Why We Love “Galaxy Quest”
Galaxy Quest was only a modest hit, partly because it was stupidly marketed as a kids film. But it has earned a steadily growing following from an incredibly diverse group of people in the 21 years since its release. That usualy doesn’t happen with something like a sci-fi comedy. But it happened here.
The point of this little opus is to give you a different perspective on the film, if you’re already a fan, or encourage you to check it out if you’ve never seen it before. Given that, anyone looking for a comfortable and considered take on GQ should make a beeline for Dennis Burger’s below-the-fold appraisal, while those willing to first take a swim through an acid bath are encouraged to begin with Michael Gaughn’s more prickly appreciation.
Michael Gaughn: The Journey Continues . . .
I’m not a Trekkie. I’m not a Tim Allen fan, I’m not a Sigourney Weaver fan, I’m not really an Alan Rickman fan—although he is the only good thing about Die Hard. I am a Tony Shalhoub fan, but who isn’t? Had Galaxy Quest been a Harold Ramis film with Alec Baldwin in the lead, as originally conceived, I never would have gone within a million miles of a stinkburger that big.
My love for this movie began with one of those “I’ll give this thing five minutes and’ll probably just turn it off” decisions that sometimes yields gems. It turned out to have enough going for it, well beyond its sci-fi trappings, to keep me engaged for the duration. But I didn’t really begin to appreciate how great it is until it had some time to insinuate itself into my being.
Galaxy Quest is the Casablanca of sci-fi comedies—a movie much greater than the sum of its parts. Yes, it’s got an incredible cast—but how many incredible casts have gone down with their respective ships? The script—like much of the film,
apparently—started out pretty goofy and was actively reinvented on the fly. Director Dean Parisot wasn’t exactly a name at the time—and hasn’t been much of one since, which is a bit of a mystery.
It’s not a particularly well made film—which is to say it’s as well made as any mainstream Hollywood movie, which isn’t saying much. There are some
awkward edits and some equally awkward pauses in the performances, which were mostly smoothed over by cranking up the volume on David Newman’s accomplished but often overly insistent score. Which is another way of saying that what the film gets right—often thanks to that Casablanca type of zeitgeist-driven blind luck—helps divert your attention from its manifest flaws.
Galaxy Quest is one of those too rare phenomena where something exceptional gets made despite the system, the circumstances, and even the nuts and bolts of the film itself.
It’s definitely a comedy, but it’s not a relentless joke machine like the lamentable and indigestible Spaceballs. Its beauty is that it’s equal parts comedy, drama, and action. Everything is held in balance (somehow), and it all stems from character. The film rarely cheats.
Everything good about GQ is based in emotion—deep emotion. That puts it at the opposite end of the spectrum from such cold-blooded exercises as the clinical Airplane! and the smug, nasty Hot Fuzz (and A Million Ways to Die in the West and just about every recent comedy I can think of).
That emotion is probably the thing that’s caused GQ to stick with people and ultimately brought them to appreciate it. And it’s never cheap sentiment—the film earns every one of its affects. Which is why even though some films have aped its form, none of its descendants have come close to touching it in the intervening 21 years. (A case could be made for The Office, but The Office always sucked at real emotion. It always lacked the courage to go all the way there.)
Every comedian, good and bad, has a go-to Gilligan’s Island joke. It’s pretty much the working definition of a cheap laugh. But GQ’s Gilligan’s Island bit always gets a huge laugh despite its obviousness because it’s simultaneously really funny and deeply ironic and deeply wrenching. You can tell that the empathetic aliens truly feel the
SO, WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH DEAN PARISOT?
Given its production pedigree, the caliber of its cast, and it’s ever-growing reputation, you’d expect to find out Galaxy Quest was helmed by a master of comedy with a solid string of hits to his name.
Nope. It was made by Dean Parisot, a director with a journeyman’s resume, but who’s shown enough command of his craft and demonstrated enough brilliance in his work that his oeuvre really should contain some gems besides GQ.
