Galaxy Quest (1999)

There’s something really special about Galaxy Quest that’s hard to describe. It’s not just the loving send-up of classic Star Trek that permeates the film, because if that were all it had going for it, then it wouldn’t resonate comedically with an audience that’s unfamiliar with the old sci-fi juggernaut’s quirks and foibles, and I’ve witnessed enjoyment of the film by many a non-Trekkie. My most recent re-watch of the film was at least the twentieth time that I’ve seen it in my life, including an attendance during its theatrical run the summer I turned twelve, and I still get a kick out of it every time. Other genre parodies and pastiches have come and gone, but Galaxy Quest‘s enduring popularity even led to a 2019 documentary about the film, twenty years after its initial release. I’m not surprised by how beloved it is, however, as its appeal has never worn off for me, either. 

The film opens some twenty years after the unresolved cliffhanger finale of kitschy old school space opera series Galaxy Quest, at a fan convention for the show. The show’s stars have seen little success in their careers after the show ended and the fan convention circuit seems to be the only way that they provide for themselves, other than Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), who portrayed Kirk-analog Peter Quincy Taggart on the show. Allen plays Nesmith pitch perfectly, with a massive ego that’s just a few degrees off of William Shatner’s real life braggadocio, pairing it with a very un-Shatner tenderness with fans that makes him more sympathetic than Shatner is (sorry, Bill). He also hints at an ongoing attraction to former castmate Gwen DeMarco (a blonde Sigourney Weaver), who played Lieutenant Tawny Madison, whose sole function on the series was to look pretty and repeat everything that the computer said. Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman) is our not-quite-Leonard-Nimoy here, with a few shades of Patrick Stewart, as a classically trained British theatre actor whose role as the alien Doctor Lazarus—complete with a prosthetic rubber “head” that covers his hair—has so dwarfed anything else that he could possibly do that he openly laments that he will be repeating his character’s corny catchphrase until the day that he dies. True to his veteran stage nature, he can always be coaxed onstage with the reminder that “the show must go on.” Clearly (but for the sake of the film’s PG rating not explicitly) stoned Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub), who was the ship’s engineer Chen is also present, at least physically, as is Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell), who played the pilot of the Protector on the show as a child, like Wil Wheaton did as Wesley Crusher on The Next Generation

Nesmith overhears some teenagers mocking him while in the bathroom at the convention, which results in him blowing up at eager young fan Brandon (Justin Long), which even the castmates who dislike him find out of character. After blowing off a group of people that are presumed to be alien cosplayers at the convention, they come to his home to pick him up for a mission, which he interprets to be the group simply maintaining character as Galaxy Quest LARPers for a side appearance that he accepted. Hungover from drinking himself unconscious the previous night over the embarrassment of being mocked and then exploding at teenagers afterward, Jason fails to notice that he has been transported up to a real spacecraft, where the leader of the group, Mathesar (Enrico Colantoni), brings him into contact with Sarris (Robin Sachs), a reptilian warlord who has attacked Mathesar’s people, the Thermians. Jason directs the aliens to fire, half-asses a Kirk Taggart speech, declares victory, and asks to be sent home. The Thermians, worriedly, allow him to leave, but they send him back via teleportation via goo, which shocks him and makes him realize that his experience has been real. When he tries to share this news with his castmates (and bumping into Brandon again, accidentally swapping out the functional communicator that Mathesar gave him with the kid’s toy), they believe he’s having a mental breakdown, but when Fred points out that he might have been talking about a gig, they race to catch up with him and then experience their own epiphanic space transport. Also along for the ride is Guy (Sam Rockwell), a convention emcee whose sole stake in the show was playing a Redshirt credited only as “Crewman 6,” but who is also living off of the convention appearances. Once aboard the real Protector, he immediately assumes that his status as a “non-character” means that he’s doomed to die first, which sets off a great running gag in which he, as the only person who watched the show, is the only one who has any genre awareness about presuming that there’s air on a planet or that seemingly cute aliens might be vicious predators. 

