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

 

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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

Cooties (2015)

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threehalfstar

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I’ve become increasingly fascinated with Rainn Wilson’s career choices in recent years. Every now & then he’ll put in great dramatic character work (like in last year’s excellent psychological horror The Boy), but for the most part Wilson’s choices in movie roles seem to amount to almost Dwight Schrute levels of misanthropic nerdiness.He played a low-rent superhero in James Gunn’s Super, a megalomaniac supervillain in the AI sci-fi cheapie Uncanny, a depressed schlub in the metalhead-oriented dark comedy Hesher, etc. It’s possible that Wilson is being offered roles on the nerd spectrum because of his years as Dwight Schrute, but either way his non-Office work has been fascinating if not only to watch him build a King Nerd catalog of niche projects. Wilson is a great actor I’d love to see get put to bigger purpose in high profile dramas from auteur directors (a Paul Thomas Anderson project would be a perfect fit, to be honest), but for now I genuinely enjoy seeing what niche, nerdy indie production he’ll pop up in next.

To that point, I was delighted to see Rainn Wilson star as a romantic foil in last year’s child zombie horror comedy Cooties. Wilson fills a role that’s more or less legally reserved for David Koechner in these kinds of productions. A small town hick with an ego that’s outsized only by his pic-up truck, Wilson’s villainous cad is a perfectly-casted alpha male counterpoint to Elijah Wood’s diminutive coward novelist protagonist. While working his way through the manuscript of a hilariously inept-sounding novel, Wood’s intellectual weasel protagonist returns to his home town of Fort Chicken, Illinois. Known more for its chicken farming industry than its mental facilities, Chicken Fort is sort of a professional step back for our lowly hero, who has been pursuing a career as a literary author in New York City. He takes a summer job as a substitute teacher along with a cast of eccentrics who most certainly don’t belong in front of children (including among them Jack McBrayer, Nassim Padrad, Allison Pill, and, yes, Rainn Wilson). This comedic setup is a little awkward & labored in away that can be distracting, but Cooties eventually finds a rhythm when it introduces its true bread & butter: zombie mayhem. An infected chicken nugget from one of Fort Chicken’s less-than-stellar food processing plants leads to an outbreak of juvenile mutation that claims all children in sight into its murderous army & dismembers every adult who dares exist in its general vicinity. Lots of gore & viscera ensue, as does grade school-themed horror comedy.

What best separates Cooties from the 10,001 zombie horror comedies of the last decade is its gleeful exploitation of its grade school setting. Its tiny child terrors are foul mouthed monsters before they’re infected by a rotten chicken nugget & turned into bloodthirsty cretins. They eat boogers, rough house, and bully each other with teasing like “If my butthole had a butthole, that’s what you’d look like.” When the titular cooties epidemic first spreads across the playground it’s almost mistakable for typical childhood play. It’s only until you squint closer that you realize the kids are using as severed head for a tether ball, eyeballs for marbles, intestines for jump rope, etc. Cooties may be a dirt cheap horror comedy, but it finds a downright lyrical, disorienting visual language in the spread of its central epidemic. You feel like a little kid who just spun too fast while playing ring around the rosie watching the film’s violence unfold. It’s fun to watch as a horror fan, but it must’ve been even more fun to film for the little kids who got the chance, given how much of the film’s violence resembles typical playground activity.

I could single out almost any performance in this film as being of interest, as its small cast of oddball comedic personalities are an eternally underutilized crew of talents. Elijah Wood in particular has been building just as much of a nerdy career & even cosigned this film as a producer. Still, I think Rainn Wilson’s role as the brutish alpha male romantic foil is the film’s most significant addition to the cast in terms of his career. There’s a point in Cooties when Wilson suits up in Turbo Kid-style armor using gymnasium equipment (directly referencing the action film suiting-up montages of classic titles like Commando) that pretty much seals his position as the films’ most interesting player. Wilson brings a highly specific form of hearty enthusiasm to the screen here is less like Dwight Schrute than it is like his horror geek victim in House of 1000 Corpses. I like to think that the reason he keeps popping up in these genre pics is that he’s a genuine fan & is more than merely collecting paychecks. Given the limited artistic & financial scope of films like Cooties, it’s doubtful that he’s in the nerd market for the money, but it does look like he’s having fun.

-Brandon Ledet

 

Super (2010)

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threehalfstar

When recently revisiting James Gunn’s MCU directorial debut for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. feature, I was surprised to find that the film had greatly improved with time & distance. A lot of problems I had with Guardians of the Galaxy felt entirely inconsequential the second time around. Unfortunately, I couldn’t repeat this trick with Gunn’s other superhero movie, 2010’s dark comedy Super. I enjoyed Super well enough the first time I saw it a few years ago, but found it deeply flawed in select moments that often poisoned the film’s brighter spots with a certain kind of tonal cruelty. More specifically, I thought Super‘s lighthearted approach to sexually assault in not one, but three separate gags was a huge Achilles heel in an otherwise enjoyable film. If anything, recently giving Super a second, closer look made this fault even more glaring than it was the first go-round.

