Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Fifty


#50 — Galaxy Quest (Dean Parisot, 1999)
Galaxy Quest is easy to dismiss. It was certainly easy for me. We saw it upon its Christmas Day release, honoring a beloved household tradition of spending the biggest holiday of the year by visiting our own place of worship, the darkened holiness of a movie theater. The film was funny and entertaining. It also seemed like an extended inside joke, designed purely to appeal to devotees of the series Star Trek, or at least those who knew the ins and outs of its fandom well. Building around the conceit of an alien species mistaking a cheesy sci-fi television series for earthly “historical documents,” thereby inspiring them to recruit the stars of the show to help them face down an interstellar menace, Galaxy Quest supplements its familiar comedy of mistaken identity with material that cheerily mines the tropes of the old Gene Roddenberry creation that fell short of its five-year mission only to achieve a seemingly eternal legendary status after its cancellation. Straight lines can be drawn from nearly every element of Galaxy Quest to some antecedent in Trek lore, from the egotism of the actor playing the captain, exemplified by a knack for shedding his shirt during fight scenes, to the ancillary crew member who who is shadowed more frightfully by doom than the others because, in the context of the television series, no one is expected to see him again next week.

Galaxy Quest transcends its inspiration, though, largely because it is so marvelously executed. It would have been so easy for everyone involved to treat this film casually, view it as a goof and a lark, and then move on to weightier fare. Instead, they’re fully invested, building out well-thought out characters, adding some sting to the conflicts and some weight to the emotions. Alan Rickman practically invents a new form of sly gravitas as a skilled stage actor who feels demeaned by his everlasting entrapment in his Spock-like role as an extraterrestrial officer, leaving him stuck mumbling out his catch phrase at supermarket openings instead of intoning Shakespearean monologues in a theater somewhere. Sam Rockwell alternates between wild anxiety, outsider savvy and just-happy-to-be-here enjoyment as the “glorified extra” whose single appearance on the series got him the unexpected residual of a ride into outer space. In a very different vein, Enrico Colantoni gives a performance of zippy invention as the leader of the alien race.

Director Dean Parisot takes the screenplay, credited to David Howard and Robert Gordon, are strikes precisely the right tone. It’s not so affectionate that it loses its satiric edge, nor is nastily condescending to the contrivances of popular science fiction or the devoted adherents who scrutinize every phaser setting, a choice that would have surely turned the film into a monotonous, unpleasant slog. Parisot lets the film revel in the adventure of it all, and yet joyfully tweak it, too. It proves that a knowing approach doesn’t need to cost a film its commitment to the honesty of its own story, either in the give and take of the plot or personal interplay of the characters. Galaxy Quest isn’t transformational art, causing me to undervalue it, especially coming, as it did, at the end of a year in which a parade of films bent the arc of film narrative into thrilling Mobius strips. It is inspired entertainment. That’s worth cheering too.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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