So how did this all happen? Why is there a real starship Protector? The Thermians received the broadcasts of the Galaxy Quest show and, having no cultural reference for fiction, presume that they are “historical documents” and reverse engineered what they saw on the show into something that actually functions. Their pacifism, however, made them easy prey for the hostile Sarris, and so they did the only thing that they could think of, which was go to Earth and enlist the help of their heroes, not realizing that they were simply actors. Upon witnessing what happened to the previous leader of the Thermians, who was tortured to death by Sarris, the actors attempt to flee back to earth, but are unable to leave due to the arrival of Sarris, and have to do in reality what they’ve only ever accomplished on screen. 

There are so many little details that really make this one punchy. When we see some of the cast members’ homes, Alexander is living in squalor while Gwen’s bedroom looks comfortable but modest; Jason, in contrast, lives in a gorgeous mid century modern ranch style house with huge windows. He’s not hard up for money like the others are, which not only means that he’s been more successful but also that he doesn’t really need to go to these conventions to stay afloat financially like his old co-workers, but that he does it to stoke the fires of his own ego. Still, we remain sympathetic to him, as he does seem to truly love his old role, even being able to remember a monologue from an episode that he filmed decades before when he stumbles upon the episode on late night television. Another really great detail is the costuming in the convention; when Gwen poses with a group of fans who are all cosplaying as her character Tawny, each Tawny’s costume is clearly based on the one she wears in the show but are different from one another in ways that reveal their homemade nature. It’s really an inspired touch that the movie includes a half dozen people wearing their own interpretation of the same outfit, just like you would see at any other convention. Look at any photo of a real Star Trek convention and you’ll see the same thing, with several Doctor Crushers all posing together in variations on a style, a non-uniform uniform of black and teal and maybe a blue lab coat, but none identical. It reflects a love of not just the source material but the people who make up the community that enjoys it as well. There are hundreds of inspired choices throughout here, and you don’t have to know or care about Star Trek to get the jokes under the jokes, but if you do, it’s even more of a rewarding experience. 

Somehow, the easter eggs scattered throughout the narrative aren’t distracting. A perfect example is the scene in which Jason has to fight first a desert pig/lizard hybrid and then a full on rock monster. His friends decide to use the ship’s version of the transporter device, which the Thermians have never successfully tested. Fred’s first attempt to use it, a test run on the pig thing, results in the creature being turned inside out before exploding. On the planet below, Jason somehow loses his shirt while fighting the rock monster, all while being coached through the event by Alexander. In a second attempt, Fred manages to beam Jason out of there moments before he’s squashed. The scene is funny regardless, with the gross teleporter accident explosion, Rickman’s perfect embodiment of a true thespian whose patience with a gloryhound colleague ran out years ago, and Shalhoub’s panicked performance as Fred, but if you’re versed in the deeper Star Trek lore, you know that Shatner, when directing The Final Frontier, wanted Kirk to fight a group of rock monsters, which was then reduced to a single rock monster for budgetary reasons, and was ultimately cut because of how goofy looking it was; here, not!Kirk actually does what Kirk never got to do, which adds a layer of enjoyment that’s not strictly necessary but reflects a genuine affection for what it’s mocking. And that’s not even getting into the various transporter accidents that occur over the course of the franchise, perhaps most notably in The Motion Picture, where it’s a relief to learn that two people who are horribly mutilated when the device fritzes mid-transport “didn’t live long … fortunately.”

The chemistry between the cast is great, especially between the Allen/Weaver/Rickman trio. Weaver is the one most playing against type, a role she sought out largely because she was the opposite of her most famous character, Ripley. Her rising frustration is palpable and she deals with it very unlike Ripley would, but Ripley would also never find herself on a ship that has giant, functionless, metal chomping machinery in the bowels of the ship just because a writer in the late seventies/early eighties wanted to have Taggart fight a reptile monster there in one episode. Rickman so thoroughly throws himself into the role of an actor who loathes the one person with whom he’s been forever joined in the public consciousness that his eventual grudging respect for his longtime foil packs a true emotional punch. His reactions to the Thermians’ expectation that he resemble the character that he hates are comic gold, but when he repeats his despised catchphrase in earnest after the death of an alien who respected him, it’s genuinely emotional. Some things haven’t aged well (the goo transport thing in particular stands out as a bad effect), but for the most part, it looks like a movie that could come out this summer. In fact, to give the film a little extra verisimilitude, they forsook the traditional “shake the camera and have the actors stagger around” effect of demonstrating weapon hits and built the control room set on a giant moving stage called a gimbal, and there is a noticeable uptick in the suspension of disbelief as a result. 

