January 30, 2003

Under the Radar

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Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) is very hungover and very confused. He knows he’s supposed to be appearing at a gathering of fans of his (canceled) hit TV show Galaxy Quest, but as he points out, the replica of his ship is usually “just a piece of cardboard in someone’s garage.” This replica looks state of the art. Come to think of it, so do the uniforms the fans are wearing. And the special effects and makeup on the enemy aliens are just amazing. All of this, as Nesmith is about to discover, is for the excellent reason that these fans are a race of aliens who received transmissions of Earth TV shows, interpreted them as historical documents and managed to reverse engineer spacecraft from the tapes. They’re now on the run from a vicious enemy led by Sarris (Robin Sachs made up to look like a giant porcupine). Who better to help them than Commander Taggert (Nesmith)? As it turns out, just about anyone.

Nesmith is a failure who’s living off his ancient fame from the space opera. Once he realizes what’s happening he enlists his erstwhile crew, which consists of former child star Tommy Weber (Daryl Mitchell), aging pin up Gwen DeMarco (Sigorney Weaver), easygoing Fred Kwan( Tony Shaloub) and bitter Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman in fine sarcastic form). Will they overcome their differences to save the world? Will Nesmith uncover untapped leadership potential? Have you seen a movie before? What makes Galaxy Quest so enjoyable is that the characters have seen the same movies the audience has and, as genre actors, are keen students of the rules. For once everyone’s in on the joke, so the film is free to play with conventions and present the story from unexpected angles. The filmmakers are obviously familiar with their subject matter (science fiction and its endearingly obsessive fans) and have a deep affection for it. The movie is equally at home in the world of washed up actors, fan conventions and deep space. It never condescends to its subject matter or characters and the result is a hilarious, engaging and suprisingly smart film.

It’s the little things that can make or break a film; the story is not so important as the way you tell it. In most films, exposition is a fatal burden, handled awkwardly and sometimes embarrassingly, pulling the audience right out of the moment. Here it is related so expertly that it becomes a joy to watch. Witness the scene where we first encounter the main characters. They are all back stage waiting to go on at a convention, except for Nesmith, who is late. The others are grousing half heartedly about his absence in a way that immediately lets us know that this is standard procedure. Gwen, who in other movies would be mere eye candy, is here complaining about that very status. Alexander is applying his rubber head piece and makeup (which he wears throughout the film, and you can measure the mission progress by how much of his hair is sticking out of the cap) and complaining that he once played Richard the Third and “took five curtain calls,” as everyone else chimes in. In less than five minutes we have established the characters identities, some intriguing quirks, and their relationship with each other. Take note, this is how it’s done.

The film’s other great triumph is taking the conventions of the television show as the characters’ constant guide and sometime impediment. One of the actors, Guy Fleegman (Sam Rockwell), was an extra on the show who died before the teaser, and he is convinced that his status on the show as a ‘red shirt’ ensures his death on this real mission. Finall The film works even better when television show logic gets in the way of real life. Nesmith and Gwen are almost kiled by a deadly hallway filled with crushing pillars, which was on the show because it looked cool on TV. The two best running gags, which also turn out to be unexpectedly affecting, involve the friendly aliens’ inability to understand acting, storytelling or lies (they consider all TV reality, you should see what they make of Gilligan’s Island) and Alexander’s frustration with his character’s catch phrase: “by Graphnar’s hammer!” Both lead to organic, logical, and completely unforseen payoffs.

The actors respond to the enjoyably quirky script with performances which manage to be both archetypes and nuanced portrayals at the same time. Allen is more watchable than he’s ever been outside of Toy Story, bringing wit and some emotional depth to a shallow, arrogant character. Weaver is as good, playing against her character’s appearance to give us a wised up, washed up starlet who is consistently the most capable and game of the crew. Shaloub is a hoot as the so-laid-back-he’s-comatose Fred, who displays flashes of out-of-the-blue romanticism and genius. All of the supporting players are commendable, especially Sachs’ vicious, efficient villan. But it is Rickman’s lapsed Shakespearean who steals the show. He invests Alexander, such a dead ringer for a certain ex-Trekker that Leonard Nimoy’s ears are burning, with intelligent bitterness and exasperated affection for his American co-stars. His eventual acceptance of his role as mentor to a young alien who has modeled his life on Alexander’s character has just the right measure of sad self-awareness to be interesting rather than annoying. Shatner and company should be so lucky to star in a movie this good.

Archived article by Erica Stein