by Jon Bastian
High concept ends ‘99 on a high note — a satire that’s actually funny without forcing it.
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Galaxy Quest is one of those perfect little holiday movies, a high-concept romp that delivers laughs and doesn’t ask much thought in return. If you’re burned out on shopping and dreading New Year’s Eve whether Y2K brings about the end of the world or not, then this is a good flick to squeeze in during these last days of the year when not much else is happening.
The concept of Galaxy Quest is about the highest — the cast of a thinly veiled Star Trek type series that has long been cancelled spend their days doing geek conventions and mall openings, until a group of real aliens arrive, having mistaken old episodes of the show for the real exploits of a group of heroes they desperately need now. It’s a simple premise, but Robert Gordon and David Howard’s script milks it for all its worth.
It isn’t any great surprise that our group of has-been actors end up pulling off the kind of heroics they used to do on the tube, but it’s loads of fun getting from point A to point B, with a lot of harpooning of the conventions of bad science fiction (and bad science fiction conventions), certain well-known actors who are way past their prime and the ultimate fish out of water reversal. You see, the ship our crew finds themselves on was designed to specifications that the aliens lifted from… the show our crew used to be on. So, our heroes end up in a world that is both, well, alien, and yet strangely familiar.
The cast has a field day with their parts, as the stars of the series within the movie, Galaxy Quest. Tim Allen plays William Shat… sorry, Jason Nesmith, arrogant star of the series who still thinks he’s the leading man. Sigourney Weaver is Gwen DeMarco, a.k.a. Lt. Tawny Madison, whose original function in the series was to look pretty and parrot the computer.
Standouts are Alan Rickman as Alexander Dane, Shakespearean actor manque best known for his role as the barely disguised Mr. Spock of the show, and Sam Rockwell as Guy Fleegman, who has made his own career as the guy who was an extra in episode eighty-one and who died before the opening credits. As our resident Mr. Scotty, Tony Shaloub plays Fred Kwan, a man who is either so cool or so out of it that he takes to their real space adventure as if it were just another mall opening.
To say too much would be to spoil the surprises in the film, but if you’ve seen even one episode of Star Trek or Babylon V or any other television space epic, you’ll laugh your ass off in recognition. In some sequences, the jokes come as fast and furious as the action, one topping another.
Particularly hilarious is a sub-plot involving the ultimate… um… Questerian (they’re not really Trekkers, after all), teen-ager Brandon (Justin Long), who gets drawn into our heroes’ real space adventure, never having doubted it was always real anyway, all along. It’s a good indicator of the ultimate kind-heartedness of the film that Brandon winds up being a very sympathetic character after an introduction that makes him look like super-dweeb. Kudos, also, to the designers for having our hero-aliens resemble, in undisguised form, some sort of exotic walking calimari in lovely shades of purple and gold and white.
If you’re familiar with Harry Harrison’s books, especially his “Stainless Steel Rat” series, you’ll feel right at home in Galaxy Quest. It has the same kind of off-kilter, real world meets sci-fi fantasy giddiness of Harrison, or of some of Kurt Vonnegut’s early works, particularly “Sirens of Titan.”
The only complaint I have about the movie is that I wanted more. In reality, it was probably about the right length — get in, tell the story, get out and don’t linger. Perhaps if it had been much longer, it would have gotten tiresome and one-joke. That the film manages to avoid one-joke-itis and pulls something more from its material makes it worth running out while it’s still in your local multiplex.
And, unlike some longer films out this holiday season, this one is safe for the kiddies, though probably not the younger ones, because the bad aliens are pretty scary. However, it’s also safe for your grandparents, because they’ll actually get the jokes, too. Between Christmas shopping and Y2K apocalypse, what more could you ask for?
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles, and a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.
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