But it doesn’t, really. And it’s hard to fathom why.
Parisot directed “Arthur, Interrupted,” the second-best episode of the first attempt at a live-action Tick series. (For those keeping score at home, the best episode is “The Funeral.”)
“Arthur, Interrupted” stays true to The Tick’s core silliness but is the only time in the series’ unfairly truncated run Arthur even begins to feel three-dimensional. The gags are all motivated, instead of just pasted onto the action. And the performances are solid across the board—especially David Foley as the “licensed graduate student”-cum-superhero fetishist.
That episode would have been the perfect audition piece for Galaxy Quest—except Parisot directed “Arthur, Interrupted” three years after he made GQ. How do you go from creating one of the greatest movie comedies ever to doing a one-off episode of an unknown network sitcom?
Movie directors slum all the time, but they usually do it between big projects. For Parisot, there really haven’t been any other biggies.
I don’t have a neat way to wrap up this little sidebar because I couldn’t even venture a guess as to why his career played out the way it did. But I can’t help thinking of Terry Lennox’s lament in The Long Goodbye: “A guy like me has one big moment in his life, one perfect swing on the high trapeze.”
castaways’ distress and have made their plight a centerpiece of their cobbled together culture. That one joke shows exactly how trusting, naive, and vulnerable the Thermians are—and how far they’re in over their heads.
A lot of people rightly point to the scene where Sarris tortures Thermian leader Mathesar as the movie’s pivot. But that moment goes well beyond setting up the final act to being the most extraordinary thing about GQ and the main reason it’s on
Galaxy Quest has long deserved a documentary that explains how a seemingly trite space comedy came to earn a reputation as one of the most substantial films of its era. Never Surrender (2019) isn’t that documentary.
It’s hard to tell whether the filmmakers just don’t get what makes the movie great or, in an age when everything has to pander to an agenda, couldn’t find a way to both suck up to GQ’s base and actually talk about the film.
The interviews with the primary creative forces are all pleasant enough. But they’re mostly gushing and superficial and tainted by the rank air of nostalgia. The absence of any discussion of the villain, Sarris, suggests the filmmakers were too focused on the light and fluffy to dig very deep into the film itself.
The greatest crime, though, is all the time wasted on the cosplay contingent. That phenomena is sad enough on its own, but by making it the documentary’s frame, the makers embraced exactly the wrong explanation for why GQ has endured.
Galaxy Quest isn’t a great sci-fi or fantasy film. It’s just a great film. Period.
its way to becoming a true exemplar of that much-abused word “classic.”
It’s played absolutely straight, and sublimely well. If Enrico Colantoni hadn’t been able to bring convincing depth to the squishy caricature Mathesar, Sarris didn’t come across as a legitimately menacing villain, Tim Allen hadn’t been able to reach way down beyond anything he’d done previously (or has done since), and Parisot hadn’t had the insight and fortitude to stage the scene as unalloyed drama, and hadn’t been subtly and carefully ratcheting up the emotional resonances throughout the film to reach that point, it would have been a disaster.
It’s not just dramatic, it’s emotional. And it’s not just emotional—it’s emotionally nuanced and complex. And it underscores the secret at GQ’s core—the reason why it works on its own terms, why it hasn’t just survived but thrived, and why its strengths have practically nothing to do with Trekkies, geeks, nerds, or any of the other arrested-development types who’ve inherited the earth.
Everybody in Galaxy Quest is vulnerable—in some cases, to the point of debilitation. And that vulnerability runs the gamut from an actor’s inevitable petty insecurities to the potential extinction of a race. The
film, thankfully, has no superheroes. Everyone in it is just doing the best they can. And the ones who are most armored, most heavily weaponized, most willing to revel in raw power turn out to be the most vulnerable of all. And nobody plays the victim card.
Which is why it could never be made today. Which is why GQ is emotionally rich, while virtually every recent film feels stunted.
