Galaxy Quest (1999)

I keep thinking this movie is the one where a robot says “Danger, Will Robinson!” but no, that’s Lost in Space, a movie that came out around the same time and was reportedly terrible, though it was based on a beloved classic television show.

Galaxy Quest is decidedly not terrible. It’s an award-winning sci-fi comedy beloved by sci-fi and comedy fans alike. It’s got big-name actors (Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman), and top-notch special effects (from Industrial Light and Magic and others) that still look good almost twenty years later. And it was the film debut of Justin “I’m a Mac” Long, who subsequently starred in Live Free or Die Hard, Herbie: Fully Loaded, and Accepted.

The premise is that, years after the end of a long-running television show called Galaxy Quest (obviously a parody of Star Trek), the show’s washed up actors (those who played the commander, the attractive woman who talks to the computer, the rubber-headed alien doctor, the young pilot, the tech expert and a one-episode redshirt) are approached at a fan convention by actual aliens who mistakenly believe they are the “never give up, never surrender” heroes they used to portray. Can these human fish out of water pull together to meet this unexpected challenge?

See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

My beat sheet for Galaxy Quest

Opening Image
We see (on a 4×3 screen) an excerpt from the old Galaxy Quest show.

Set-up / Theme Stated
The attractive woman is bitter that all she did on the show is look attractive and repeat what the computer said. The alien doctor moans about how he used to be a proper stage actor and is now less than nothing. The commander arrives and acts obnoxiously self-important, mouthing his character’s slogan, “Never give up! Never surrender!” Then, however, he goes into the men’s restroom and overhears a couple of non-fans calling him pathetic. Subsequently, some die-hard fans approach the commander and he brushes them off angrily, something he’s never done before.

The commander is approached by another group of what he takes to be fans, and he agrees to what he thinks is another fan gig. However, the next morning, the fans (who are actually friendly aliens) take him away in a limo that’s actually a space shuttle. The commander orders the friendly aliens to fire missiles at the enemy he is supposed to negotiate with. The shocked but still friendly aliens thank him, give him a communication device, and send him back through a wormhole in a kind of gel envelope. He realizes en route back to Earth that it was not a fan gig after all.

The commander shows up late for a depressingly lame gig at an electronics store and starts talking like a crazy person about going into space. He can’t substantiate anything he says, though, because he has accidentally swapped his real communicator with a fake one belonging to a fan—the same die-hard fan he brushed off the day before. The crew don’t even believe him when the friendly alien group shows up and invites the commander to return to their ship. The commander invites them to come along and initially they decline, but they’re all so desperate for work they change their minds, not realizing they, too, will be traveling through space in those gel envelopes. When they realize that they’re really in space and that they’ve been mistaken for interstellar social justice warriors, they try to back out…

Break into Two
…but it’s too late. If they leave the ship in those gel envelopes, the bad guy will obliterate them. Oh well. At least being aboard a full-scale, operational copy of their set and trying to save the last of a beleaguered alien race is much more exciting than their hum-drum daily lives.

Promise of the Premise / B Story
The crew is treated like royalty by the friendly aliens, who have built a whole society on the values expressed in the show. It’s too bad the crew is completely inept. They botch the second negotiation meeting and only narrowly escape by flying through a minefield that cripples the ship. They have to visit the surface of a nearby planet to fetch mineral supplies to repair it. The redshirt fears his own death, and his paranoia protects the crew from some cute but deadly predators, but in the end it is the commander who finds himself in mortal danger. The tech expert manages to extract him using a digitizer before it’s too late.

Bad Guys Close In
The bad guys have boarded the friendly aliens’ ship, and, having found out about the Galaxy Quest MacGuffin, the Omega-13, are torturing the friendly aliens’ leader to find out where it is and what it does. Nobody actually knows: not the friendly aliens, and not the crew. (It’s probably nothing to do with fish oil, though.)

All Is Lost / Dark Night of the Soul
To stop the torture, the commander tells the bad guy that he’s not really the commander, he’s just an actor. He pretended. In fact, he lied. The innocent friendly alien finally understands and feels utterly betrayed. The bad guy is thoroughly amused. He says the crew will be thrown out an airlock, the ship will be programmed to self-destruct, and all remaining friendly aliens will be slowly asphyxiated. The crew feel horribly guilty about being responsible for their own and the friendly aliens’ deaths.

Break into Three
The commander remembers an episode involving a similar predicament. He starts a mock-fight with the doctor (albeit one with some heart-felt insults) that allows them to turn the tables on their captors. Free again, they hatch a plan to save the ship and their friends.

The commander and the woman contact the die-hard fan back on Earth using the mistakenly swapped communicator. The fan and a few of his friends guide them past the beautiful Omega-13 device, which he explains can rewind time by 13 seconds, which is not a lot of time, but is still “enough to rectify one mistake”. After passing through a pointless hallway full of dangerous pistons, the commander and the woman reach the self-destruct mechanism, which they deactivate. Meanwhile, the pilot goes to watch videos of himself piloting the ship. Separately, the doctor saves the gasping friendly aliens, but not before the one who considered him a father-figure is fatally shot. Elsewhere, the tech-expert and the redshirt warp a rock monster onto the ship to fight the bad guys in the control room; then the tech-expert makes out with one of the friendly aliens, not seeming to mind her tentacles.

