Tuesday, May 21, 2013

To Boldly Go Where No Parody Has Gone Before: Galaxy Quest (1999)

What's disappointing about J.J. Abrams' new Star Trek film is that it feels less an inspired tribute to the original TV series than an attempt to simply exploit the fondness fans feel for it. While the new cast seems more at home in their parts than in the last one, Star Trek Into Darkness unfortunately is a cluttered action adventure. It also tries to clone itself from the superior Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but without the core of emotion that gave that film its special poignancy. The new film is intermittently entertaining, but Star Trek Into Darkness takes its title perhaps a little too literally. (The 3-D effects have a way of making the picture look like it was shot through sludge.) Abrams also gives the picture an obvious post-9/11 context, but it doesn't resonate in the same way The Wrath of Khan's literary allusions did. That's, in part, because Abrams explicitly imposes the War on Terror on the material of Into Darkness whereas A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick were thematically linked to the overall story of The Wrath of Khan. It would hardly be necessary for me to continually bring up The Wrath of Khan had Into Darkness not copied so much from it. But Abrams seems to want the cachet of the latter film without actually earning it. He's hoping that in using some of the same powerful scenes from Khan he will magically ignite his own picture. But they don't because Into Darkness lacks the sensibility to underscore the significance of what those scenes reveal about the characters. Which is why sometimes parody does better at capturing the appeal in a favourite TV show than the straight homage of Abrams' approach.

Tim Allen as Quincy Taggart
Galaxy Quest (1999) is that rare kind of parody that actually has the same affection for its subject as Into Darkness does, but director Dean Parisot and screenwriters David Howard and Robert Gordon create a genial, often hilarious lampoon that manages to get at the crux of why these space adventures have such a devotional audience. (Into Darkness merely caters to that devotion without reflecting on it.) Galaxy Quest doesn't even have to trash the genre to accomplish this task. It's a peppy comedy that instead redeems the love of the fan. Galaxy Quest isn't telling followers to get a life, as William Shatner once did to followers of Star Trek; it examines why this is a life. Tim Allen stars as actor Jason Nesmith, who played Commander Peter Quincy Taggart on 'Galaxy Quest.' Like Captain Kirk (William Shatner) of Star Trek, he's given to uttering such pontifically heroic lines as "Never give up, never surrender" when in imminent danger. Alan Rickman is Alexander Dane, a stylish Shakespearean actor who portrays Dr. Lazurus, a half-humanoid, half-reptilian alien. Dane is endlessly depressed that he is forever being identified with 'Galaxy Quest' rather than his higher calling. "I was an actor once," he is given to moan. Sigourney Weaver is the blond and bursting-at-the-chest Gwen DeMarco, who was the fictional ship's communications officer. Her biggest complaint is that fan magazines write "six paragraphs" on her boobs rather than her brawn. Tony Shalhoub, as actor Fred Kwan, is the unperturbed Tech Sergeant Chen.

Twenty years after the show went off the air, the crew of the NSEA Protector are now just out-of-work actors, donning their uniforms for fan conventions where they hawk autographs and talk trivia with the faithful. One group that turns out to be a little too faithful is the Thermians, a race of aliens from the Klatu Nebula who have mistaken the old TV show for what they think is a "historical document." So they decide to whisk this dispirited group of performers into space to help them defeat a very real and deadly adversary. Galaxy Quest is about the way these actors have to draw on the roles they once played. And with real conviction, they need to save the Thermians, defeat the enemy, and more importantly, become the heroes they no longer believe they are.

The Thermians

Allen plays Nesmith as a man who knows that with his bland good looks, he could be heading an adventure show one day, and opening a supermarket the next. You root for the guy even though he's a pompous fool. Alan Rickman draws on the familiar droll humour he showed years earlier as the Euro-Trash terrorist in Die Hard. His Dr. Lazurus, who wears what looks like a multicoloured seashell welded to his head, is a comic portrait of resentment and humiliation. Sigourney Weaver uses her physique with an ingenious expressiveness  that befuddles the space aliens. But Tony Shaloub steals the film as a Zen master of calm in a chaotic storm.

For such an unpretentious SF parody, Galaxy Quest has a quiet elegance. The scenes in space, shot by Jerzy Zielinski, have a rapturous quality that punctuate the jokes about how tacky space often looks in TV dramas. And the Theramins, whose haircuts give them the look of a gathering of televangelists, sound like seals. (They might have studied 'Galaxy Quest' but they talk as if they spent years watching Mork and Mindy.) Director Parisot (who made the underrated romantic comedy Home Fries) realizes that Galaxy Quest is a light comedy about how actors can become just as trapped by the aura of a popular television program as its fans. But he also gives the audience something more: 'Galaxy Quest' might be just another television show, but he also shows us why it really is the stuff that heroes are made of.

- Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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