Galaxy Quest deserves to be celebrated because, like its characters, it’s managed to endure despite the odds. But we should also consider what it means that it could very well be the last of its kind.
Dennis Burger: The Relevant Conundrum
If you’d locked me in a prison cell and offered me the key if only I could figure out the one movie for which Mike and I share an unbridled enthusiasm, I would have immediately pounded on the door and begged for clemency. I knew where our disparate musical tastes overlap (Bach, Randy Newman, Cake, and that’s about it). I could tell you where our politics intersect (way outside the mainstream, and I’ll say no more than that). I could even tell you in what ways our moral and ethical philosophies are simpatico (surprisingly, given that they’re both wholly our own). But when it comes to cinema, we’re Oscar and Felix. Statler and Waldorf. Martha and Snoop.
So it’s a little shocking (although perhaps it shouldn’t be) that one of the few films we both unapologetically adore is the 1999 sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest. Like Mike, I don’t come to this film as a fan of the genre it parodies. I’ve only seen a couple of Star Trek films and accidentally caught a handful of episodes of the TV shows over the years. I’ve always been more of a fantasy geek than a sci-fi nerd, much preferring Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings and the like to The Next Generation and The Wrath of Khan and their ilk.
But that’s one of the great things about Galaxy Quest: It doesn’t lean too hard on shibboleths or obscure references. Instead, it takes the piss out of tropes so common they’ve permeated the pop culture consciousness. What’s more, it plays with those tropes lovingly, never veering into the cynical, mocking, or mean-spirited territory that would have been so easy to fall into.
That alone wouldn’t be enough to make Galaxy Quest a good film, though. We’ve seen other amiable spoofs about fandom—namely 2009’s Fanboys, which takes a shot at my own favorite franchise—fall flat for any number of reasons. What writer Robert Gordon and director Dean Parisot seem to understand that so few others in their position get is that even if your intentions are to have a bit of fun, you still need to make a good movie. And that’s perhaps the most
Where to See GQ
Galaxy Quest is available on all of the major non-subscription streaming services and for download from Kaleidescape. The best you can do, though, is 1080p with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix. That makes this classic well overdue for a 4K HDR/Atmos upgrade.
surprising thing about Galaxy Quest—it takes itself seriously. The filmmakers and actors seem to grasp that levity is meaningless without gravity. As such, the film doesn’t strive for laugh-a-minute antics. In fact, it’s at its best when it gets really serious. More than anything else, though, what I love about GQ is that it’s actually about something. It strives to mean
something. And that’s far more than I can say for the aforementioned Fanboys.
In his excellent but uneven collection of essays Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business, playwright/screenwriter/author/director David Mamet included Galaxy Quest on his very short list of four perfect films. And far be it from me to argue with Mamet, but I have to protest, if only mildly. Galaxy Quest does grasp that golden ring in only one pivotal moment. It’s a scene late in the film, in which Tim Allen’s character, Jason Nesmith, in a moment of heartbreaking vulnerability, must explain (to an alien who doesn’t comprehend the concept of dishonesty) why humans lie to one another in the process of crafting fiction. Nesmith fails to come up with a satisfying answer. And I can understand why this didn’t bother Mamet, because his fiction is full of characters who fail to recognize fundamental truths about themselves.
The thing is, though, Nesmith had already learned this lesson, and should have had a better answer. Because the entire point of Galaxy Quest—at least for me—is that we create such fictions to inspire one another. To motivate one
another. To give hope when there seems to be none. To get straight to the heart of truths about ourselves that non-fiction simply can’t uncover, at least not without seeming contrived.
Only one other tale—The Lord of the Rings—so effectively cuts to the heart of why we need fiction, why we tell stories to one another, why effective inspiration so often comes from seemingly the most trivial larks. And to be fair, that’s not even what The Lord of the Rings is about. But it’s a message that’s central to everything that makes Galaxy Quest work.
And aside from that one minor quibble, it’s why I think it actually is, very nearly, a perfect film.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs,
a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.