Now that the good guys are in control of the ship, the pilot flies back through the minefield (expertly, this time) and brings the mines to bear on the enemy ship, destroying it completely. That’s not the end, though… someone who looks like the tech expert shows up on the bridge, and it turns out to be the enemy leader. He shoots everyone. The commander tells the friendly alien leader to activate the Omega-13 device. With the help of the redshirt, he’s able to prevent the slaughter when the imposter enters the door a second time. Mistake rectified!

The friendly aliens are sad their friends won’t stay with them. They send the Earthlings off in a detachable shuttle, which crash lands at the fan convention. The crew, bedraggled and shocked by everything they’ve gone through, arrive triumphantly and behave like a team. On stage, they disintegrate the leader of the evil aliens, who survived the counterattack in the control room. The fans (except for the ones that helped them overcome the bad guys) think it’s all a special effects show dreamed up especially for them.

Final Image
The TV show is rebooted; the redshirt gets a new role as a comic relief character; the tech expert’s alien girlfriend is now a crew member. Everybody’s happy.

“Six things that need fixing” in Galaxy Quest

I think the movie did a great job of contrasting the “before” and “after” status of the team members individually and as a group. Blake Snyder says movies should have “six things that need fixing” in the beginning, and this movie has seven: each of the six crew members has his or her own specific problem, and together their problem is that they’re not a team. Juggling all those threads can’t have been easy, and the movie did it well.

  • The commander (Tim Allen, playing Jason Nesmith, playing Peter Quincy Taggart, commander of the NSEA Protector) is obnoxiously arrogant, but as proud as he is, he’s dreadfully unhappy, and drinks himself under the table alone in his beautiful clifftop poolside living room. (He becomes a real leader when he supports his team members in an effort to do some real good.)
  • The attractive woman (Sigourney Weaver playing Gwen DeMarco playing Lieutenant Tawny Madison, the communication officer) likes being attractive, but feels that she is capable of more than just window decoration. She can’t believe she was ever attracted to that horrible womanizing commander. (In a scene cut from the movie, she overcomes the two guards blocking the way to the button that disables the self-destruct device. She patches things up with the commander.)
  • The doctor (Alan Rickman playing Alexander Dane, playing Dr. Lazarus, the science officer) is fed up with saying his alien slogan, which starts with “By Grabthor’s Hammer…” and feels he should be acting in serious roles where he can take himself seriously. (He realizes that his cheesy character changed the lives of others for the better and becomes proud of his role.)
  • The tech expert (Tony Shalhoub playing Fred Kwan playing Tech Sergeant Chen, the chief engineer) is a low-self-esteem druggie and goes though the whole plot stoned, or just casually indifferent, like Peter in Office Space. (The commander convinces him that if he exerts himself, he can be great again. When he does try, he saves the commander’s life. He also has an idea of his own that saves the life of the redshirt and also gives him a different perspective on his role.)
  • The pilot (Daryl Mitchell, playing Tommy Webber playing Lieutenant Laredo, the pilot) doesn’t seem to know how to do anything. (When called upon, he teaches himself to master a new skill, which then saves everybody.)
  • The redshirt (Sam Rockwell playing Guy Fleegman playing Crewman #6) is a nobody whose purpose is to die to show that the situation is serious. (He goes from being a coward to being suicidal, but finally finds another purpose for himself: being funny.)

Science-Fiction genre jokes in Galaxy Quest

  • At his house, the commander tells the friendly aliens to look for his other shoe. They gaze upwards in several directions, clearly not understanding where a human shoe would likely be.
  • The friendly aliens are called Thermians. The commander misremembers the word as “termites or dalmatians”.
  • The friendly aliens look like octopi when they have their appearance generators turned off.
  • The aliens prepared food (and living quarters) for the doctor which the human actor found unbearable.
  • The aliens managed to invent every fictional technology mentioned in the television show.
  • The naive friendly aliens thought Gilligan’s Island was a documentary.
  • As in the show, the whole command team had to go to the surface to get metal for repairs to the ship. (They couldn’t just send some soldiers.)
  • The redshirt berates the tech expert for having opened the door of the shuttle before testing the air. The tech expert sniffs the air and says it’s fine.
  • The doctor held the tracking device upside down.
  • The cute aliens were actually vicious cannibals.
  • The doctor, a Shakespearean actor, tells the commander to intuit the motivation of a rock monster.
  • The die-hard fan claims he doesn’t believe the show is real, but reacts with glee when the commander tells him he needs help saving some real aliens.
  • In addition to some ducts that needed to be crawled through and slid down, the ship had a pointless hallway full of deadly pistons that the actors had to dodge. The woman kept objecting, finally screaming that whoever wrote the episode should die.
  • The countdown clock keeps counting down after the self-destruct sequence has been halted, but stops at 1 second, because that’s when countdown clocks always stop on television shows.
  • The die-hard fan’s mum assumed his involvement with actual aliens was just another of his imaginative stories.

TV Tropes has a comprehensive list of tropes in Galaxy Quest.