Dean Parisot's Galaxy Quest opened over Christmas weekend, 1999, opposite some of that season's most anticipated films: Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, Milos Forman's Man On The Moon, Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday and Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley. The film's arrival followed a truncated marketing campaign that straddled the line between inaccurate and half-assed (see also: the aggressively bad one-sheets the studio released to promote the film). It starred Tim Allen, whose last onscreen role had come two years prior, opposite Kirstie Alley in the critically savaged For Richer Or Poorer. This was not a film that was set up for success.
All of which isn't to say that Galaxy Quest bombed at the box office: upon release, the film doubled its $45m production budget worldwide (roughly three-quarters of which was earned in the States). It is, however, my way of explaining why I didn't see Galaxy Quest until the following summer, when I got dragged kicking and screaming to a matinee screening at my local dollar theater. I went in convinced that I was about to waste two hours of my time; I emerged a true believer, and have been beating the Galaxy Quest drum ever since.
The film begins as a savage satire of Star Trek fandom: a perfectly cast Tim Allen (mea culpa, sir) is Jason Nesmith, a hard-drinking, washed-up blowhard who's still riding the coattails of the success he found years prior, headlining a low-rent sci-fi TV series called Galaxy Quest. Nesmith and his former co-stars travel from convention to convention (and, in one of the film's best scenes, a wildly dispiriting public appearance at the opening of an electronics superstore*), wringing every last paycheck they can from their former glory days. Early on, these events allowed the crew to feel like rock stars, but by now they've grown bitter and bored in their roles, annoyed with their de facto leader's thoughtlessness and the tenacity of their overeager fans.
One day, a group of aliens show up on Nesmith's doorstep, begging for his help in vanquishing a great threat who blah, blah, blah - Nesmith's not really listening, because he's massively hungover. He mistakes these "Thermians" for particularly overzealous fans, while they've mistaken intercepted transmissions of the Galaxy Quest TV series for "historical records" documenting an actual starship crew's exploits. Feeling like hell but quick to collect another paycheck, Nesmith agrees to travel with them to what he thinks is yet another last-minute public appearance. Upon waking in their starship, it slowly dawns on him that he's actually in space, that the aliens have mistaken him for an actual starship commander, and that - by returning to this ship with his "crew" - he might have found a way to turn his role as Commander Quincy Taggart into a full-time gig.
Of course, it's not that easy: first he has to convince his crew to come back with him (they all think he's drunk and/or completely snapped), and then they have to deal with the fact that, y'know, they're all just actors. These people aren't equipped to run an actual starship - much less take on a genuine alien threat - and the bulk of the film revolves around the Galaxy Quest crew coming to terms with and overcoming these limitations to become the heroic characters they played two decades prior (if one wanted to offer a quick-and-dirty description of the plot, it'd be "Three Amigos in space"**).
It's not hard to imagine a version of this film that would absolutely suck: it'd lean too hard on cheesy costumes and goofy creature designs, or it'd push its satirical edge so far as to make its characters unlikable. It would, in other words, disrespect the source material and the genuinely passionate fans who've spent decades rallying around it (and, y'know, I bet that version would have a cult following, too; it'd just be a less-inclusive, dickish sort of cult). But one of Galaxy Quest's many, many secret weapons is the about-face it makes in the film's final act: whereas the film began as a savage satire of Star Trek and its fandom, it ends as a full-on love letter to that entire community (indeed, for as heroic as the Galaxy Quest crew ultimately proves to be, they couldn't save the day were it not for the help of their nerdy Earthbound fans, who've spent so much time studying the show that they end up being invaluable members of the crew). The film absolutely satirizes this geeky subculture, but it's also smart enough to give that subculture its heart and humanity. This is the film's smartest play: satire that's frequently hilarious, but never mean-spirited. I'm convinced this is why Galaxy Quest was voted the "7th best Star Trek movie ever" at the 2013 Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas.
Another of the film's secret weapons: its cast. The Galaxy Quest crew is filled out by a number of character actors (and one major star) turning in truly inspired, career-best work. Sigourney Weaver plays Gwen DeMarco/Tawny Madison -the show's ditzy blonde "Computer Officer" - whose job it is to repeat everything the ship's MUTHUR-like A.I. system has to say during the crew's adventures. With apologies to Ghostbusters, Gwen might be the warmest, most likable character Weaver's ever played; she's on fire here, clearly energized by the material and, against all odds, generating honest-to-God sparks with Allen in their scenes together. Alan Rickman is Alexander Dane, the classically trained actor who plays Galaxy Quest's Spock stand-in, Dr. Lazarus. Dane has nothing but contempt for the character he's become synonymous with, but his heart begins to warm to the idea of actually becoming Lazarus when he sees how deeply his performance has inspired and moved the Thermian people.
The film gives each of its three leads an arch, but it really goes the extra mile by fleshing out each one of its supporting players. It earns triple-points by filling out those roles with outstanding, riotously funny character actors: Sam Rockwell plays Galaxy Quest's token "red shirt" character, Guy; Daryl Mitchell is the ship's wiz-kid navigator, Tommy (now an adult who can only panic when tasked with actually piloting the Thermian's sprawling recreation of the Galaxy Quest version of the USS Enterprise, the NSEA Protector); and, last but certainly not least, is Tony Shalhoub as Fred Kwan, the inexplicably sedate*** Tech Sergeant who oversees the goings-on in the Protector's engine room (he's the Scotty, in other words). Watch Shalhoub in this film: he steals every scene he's in, and he gets many of the film's best lines ("Well, that was a helluva thing").
Another thing elevating Galaxy Quest above the standard "cult film": its production value. Made for only $45m (a relative pittance by today's standards), the film looks like it cost double or triple that amount of money. The creature design - particularly on the un-cloaked Thermians and Saris, the film's Big Bad - is impressive and memorable, and the set design is fantastic: the ships, the space vistas and the Protector's main deck may not be as finely-tuned and shiny as the ones JJ Abrams would later deliver in his Star Trek reboot, but for my money they're infinitely more believable than anything George Lucas threw up on screen in the Star Wars prequels (lesson: practical is better, always). This is a gorgeous film, so much so that it's sort of surprising to revisit it, see how great it all looks, and then confront the idea that Dreamworks sorta dumped the film upon release.
But whatever. In the decade and a half since its arrival, Parisot's film has built up a sizable fanbase, one that's only grown with the film's addition to the Netflix Instant database. Galaxy Quest is undoubtedly a "cult film," but it puts the lie to the idea that cult films have to be Z-grade trash (The Room), counterculture touchstones (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) or intentionally amateurish, cynically self-aware anti-films (the Sharknado cycle) in order to qualify for that title. Of course it's a shame when movies like Galaxy Quest don't fare better upon release (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, I'm looking in your direction), but we can take comfort in the idea that audiences really will eventually come around on a film if the quality's there. Revisit this one, and revisit it often, folks. Maybe if the cult following gets big enough, someone will wise up and give Galaxy Quest the sequel it deserves****.
* = "By Grabthar's hammer...what a savings" is a line for the ages.
** = I'll be the first to mount a strong defense of Three Amigos, but even I'll cop to the fact that Galaxy Quest is the better film.
*** = According to this excellent oral history (curated by BAD's own Jordan Hoffman, for MTV), the Kwan role was originally supposed to be played by an Asian actor. When Shalhoub was hired, the role-as-written didn't make a lot of sense, and so Shalhoub decided to play the character as a stoner. Watch the film again with that in mind and it explains everything.
**** = Yes, I'm aware that IDW published a sequel in the form of a comic series, but I want to see this entire creative team back together onscreen.