Cinematic Century

1999 – Galaxy Quest

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Dear readers, I regret to inform you that I am back on my bullshit. As you can see, we’re here to today to discuss my favorite film of 1999. And, in case you weren’t aware, that’s a pretty tough call. Because 1999 was a bizarrely great year for American cinema. To the point where there have been dozens of articles and even books written about what a huge and important year 1999 was, the last real huzzah of the indie boom of the early 90’s. So, in a year full off generation-defining works of cinema, I decided to go with a goofy Star Trek parody. Which, is perhaps an indefensible position, but I’ll do my best. And, that’s not to say that it was an easy decision. Far from it in fact, because the reputation of 1999 is not unearned. It was a truly remarkable year, where just about every major film could easily have won a place on this list if it just hadn’t come out this year. For all the stupidity that it spawned, primarily from people getting the exact wrong message from it, Fight Club still remains an incredibly interesting film full of two wonderful performances. And, in a similar vein, while the worst people in the world have taken its iconography, the Matrix is an amazing film, which radically changed American action cinema forever. We also could have talked about Magnolia, a sprawling film that I love whole-heartedly, just another stellar film in Paul Thomas Anderson’s amazing filmography. Or, we could have gotten really weird and meta and talked about the wonderful Being John Malkovich and the weird world of Charlie Kaufman. Or, hell, we could have weeped like little children and talked about Brad Bird’s amazing Iron Giant. We also have Office Space, a perfect ode to the malaise of cubicle dwellers which gave all manner of boring office workers a shared vocabulary to discuss just how much they hate their lives. 1999 is insane. I just rambled off a list of some of my favorites of the year, and didn’t even thouch things like the Mummy, Election, Man on the Moon, the Insider, Three Kings, Bowfinger, or Mystery Men. Seriously, all of the aforementioned films are ones that I love, and which had massive impacts on me as a film-lover, and which I could easily have spent two thousand words praising. And, instead, we’re talking about Galaxy Quest. And you know what? I don’t regret a goddamn thing!

Galaxy Quest began life as a spec script written by David Howard that really only resembles the film we got in the sense that it featured aliens misconstruing a sci-fi tv series as reality. Other than that, the script was pretty heavily changed, becoming far more of a direct Star Trek parody, becoming the film it actually ended up being. But, issues that presented over who would end up directing the film, for a while being specifically handed to Harold Ramis. However, after failing to get Alec Baldwin as the lead role, and seeing Tim Allen cast instead, Ramis decided to quit the project, no longer seeing it as viable, which is how it ended up in the hands of relatively unknown director Dean Parisot. And, under his direction they began building this sci fi film which was very different than the other sci-fi films of the era, eschewing the grim and gritty dystopia sci-fi that was so in vogue to recreate the sort of bright and poppy sci-fi of the 1960’s and 70’s. They then assembled their cast, largely trying to pull from actors with little to no experience with sci-fi, other than Sigourney Weaver playing very against type. Unfortunately, they had to deal with some large changes to the film, because the original cut was given an “R,” which they decided wouldn’t fly. The film was then cut down to create a more family-friendly tone. And, perhaps in spite of that, the film did fairly well at the box office. It made a decent amount of money, and got some good critical reactions, largely due to the cheeky Star Trek homages, but over the years it has grown into a cult film, especially among people who love Star Trek and the world surrounding the franchise. Which is a little odd, since I have next to no experience with Star Trek, but I’ve always loved this film, perhaps more than any Star Trek property will ever be able to illicit in me.

 

 

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Galaxy Quest revolves around five largely washed up actors who are mainly known for a beloved cult-television show from the 1980’s called Galaxy Quest. A slightly campy sci-fi adventure show, Galaxy Quest has largely been forgotten by the general public, but still has a very devoted fanbase, giving our characters a sad living, visiting fan conventions and selling autographs. We have Jason Nesmith, who played the dashing captain, Gwen DeMarco who played the ditzy communications officer, Alexander Dane who played the alien science officer, Fred Kwan who played the ship’s engineer, and Tommy Webber who played the precocious child pilot of the ship. Everyone is just drifting through their lives, moving from one convention to another, when something strange happens. A group of people dressed in futuristic clothing approach Nesmith at the convention and hire him to participate in an event for them. And, the next morning he’s unwittingly transported off the planet and onto a real space-ship, where these aliens have requested he act as an intermediary between themselves and a warlord known as Sarris. Nesmith doesn’t take anything seriously, and orders the aliens, the Termians, to attack Sarris, and then asks to be brought back home, which is when he learns the truth of where he is.

