Robert Zemeckis’s Contact (1997) is without a doubt the finest movie in recent memory to deal with the question of what might be happening to all those rays of media dreck TV shows, radio programs, and the like we’ve been beaming higgledy-piggledy through the cosmos for the last century. Galaxy Quest is almost as certainly the second-finest such recent film, but come to think of it, I can’t really recall a third, offhand, so I suppose this might constitute a less-than-ringing endorsement.
While we’re thinking about it, though, here’s a possibility on the I Love Lucy-as-cosmic-ray question that I bet neither you nor Carl Sagan has considered: suppose a species of intelligent alien beings who are a bit twitchy on what it means for something to be a “work of fiction” start getting marooned broadcasts of a crappy “Star Trek” knock off, immediately interpret said broadcasts as “historical documents” from a technically advanced species, and take great pains to model their society after what they’ve seen on the show? If you’ve seen any of the movie’s hype, then you know that this is Galaxy Quest‘s basic premise.
The movie opens with the cast of Galaxy Quest, a long-canceled trekalike show that last aired in 1982, backstage at a convention preparing to entertain a gathering of hardcore fans. Their careers have clearly taken a dive since the show was canceled, a situation they handle with varying degrees of stoicism. Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), who played the ship’s Commander Taggart, eagerly laps up the praise of his fans while Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), the Spock-analogous Dr. Lazarus, suffers from regular career-related panic attacks as he relates his fall from grace (“How did I come to this?” he sulks, “I played Richard III,” all the time apparently forgetting that he’s wearing a ribbed, rubbery skullcap that makes it impossible to take him seriously).
Probably the funniest performance in these first few moments is that of Sigourney Weaver, satirizing her earlier tough-gal roles in the Alien series. This time Weaver plays Gwen DeMarco, who in turn plays Lt. Tawny Madison, the TV series’ ample-breasted sex symbol. Tawny’s sole practical purpose is to serve as an interpreter between Commander Taggart and the NSEA Protector’s on-board computer, which is not as difficult as it sounds since she generally just repeats Taggart and the computer’s comments verbatim.
All goes as well as can be expected until Nesmith, while in the bathroom at the con, overhears two hecklers laughing about him. When he learns from them that his fellow castmembers despise him, he becomes surly, abusing a fan (Brandon, played by Justin Long), and promptly drinking himself stupid upon returning home. Thus he sufficiently softens his brain for the next morning, when real aliens come neep-neeping their way onto his back porch.
Fugitives from the besieged planet Thermia, these other-worlders who collectively bear the affect of Jim Carrey as vectored through the Coneheads, due to flaws in their appearance modifiers and language translators believe the cast of TV’s Galaxy Quest to be genuine space travelers. Conversely, Nesmith thinks the Thermians are just fans whose reality-testing leaves something to be desired. He persists in this belief long enough to be transported to their ship, where he is given temporary command and launches a balls-out attack on their Klingonesque nemesis Sarris (Robin Sachs, under much Stan Winston froggy-creature-effects makeup). He learns of the Thermians’ true identities only when he is catapulted back to Earth after being coated in a sort of cosmic jelly; then, suddenly reinspired, he enthusiastically convinces Galaxy Quest‘s other castmembers to return to space with him. A relatively straight-ahead parody of the Ur-Star Trek scenario ensues a stellar dogfight full of lobotomizing special effects and tricky tactical fake-outs with the provision that the crew has absolutely no idea what they’re doing and stumbles along by parroting the movements and catchphrases of their fictional counterparts.
Most of the movie’s good jokes are made at the expense of other movies, a common phenomenon these days, and just the sort of thing that sets the less good-humored among us to decrying Hollywood’s propensity for vapid reflexiveness and… you know, that whole fall-of-Western-civilization thing generally. The movie’s frequent pokes at Contact are probably the most irreverent: after being squirted through the galaxy in the jelly-like cocoon, Nesmith quivers at the side of his pool, having been blown away by his cosmic vision in a manner that evokes and, well, sorta mocks Dr. Ellie Arroway’s admittedly overwrought gaze into The Great Beyond. A few minutes later, having undergone the same experience, the whole crew is standing at teleporter parade rest, all trembling and freaked out in exactly the same way with the exception of the ever-mellow Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub), who found the journey to be laid-back and psychedelic. I’m surprised Jodie Foster didn’t file a court injunction.
Kwan playing at playing Tech Sergeant Chen in real life, which is to say, the real life of the movie also gets off a good one later on in his vaguely Scottyish role as Chief Engineer. As the NSEA Protector is fleeing from Sarris’ warship, he calls from the engine room to serenely inform the Commander that “Yeah, they’re, uh, telling me the generators can’t take it, the ship’s breaking up, you know, all that stuff. Just FYI.” Around this time it gets easy to wonder exactly how far down (or out) the movie Galaxy Quest‘s enfolding self-references go. Or to put it another way, what precisely is “all that stuff”? To Kwan the “stuff” refers to a catchphrase from the TV show Galaxy Quest, in the same category as Nesmith/Taggart’s most famous line, “Never give up, never surrender.”
The audience doesn’t have a real-life TV series to refer to (although the Galaxy Quest film homepage links to another supposed personal page which gives the impression that a show called Galaxy Quest actually ran for a while in the seventies post-Blair Witch, it looks as if all movies will now be attended by a web-disseminated hoax). Therefore, the audience is much more likely to be thinking of Scotty’s cliched line in Star Trek; but is Galaxy Quest intended to stand in for Star Trek, or does the movie’s narrative hold the TV series Galaxy Quest to be a knock off of Star Trek? If it’s the latter, then could all Kwan’s “stuff” actually refer to Scotty’s line? Or is it referring to Tech Sgt. Chen’s imitation of Scotty?
Such ruminations, besides being pleasantly aimless and masturbatory, point up the problems that can surface in self-referential fiction after it’s gone through enough iterations. One is tempted to adopt the Thermian solution to fiction’s thorny intellectual conundrums, that is, just label the whole kit-and-caboodle a collection of “historical documents” and be done with it.
Anyway, if the Thermians take everything they see to be factual, what makes them adopt Galaxy Quest as particularly relevant to their situation? It’s revealed later that they’re the last of their species, so Gilligan’s Island which they’ve also seen seems just as appropriate a choice. The only answer is that the Thermians think of themselves as being somehow “in space” (bear in mind they identified with Galaxy Quest before they built their replica of the Protector). This reveals a curious bit of Earth-centrism on the part of the writers, but I for one have a hard time taking offense to it.
Whatever. It’s a pretty funny movie, and thinking about all this too much while seeing it will just ruin all the jokes. But maybe that’s okay, too. Brandon the aforementioned fan whom Nesmith abuses becomes the movie’s unlikely hero when his compulsive over-analysis of the TV show makes him an invaluable technical advisor to the intrepid Commander Taggart and Lt. Madison (by now they’ve been more or less subsumed into their television roles). This being the case, perhaps the movie would also endorse what I’ve done to it here, and if so, let me use my authority to suggest that Dreamworks perpetrate an urban myth that they’re planning to beam Galaxy Quest into space. After all, they’re probably trying to think of a way to make the movie yet more reflexive, and besides, I don’t see why we humans should be the only ones confused by all this.