Out of all the possibly false stories about the Star Trek television and movie series, this one is my favorite: George Takei was the final member of the original cast to sign on to do the movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and he occupied a unique position. Takei’s character Hikaru Sulu had never received a single promotion during the TV series or previous movies, but he was the captain of his own ship in STVI. The reason for this? That film was to be the send-off for the original Star Trek cast, and fans would demand that everyone had to be on board, but Takei demanded that he would never be on set at the same time as William Shatner. There was only one set to serve as the bridges for all of the good guys’ ships, so with Takei and Shatner as separate captains, their scenes together could be filmed on separate days! Behind-the-scenes drama that intense would make a great movie in and of itself, and in 1999 it did: the superb comedy Galaxy Quest.
Of course no movie studio would allow a franchise as successful as Star Trek to be deconstructed so savagely for laughs, so the comparisons are all indirect. Tim Allen plays the hammy captain of a TV starship crew who are at least fifteen years off the air, victims of Hollywood typecasting, and don’t have a movie series to return to. Between the show itself, and their long journey around the sci-fi convention circuit, their personal vendettas have been allowed to fester to the point that the rest of the crew is basically united in their hatred of Allen. They’re forced to work together when a group of actual aliens, having watched the show and believing it to be a documentary, recruit them for battle against a brutal intergalactic warlord.
If you’ve ever watched an episode or two of the original Star Trek TV series, then every word of the previous paragraph and every second of Galaxy Quest clearly becomes pointed commentary on everything that was both good and bad about that series. Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic (some might say naive) vision of the future, the way that impossible science was covered up by hand-wavey writing, the constant struggle between Shatner and Leonard Nimoy for the best scenes … it’s all on the screen here, and it ain’t subtle. It’s certainly a planned irony that Sigourney Weaver, who as Ellen Ripley in the Alien films was one of sci-fi’s all-time great tough gals, is on hand here as the mostly useless female member of Allen’s crew.
And let’s be clear: none of that nerdy commentary stuff would work if this movie didn’t also work on its own merits as a sci-fi action-comedy. This movie is exciting when it needs to be and funny in every other moment, spraying good jokes at the screen at a pace even the South Park guys would envy. Special credit should go toward the design of the villain, Sarris (voiced by Robin Sachs): he’s a strong commentary on how much times had changed since the original Star Trek, and how Cold War idealism might not work in a world which brought us Rwandan and the Yugoslavian genocide, but he’s also just plain ruthless and bloodthirsty in the way that a good action movie villain ought to be.
This is Tim Allen’s best acting work in a walk. He surely has an understanding of what it means when an actor gets associated with one role on one TV show for the rest of his life, which is part of being in this movie. But an equally big part requires him to be a really good, really believable spaceship captain. Just ask Scott Bakula:* it’s not easy to be as tough as Captain Kirk without doing a Shatner impression. This is a movie which calls for Allen to do the “action hero rolls into action” move exactly right, but also to have the exactly right reaction to the resulting mocking from Weaver, and he pulls both of those challenges off wonderfully.
A big part of the reason that I hated Grandma’s Boy last week is that I found it to be a fundamentally mean-spirited picture, with a message that seemed to be “you would never want to hang out with these characters if they didn’t get high all the time.” Galaxy Quest is the flip side: even though these characters don’t like each other particularly much, they’re a joy to be around. The whole movie is basically a love letter to Star Trek and shows like it; although “the show was cheesy and its fans are nerds” might seem to be the point of some of the jokes, it’s never done cruelly or in any way other than a good-natured one. Most movies about the Trekkie phenomenon don’t make it seem so cool to be a fan of Star Trek, but Galaxy Quest makes it seem downright heroic.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*The captain of the short-lived, little-watched, most recent Star Trek spin-off series, Enterprise.