For me, this is a comfort movie. It’s extremely well crafted, conceived, and executed, and it’s an easy pick if you’re looking for something that doesn’t take itself too seriously but gets everything right. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Five Most Surprising Comedic Actors Lurking in Galaxy Quest (1999)



As a full-length ode to what made the original Star Trek television series such a joy to watch, you can’t do much better than 1999’s sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest. I guess you could argue that there’s a little influence from the The Next Generation incarnation of Star Trek mixed into the film’s DNA, considering that the spoofy homage was contemporary with titles like Nemesis, particularly noticeable in the design of the space crew’s alien enemies, but for the most part it feels true to the original Star Trek run. I suspect our resident Trekkies Alli & Boomer could do a better job explaining exactly how Galaxy Quest captures & lovingly mocks the post-Lost in Space philosophical ponderings of Gene Roddenberry’s 1960s cultural landmark, but I can say for sure that it’s difficult to think of an example of an homage that does old-line Star Trek better than Galaxy Quest. The depressive black comedy Space Station 76 might come close and JJ Abrams’s reboot of the franchise might nail a few stray details, but Galaxy Quest is more or less the pinnacle of lovingly farcical Star Trek sendups.

Besides the film’s accomplishments in capturing the spirit of its obvious, but unspoken source material, what always strikes me about Galaxy Quest is the strength & likeability of its ridiculously stacked cast. The film follows the actors who played characters on a Star Trek-esque sci-fi show as they’re misunderstood to be a real deal spaceship crew and unwittingly recruited by an alien species they mistake for enthusiastic fans of the show for a real, life-threatening outer space adventure. The casting of the Galaxy Quest crew has always struck me as inspired. The sadly deceased Alan Rickman is perfectly pitched as a Leonard Nimoy surrogate: a self-serious stage actor who’s annoyed by his genre nerd celebrity, yet still wears his prosthetic alien makeup around the house as he glumly performs simple chores. Tony Schalhoub turns “phoning it in” into his own artform as an in-over-his-head engine room technician amidst a constant state of crisis. Sam Rockwell’s role as a bit part actor justifiably paranoid about dying on the mission because he played a one-line, no-name character on the show is great meta humor. Similarly, Sigourney Weaver’s space bimbo with no real purpose on the crew besides displaying her breasts is a great subversion of her resilient, insanely competent role as Ripley in the Alien series. Even Tim Allen is a joy to watch here, bringing his iconic role as Buzz Lightyear to full live action glory as the crew’s self-important ass of a captain. Once Galaxy Quest hits its narrative groove each of these crew members helplessly find themselves slipping into their scripted roles and lift tactics from old episodic plot lines to problem solve their way back to Earth, much to the delight of their extraterrestrial fans/kidnappers.

Those famous actor crew members are largely what makes Galaxy Quest such an iconic work in the first place. It was on my most recent watch, however, where I discovered that they’re far from alone in terms of recognizable faces in the cast. It’s been a good few years since I’ve revisited Galaxy Quest, which always struck me so one of the heights of easy, pleasant viewing, and I was surprised by how well both its humor & its CG special effects have held up in the past couple of decades. What really surprised me, though, was the number of familiar faces lurking behind the film’s main flashy space crew. Here are the five Galaxy Quest supporting players that most caught me off-guard, listed form least to most exciting.


5) Enrico Colantoni

I really shouldn’t be surprised that Colantoni is in this movie because as a kid I probably knew him just as much for his role here as an alien nerd as I knew him as the chauvinist photographer from Just Shoot Me (I watched a lot of trash television as a youngster). In the years since its release, however, memories of Colantoni in the role had faded thoroughly to the point of vague déjà vu and I’ve come to think of the actor solely as Keith Mars, one of the great television dads (from the cult show Veronica Mars, in case you’re unfamiliar). Colantoni is damn funny as the lead alien kidnapper/nerd here, bringing a distinct Coneheads vibe to the performance. However, I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I was waiting for him to say “Who’s your daddy?” at some point during the production, a moment that obviously never arrived.


