HomeMovies1999 Movie-versaries: Galaxy Quest

1999 Movie-versaries: Galaxy Quest

1999 was a big year for movies. It was the year that The Matrix’s slow-motion bullet influenced action movies for years to come. It was the year American Beauty won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Oscar fans have been arguing about it ever since. It was the year Pokémon jumped from Gameboys and TV to the big screen. And worst of all, it was the year that disappointed a generation of Star Wars fans with the release of The Phantom Menace.

To celebrate that landmark year in film’s 20th Anniversary, The Pop Break continues its year-long retrospective of 1999’s most influential (at least to us) films, with staff writer Matthew Widdis, looking back at the Galaxy Quest.

In 1964, Gene Rodenberry walked into Desilu Productions looking to combine his love of science fiction & pulp novels, his experiences as a pilot & police officer and an exploration of the complex social issues of the decade to television under the pitch, “It’s Wagon Train but in space.” It was troubled to say the least. It took two pilots with two different scripts and two different leads to get made and, after only three seasons of examining topics of authoritarianism, race, religion, the objectivity/subjectivity of ethics and morality, feminism, the war in Vietnam, and drop-kicking Klingons out of the airlock, Star Trek was cancelled. 1999’s Galaxy Quest paid homage to the cultural phenomenon that Star Trek and the fans that held onto the show’s spirit created throughout its evolution.

Two of these fans, screenwriters David Howard and Robert Gordon, took one of the classic hypotheticals for sci-fi fans, “What if aliens saw our movies and thought that Captain Kirk was real? Would they come to William Shatner for help like in The Three Amigos?,” and ran with it. The result saw a group of fading actors supporting themselves by going from fan conventions. to store openings, to bit parts trying to reach their past heights on the classic 70s TV series “Galaxy Quest.”

Chief among them is Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), who is enjoying more success than the others by leveraging his status thanks to the star role of Commander Taggert into more lucrative side deals. He understandably has friction with the rest of the cast, sex symbol, Gwen Demarco (Sigourney Weaver), former child star, Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell), oddly zen, Fred Kwan (Tony Shaloub), and especially once-respected-but-now-typecast-as-an-alien Shakespearean actor, Alexander Dane (the late Alan Rickman).

Nesmith is approached by a group of quirky fans (Enrico Colantoni, Missi Pyle, Rainn Wilson) who ask him for help. Initially laughed off as cosplayers, they’re revealed as “Thermians,” octopus-like extraterrestrials in disguise who have viewed old broadcasts of “Galaxy Quest” and taken them as “historical documents.” They don’t know who Jason Nesmith is. They want Commander Taggert and they conscript him and the others aboard a series-accurate recreation of their ship, the NSEA Protector. The ship’s AI will only respond to Gwen’s voice because her character, Lt. Tawny Madison, was the only one to activate it on the show. Tommy has to try and remember the hand motions he used twenty years earlier on the controls as the prodigy pilot, Laredo. Fred Kwan has to keep up the appearance of Tech Sergeant Chen while legitimately configuring the matter transporter to keep everyone’s insides on the inside. Former extra, Guy Fleegman (Sam Rockwell), is desperate for recognition and comes along for the biggest adventure of their actual or fictional lives…only to be unrecognized by the ultimate fanboys.

The Thermians need the Protector’s crew because they are in danger of annihilation at the hands of a villainous General Sarris (Robin Sachs). The actors have to emulate their characters greatest strengths and virtues and wearily trust in their obsessed fans (lead by Justin Long’, in his first acting role) to help them navigate the ship’s potential and save their lives.

Galaxy Quest saw similar difficulties despite the team of Mark Johnson (The Natural, Rain Man) and Charles Newirth (Forrest Gump, Ghosts of Mississippi) as producers and Oscar-winner Dean Parisot as director: numerous rewrites, Harold Ramis on board, Alec Baldwin and Kevin Kline turning it down, Harold Ramis leaves, a self-imposed rule on “No sci-fi veterans” getting broken, Tim Allen joining the cast. That last part was a double-edged sword. Allen was riding a wave of popularity from the Toy Story and Santa Clause franchises and that meant more attention from the studio, but also more scrutiny. An “R” rating? Back to the editing room. A film that was already a sci-fi/action/comedy had to add another dimension and protect the brand of America’s stepdad? Curse words, blue humor, and violence were toned down but not quite to “family friendly” levels by today’s standards.

The cast’s experiences were as varied as their respective roles. Tim Allen spent some of his time on set in fanboy mode and begged Sigourney Weaver to autograph a piece of The Nostromo from Alien. Weaver has said that she had fun playing an actress who was relegated to a one-dimensional bombshell role after becoming known as the iconic, Ellen Ripley. If Alan Rickman needed any inspiration to play the laconic Alexander Dane, he could easily find it while wearing the prosthetics of Dane’s alter ego, Dr. Lazarus, during on-location filming in a desert. Missi Pyle’s role as the Thermian, Laliari, was expanded when her performance impressed visiting DreamWorks head, Steven Spielberg.

Galaxy Quest was a moderate financial success, doubling its $45 million budget at the box office and receiving positive reviews from critics. Because of its eclectic tone and PG status, the film found appeal with the general audiences who got a little bit of everything they could want from action to comedy to some good old hard (yet hidden) science fiction tropes. Fans of Star Trek and other such franchises loved the satirical but also affectionate portrayal of the convention crowds and obsessive geeks who hound, harass, and eventually come to the rescue of their idols. Many fan societies and filmmakers like JJ Abrams, currently helming the Star Trek and Star Wars film franchises, have listed Galaxy Quest as one of the their favorite “Star Trek” productions.

The biggest fans of Galaxy Quest, however, might just be the actors from the Star Trek franchise. Patrick Stewart said he was reluctant to watch until Jonathan Frakes implored him to do so, but, “No one laughed louder or longer in the cinema than I did.” Brent Spiner has remarked that he frequently regrets having not been involved in the film or one like it. To this day, love for Galaxy Quest is one of the few things that George Takei and William Shatner see eye-to-eye on. Now, 20 years later, casts, crews, and fans of franchises like Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, and others can look back at Galaxy Quest with fondness over how it lampoons their eccentricities but gives them full credit for keeping the shows alive for the next generation.

Galaxy Quest is available on iTunes, Amazon and various streaming platforms.


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