Unfortunately, Nesmith’s decision to attack Sarris isn’t going well, and the Thermians return to ask for more help, this time acquiring the rest of the cast members, along with an extra from the show named Guy. Together everyone is teleported onto the Thermian ship, which is designed to look just like the ship from their show. It turns out that transmissions of Galaxy Quest were picked up by the Thermians, who have no storytelling on their planet, and who decided that these were real “historical documents” of the galaxy’s bravest warriors, who they have modeled their entire civilization upon. But, since they aren’t actually heroes, things don’t go well. Sarris attacks them once again, and their ship is badly damaged, along with the morale of the Thermians. The damage is to the extent that their ship can no longer function, at least not without a replacement energy source. So, going along with the nonsense they spouted in the show, they look for a “beryllium sphere” which can power the ship. And, luckily, there’s a nearby planet with one on it, so the group decides to do an away mission, much to Guy’s terror, since his character died in just such a mission. They do end up finding a sphere that can power the ship in a mining colony, but they’re also attacked by a race of little aliens who attack the actors, causing them to flee. They successfully escape with the sphere, but Nesmith is left behind to deal with a creature made entirely of stone. Luckily though, Fred is able to channel his old character and operate a teleporter that’s able to rescue Nesmith and bring him back aboard the ship.

However, a lot has happened while they were on the planet, because when they get back to the ship they find that Sarris has boarded and taken the ship over. And, what’s more, he realizes what’s actually going on. Sarris forces Nesmith and the actors to admit that everything the Thermians believed was false, before announcing he’s going to set the ship to self-destruct and leave them to their doom. The Thermians are quite depressed at this revelation, leaving the actors to save the day. And, in a stroke of luck, Nesmith realizes that on his brief trip back to Earth earlier in the film he’d accidentally switched communicators with a young super-fan of the show. So, they reach out to the kid, and ask for his advice on how to de-activate the self-destruct. And, working with the kid’s knowledge Nesmith and Gwen are able to search for the self-destruct while Guy, Alexander, Fred, and Tommy help in their own ways, freeing the captured Thermians and taking out some of Sarris’ men. Nesmith and Gwen are eventually able to undo the effects of the self-destruct, and in the process learn about a powerful object inside the ship that Sarris had been seeking, and which the show never explained. After saving the day the actors lead another raid on Sarris’ ship, this time successfully destroying it. However, Sarris beamed aboard their ship at the last second, and as it began its trek toward Earth he revealed himself and murdered the entire crew. Luckily, Nesmith was able to activate the mysterious object, which was able to send him back in time long enough to stop Sarris’ final attack. They beat the villain, and crash land back on Earth where they’re welcomed as celebrities, knowing the Thermians will be alright without Sarris in the picture.

 

 

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This film is just an absolute joy, from start to finish. A comedy that’s not afraid to completely saturate itself with the aesthetic of the thing it’s poking fun at, it at times feels almost like something we would have gotten from Mel Brooks. It’s not that outwardly a parody, but the loving devotion that the people behind this film took to recreate the feeling of old sci-fi is  truly astounding. Great sets that are simultaneously cheesy and impressive, tons of practical effects and stunning make-up, and a wonderfully silly plot, this whole film is a perfect realization of the types of shows that it’s making fun of, all while showing how they could be updated for the then present. And, on top of all of that, you have a wonderfully funny script featuring a bunch of hammy actors attempting to become heroes. It’s a plot that’s been used before, but this is probably my favorite iteration of it, primarily thanks to the truly wonderful performances that carry the film. I’m not a fan of Tim Allen in real life, but he really does knock it out of the park as Jason Nesmith, giving us a character of pure ego, all while also being able to show how incredibly sad the character is. Sigourney Weaver is also a pure delight, really taking her other big sci-fi character and turning them completely on their ear. And, while I always can find a reason to miss Alan Rickman, I really felt sad after watching how earnestly he plays Alexander in this film. Its just a miraculous little film, one that perhaps doesn’t get the love it deserves these days, and one which I’ve loved ever since I first saw it as a kid.

I have found reasons to discuss this before on the site, but one of my biggest blind-spots in pop culture is Star Trek. I’ve never seen an episode of any of the various shows, and aside from the recent rebooted films I’ve only ever seen Wrath of Khan. And yet, though cultural osmosis, I’ve learned more than my fair share about the franchise. Even to the point where this film is able to hit me as hard as it does. Because this film is a pitch perfect parody of everything I feel like Star Trek is. Or, at least was. The film is slightly old fashioned in its sense of fandom, taking place before the world of nerds has become the most profitable thing in the world, and where most ingrained fandoms have been revealed to  be festering hives of hostility. But, regardless of any sort of unintentional naivete, the film still remains a perfect encapsulation of everything Star Trek was to the popular culture at this time, a goofy thing only liked by weirdos, associated with washed-up actors. And yet, something that meant quite a lot to a lot of people. These goofy and campy stories inspired generations of people with its stories of peaceful diplomacy and a world of progress. And, that’s what this film is all about. The power of these stories, for good or bad. The Thermians built their entire society after the teachings of Galaxy Quest, and created a futuristic society of peace. Yeah, they allowed these stories to keep them blind of reality, but they were able to change their entire way of life thanks to the power of stories. Because that’s how powerful stories are. It doesn’t matter if it’s a great novel of cultural importance, or a campy old tv show, if it speaks to you and changes your life, it’s important.

 

Galaxy Quest was written by David Howard and Robert Gordon, directed by Dean Parisot, and released by DreamWorks Pictures, 1999.

GalaxyHungover

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