4) Missi Pyle

The eternally underutilized character actor Missi Pyle probably shouldn’t surprise me by popping up in a bit role as one of Colantoni’s alien underlings. Pyle’s career has long been relegated to supporting player parts on TV comedies & straight to DVD/VOD farces (she’s actually pretty phenomenal in her role as a drunken loser in the mostly unseen Parker Posey/Amy Poehler comedy Spring Breakdown, a part that seemed tailor made for Jennifer Coolidge). I think I was mostly surprised by Pyle’s inclusion in the Galaxy Quest cast because I had mentally placed Milla Jovovich in the role as I reflected back on the film. Her character’s space goth visage recalled amalgamation of Jovovich’s roles in Zoolander & Resident Evil and her super geeky, posi, genuine vibe in the role recalls Jovovich’s most iconic performance as Leeloo in Luc Beson’s ludicrous space epic The Fifth Element (a film Galaxy Quest resembles in a few production details, especially in the design of its alien weaponry).


3) Justin Long

Much like Missi Pyle, Justin Long has been in almost-famous purgatory for decades, never quite breaking out of bit roles in low profile comedies while his friends & collaborators “make it big” without him. Outside a few standout parts in comedies like Idiocracy & *shudder* Tusk, he’s mostly a background player who’s asked to allow other comedians to take the spotlight. That small potatoes status is still true in his diminished role as a geeky, convention-going superfan in Galaxy Quest, but looking back I had no idea he was in this movie at all. It’s no wonder that I didn’t recognize Justin Long in 1999, since Galaxy Quest is listed on IMDb as his first credited roe, but I was still surprised to see him onscreen here, all bright eyed & babyfaced. His few scenes as the Galaxy Quest crew’s #1 (human) superfan, the kind of dweeb who obsesses over decades-old plot holes that don’t quite match the blueprints of a fictional spaceship, is more serviceable than scene-stealing, but he was still a pleasant addition to the cast. It’s a status I’m sure he’s used to filling.


2) Rainn Wilson

In case you’re not noticing a pattern here, a lot of the more surprising supporting players in the Galaxy Quest cast are the alien kidnapper/fans that kick the film’s plot into action. Although the presence of Pyle & Colantoni caught me off-guard, what really threw me off was that Rainn Wilson was lurking among them. Much like with Long, Galaxy Quest was a kind of a career-starter for Wilson, who had only appeared in an episode of a soap opera before joining the ranks of this sci-fi comedy’s geeked-out aliens. As an unproven newcomer (this was obviously years before Wilson’s star-making turn as Dwight Schrute on The Office), Wilson mostly lurks in the background as a stealthy member of the extraterrestrial superfans. However, he fits in perfectly with his compatriot dorks & the film stands as an early glimpse at the total-weirdo energy he’d later bring to his iconic television role, as well as the strange diversity in his choice of projects, which include recent strange outliers like Cooties & The Boy.


1) Kevin McDonald

Speaking of the ridiculous range of underutilized talents lurking in the film’s geeky alien troupe, I spent a lot of Galaxy Quest asking myself “Is that Kevin McDonald? No, it’s not. But is it, though?” while watching character actor Patrick Breen fill out their ranks as a Spock-like superfan of Rickman’s eternally inconvenienced personification of nonplussed stoicism. Patrick Breen, it turns out, is not Kevin McDonald. They are two separate people. Imagine my surprise, then, when the Kids in the Hall vet did show up in the film’s closing minute in a thankless, jokeless role as a sci-fi convention MC who announces the arrival of each crew member as they make their inevitable return to the Earths’ surface. Just when I thought Galaxy Quest could hold no more room for further casting surprises, Kevin McDonald swooped in at the last second, as if the film were reading my mind.

I guess that’s to be expected in a movie where Sam Rockwell plays a full-length tribute to the very nature of a thankless bit role actor, but how could Galaxy Quest’s casting director Debra Zane have known that all of those supporting players would eventually become such big names in the first place? Her intuition seems to have been just as futuristic as the film’s sci-fi setting and her work of gathering up all of these strong personalities is a large part of what makes the film such an enduring delight.

-Brandon Ledet