Keep on Trekkin'
It ain't that hard to parody Star Trek's original series; Lord knows it did a good job of that itself. And certainly, many have tried; Jim Carrey did on In Living Color (with the "Wrath of Farrakhan" sketch), Kevin Pollak has built an entire career on his William Shatner impersonation, and Shatner himself implored fans to get a life on Saturday Night Live. The problem is that most parodies get hung up on the dated costumes, melodramatic acting, and obsessive nature of the show's fans; the results often come off as mean-spirited and shallow -- so easy are the potshots. But they're inevitable, especially as Gene Roddenberry's warhorse creaks by on sprained legs, having been reduced to the pale shadows of Star Trek: Insurrection and its most recent TV spin-off Star Trek: Voyager, which had to add a busty female in tight clothes just to pump up the ratings. The money men at Paramount seem more concerned with milking the cash cow until it withers away than with maintaining Roddenberry's original concept of a future in which mankind works together for the betterment of all, or something like that.
It's ironic, therefore, that Roddenberry's dream remains alive and well in Galaxy Quest, a film that simultaneously satirizes and pays homage to its roots. The film begins at a sci-fi convention populated by fanboys in alien attire, all of whom are there to see their favorite stars from the canceled '80s TV series Galaxy Quest. There's Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), the Shatner-esque egomaniac whom all the other actors resent; Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver), a woman frustrated by years of being a token sex object; Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), a British thespian in the Patrick Stewart mold who wants to do Shakespeare and resents being best known for playing an alien doctor; Tommy Webber (Daryl "Chill" Mitchell), an attitude-laden former child star; and Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub), the Scotty-styled miracle-worker mechanic.
All of the actors are out of work, and the only one who even seems to enjoy his cult following is Nesmith, although even he all but parrots Shatner's "Get a life!" speech when confronted by techno-nerds who want to discuss discrepancies in the fictional starship's tech specs. When a group of particularly weird fans corners Nesmith and asks for his help, he mistakenly thinks they're going to pay him for another special appearance; instead, he finds himself zapped all the way across the galaxy, where he is worshiped as a hero by an alien race who think the canceled TV show represents earth's actual history.
When Nesmith returns home, his fellow castmates think he's delusional, but they play along on the off chance he's actually talking about a paying job. Soon enough, the entire crew -- with the addition of a glory-hound named Guy Fleegman (Sam Rockwell), who played a crewman on one episode -- are on board a real-life version of their fictional starship Protector, fighting for their lives against an evil Klingon-Predator hybrid named Sarris (a character reportedly named after film critic Andrew Sarris).
The central joke of the film, along with the Three Amigos-in-space premise, is that the alien culture has used all of its advance technology to create a starship whose science works exactly as shown on the TV series, even down to a series of utterly useless death-trap mechanisms that were used to create suspense in a particular episode, and a self-destruct countdown that always stops with exactly one minute left. Even the real-life perils that await them on alien worlds mirror the conventions of the show: A fight with an alien rock creature conveniently causes Nesmith to lose his shirt and expose his muscular, hairy chest; DeMarco seems to sustain damage only in areas that reveal more cleavage; and a race of Teletubby-like aliens look ridiculously fake until they suddenly bare their fangs and begin to eat one another.
Yet while the film acknowledges just how silly some of this stuff is, it nevertheless endorses the core Trek values of tolerance and teamwork and brings up the point that anything that can inspire such devotion, even if it's a seemingly cheesy TV show, is a worthwhile cause. Director Dean Parisot (Home Fries) obviously knows his source material well, as some scenes are direct homages to the first Star Trek film, notably a slow-motion sequence when the ship first enters warp drive. David Newman's score is as close as one can get to previous Star Trek movie scores without being subject to a lawsuit, and comic-book fans will note that fan-favorite artists Berni Wrightson and Simon Bisley did some of the conceptual designs.
The casting is also better than it might appear on the surface. Tim Allen thankfully jettisons his Home Improvement shtick and plays it like a TV star with a bit of an ego, albeit one he realizes he's actually going to have to live up to. And if you think Sigourney Weaver's too serious an actress for this kind of role, hey, she played Ripley in four Alien films; you'd better believe she knows all about obsessive sci-fi fans. Rickman, who has evolved over the years from action-movie villainy to lighter work, is perfect as the one "serious" actor of the bunch. Best of all, perhaps, is Sam Rockwell as the equivalent of one of Star Trek's "red-shirts": Knowing his role on the show, he remains in constant terror that the same fate awaits him in real life -- ya know, sudden death.
It's hard to achieve the right balance in a film like Galaxy Quest. It could easily descend into smarmy self-indulgence like Scream 2 or remain on an inane surface level (Mafia!, Spy Hard, and just about every other Leslie Nielsen movie since the first Naked Gun). Fortunately, the makers of this film are clearly fans, and they've put more heart and genuine humor into this piece than Paramount has into the original franchise in years. Sad to say, if Galaxy Quest is a big success, it, too, will probably be run into the ground after a while. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.