In the film a short-order grill cook & lifelong target of bullying (Rainn Wilson) is emotionally wrecked when his exotic dancer wife (Liv Tyler) relapses on her sobriety & leaves him for a ruthless drug-dealing schmuck (Kevin Bacon). In this moment of crisis our pathetic hero finds solace & inspiration in a Christian television show about a pious superhero named The Holy Avenger. Things get out of hand when his religious delusions become full-blown divine visions where the finger of God touches his brain (literally) and convinces him to take justice into his own hands by becoming a real-life superhero. As his newly-minted superego The Crimson Bolt, our hero is no longer on the receiving end of bullying. He’s no longer the kind of pushover who’d make his wife’s new lover fried eggs for breakfast out of timid kindness. He’s now empowered by a homemade costume, an overeager sidekick (Ellen Page), and some nifty catchphrases (“Shut up, crime!”) to fight evil deeds by mercilessly beating people within an inch of their lives with household tools for minor offenses. In his mind The Crimson Bolt is all that’s standing between justice & chaos. From the outside looking in, he’s a man suffering from crippling depression & self hate and is more of a dangerous liability than he is a divine vigilante.

My favorite aspect of Super is the ambiguity of its tone. Is it a pitch black comedy or simply pitch black? When The Crimson Bolt weeps in a mirror & thinks to himself “People look stupid when they cry,” does the humor of that observation outweigh the severity of its emotional turmoil or should you join in on the tears? It’s difficult to tell either way, but part of what makes James Gunn pictures so engaging is in the fearless way they’re willing to explore this compromised tone by going hard on darker impulses that complicate their humor. Sometimes I’m more than willing to laugh at these clashes in tone, like when The Crimson Bolt has a moral dilemma about murdering people for non-violent offenses (like cutting in line or keying cars) that he summarizes as “How am I supposed to tell evil to shut up if I have to shut up?” Other times I’m left much more uncomfortable, especially in the multiple instances of rape “humor” that make light of prison rape, female-on-male rape, and drug-assisted sexual assault. In these moments Gunn’s tonal ambiguity plays much more like a detriment than an asset & any humor meant to be mined from the violence falls flat & unnerving.

It’s possible that the exact discomfort I’m describing is what Gunn was aiming to achieve in Super. The director makes a cameo in the film (in the context of the Holy Avenger television show) as the Devil & it’s possible that’s exactly how he sees himself. He promises to deliver certain genre goods in his films (Kick Ass-style dark comedy in this case), but merely uses them as a vehicle to deliver something much more misanthropic & grotesque. It’s a classic Devil’s bargain. I enjoy so much of what Super grimly delivers & maybe Gunn’s turning that sinful delight against me with this distasteful line of rape humor. Who’s to say? All I can really do is note the discomfort & wish for better.

-Brandon Ledet

The Boy (2015)

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fourstar

“We’re running a dead motel, son. These rooms just don’t know yet.”

I first heard of the 2015 horror The Boy when James included it in his top films of the year list on the first episode of our podcast. I, of course, had a hard time differentiating between the film & the recent evil doll horror flick The Boy. 2016’s The Boy & 2015’s The Boy couldn’t be more dissimilar in their approaches to horror cinema. Although I enjoyed them both both a great deal, it’s remarkable that they even share the same medium, let alone the same title & genre. As much as I was amused by the trashy goofiness of the more recent The Boy, it’s a shame that it ended up being a higher-profile release, since the confusion between the titles is sure to do the artsier film a great disservice.

An arthouse slowburner about a murderous child, The Boy sits firmly in a category of films I like to call Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Have Kids, which includes titles like The Bad Seed, The Babadook, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. More specifically, though, The Boy is a firm warning against raising a child in isolation & limited means . . . unless you’re looking to birth a serial killer. Living alone with an emotionally absent, spiritually broken father (played by character actor David Morse) in a remote, vacant motel in the desert, a young child (who could easily pass for a forgotten Culkin brother) is left to fend for himself in terms of entertainment & socialization. His best friend, sadly enough, seems to be a yellow bucket. His favorite activities include stealing “weird adult stuff” (tattered issues of Playboy, old Polariod cameras, etc.) from the motel’s infrequent guests & trapping small animals/vermin for pocket change that his father pays him from the motel’s desolate till. His playground is a nearby junkyard & drainage pipe. His days are mostly empty. It’s only natural, then, that his animal-trapping graduates to human prey, beginning with snaring a suspiciously guarded drifter (Rainn Wilson) so he’ll have someone, anyone to interact with. The pile of victims & monstrosity of his intent only escalates from there.

Much like the empty, existential trudge of life at its desolate motel setting, The Boy brings its pace down to a slow crawl for most of its runtime. Most of the film plays like a lowkey indie drama that turns the idea of morbid fascination into a mood-defining aesthetic. It isn’t until the last half hour so that the film becomes recognizable as an 80s slasher version of Norman Bates: The Early Years. It takes a significant effort to get to the film’s horror genre payoffs, but allowing the film to lull you into a creepily hypnotic state makes that last minute tonal shift all the more satisfying. If you’re looking for a generic, straightforward horror picture, you’re likely to get more out of the evil doll The Boy from 2016. Last year’s The Boy is a lot more akin to a gloomy mood piece, one that culls its terror from such unlikely sources as road kill, deer antlers, and a towheaded child with no friends & a yellow bucket. It’s a much more challenging film, for sure, but the payoff is all the more satisfying because of it.

-Brandon Ledet