September 2, 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Alien

Print More

In December 1999, the film Galaxy Quest graced the world with its presence. Almost exactly 10 years later, I was forced to sit through 162 minutes of annoying blue people reenacting Pocahontas. I am, of course, referring to Avatar.

As I’ve mentioned numerous times in this column, I lead an extremely boring life. It is therefore no wonder that, instead of having a social life, I found myself watching Galaxy Quest this weekend. I was reminded of what a fabulous movie it is and also of my hatred for that other movie. Both films at least partially take place in space, both are ultimately about love and friendship overcoming obstacles and both feature the actress Sigourney Weaver. In order to avoid a bludgeoning from James Cameron’s groupies, I suggest that if you feel particularly passionately about Avatar, stop reading now.

For those of you who were not paying that much attention to movies that came out in 1999, Galaxy Quest is a comedy about a group of actors who used to star in a Star Trek-esque T.V. series and have been reduced to signing posters at comic book conventions. An alien race has somehow been able to watch the series, and, not understanding the concept of fiction, seek out the actors to help them defeat the evil alien Sarris.

It stars Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman, and also features Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell and Justin Long. Each actor shines in Galaxy Quest. There is not one performance that sticks out as being inferior (Galaxy Quest is why I will defend Tim Allen to any critic).  Besides the top-billed actors, the smaller characters are also wonderful. Missi Pyle (The Artist, Big Fish, Dodgeball) plays one of the aliens, as does Enrico Colantoni (Veronica Mars, Flashpoint). Rainn Wilson (Dwight from The Office) even has a line.

But the real stars of Galaxy Quest are David Howard and Robert Gordon: the writers. Galaxy Quest is hilarious, but also heartfelt without being cheesy. Most importantly, the plot is original. Galaxy Quest wasn’t based on a book, nor is it a sequel or a prequel. The story feels fresh, even 12 years after it was released. The dialogue is snappy and the jokes provoke both raucous laughter and silent chuckles. Each character exists for a reason and serves a unique function in advancing the plot. Despite the large cast and multiple plotlines, which are all carried through to the end, Galaxy Quest runs only 102 minutes: the perfect movie length.

Which brings us to Avatar. Certainly the greatest part of Avatar is its visuals. I will grant that it is a beautiful three-hour travel advertisement for a fictional planet. Sam Ferenc ’12, who majored in linguistics, made a case to me that the best part was the made-up Na’vi language. In any case, neither of those “best parts” has anything to do with the script. Because, frankly, the writing was awful.

Again, Avatar is essentially Pocahontas, if you replace songs like “Colors of the Wind” with dialogue that punches you repeatedly in the face with anti-war and environmental messages. I do fall in accordance with those messages, but I generally prefer not to be knocked into ideological submission when I go to a movie.

What really bothers me about Avatar is that James Cameron spent more than a decade of his life and hundreds of millions of dollars fussing over the technology, yet seemingly no energy into making the script any good at all. Yes, Avatar was really pretty, but I didn’t care if the protagonist lived or died. I felt no emotional attachment to anyone in the film. Instead, I was just annoyed by lead actor Sam Worthington’s inability to stick with one consistent accent for three hours.

The point of a movie is to tell a story. The advantage of film over, say, literature, is that it combines plot with visual and sound elements. But without the foundation of a good script and characters one can relate to, those other things don’t matter. Movies are good when we see something on screen that in some way rings true or speaks to our humanity and is not just aesthetically pleasing to us.

Galaxy Quest is not a momentous film like Avatar. Its special effects are not that special, but it is a gazillion times better than Avatar because it tells an interesting story about a group of people who could be real. I care about the characters. I want them to succeed, and it is gratifying when they do. A movie doesn’t have to be a big-budgeted action-drama to be brilliant. When all is said and done, the most important part of a movie is the writing, and if it is executed well, it can be great like Galaxy Quest.

Consider this to be my plea to the film industry for there to be more movies like Galaxy Quest (and by that I certainly do not mean a sequel). I want there to be more movies that tell stories and tell them well. I want there to be more movies that don’t assume their audiences are too stupid to understand subtlety. Please, super powerful and important people who make all those decisions, I know you made a lot of money with Avatar, but do the world a favor and understand the value of an amazing script. I challenge you to watch Galaxy Quest and not agree with me. Again, Cameron-ites: Please don’t murder me.

Original Author: Julia Moser