive club of great movies that simply failed to be noticed.
A reason why you should watch it: It’s an under-rated gem with no major flaws with a much wider appeal than it would appear to have at first glance.
A reason why you shouldn’t watch it: Because the sanctity of classic ‘Trek’ is to be preserved without ridicule or embarrassment and this evil must not be encouraged! You know, I used to be like you… Get your head out of your arse and just watch the bloody film.