A review requested by Pip, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The story goes that J.J. Abrams, along with other chief creative minds involved in the making of the 2009 Star Trek reboot, claimed that one of their collective favorite films in the series up to that point was Galaxy Quest. This affection doesn't seem to have impeded Abrams & Co. any in their desire to make Star Trek resembles Star Wars as much as possible, but cheekiness and all, they make a trenchant point. Out of the ten pre-Abrams features adapting TV's Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation to the big screen, one of the easiest knocks against them is that they're not really at all faithful to the spirits of the shows they're presumably adapting. Whereas Galaxy Quest, a parody of those same shows and sometimes not a very nice one, does a vastly better job of capturing the awestruck matinee movie tone and sense of familiar camaraderie that "is" Star Trek. It is mockery, but it is mockery that comes from a place of knowledge and affection. The 12 official Star Trek pictures are all sincere attempts to distance themselves from the property they're cashing in on, in their own ways.

Now, 1999, the year that Galaxy Quest came out, was at the waning end of Peak Star Trek, which is perhaps why DreamWorks SKG thought that a mainstream family-oriented sci-fi comedy founded on an in-depth love/hate relationship with Star Trek, its stars, and its fandom might be a good box office play. That, and 1999 was also the waning end of a period when big-budget effects-driven comedies were at least somewhat commonplace (I allow myself to hope that the extravagant success of Guardians of the Galaxy will help bring this long-dead subgenre back). DreamWorks's faith was misplaced; Galaxy Quest didn't tank, but it didn't end up making anything like a decent profit. We can all come up with reasons why that would have happened - an overestimation of the general audience's affection for Trekkies, the late decision in post-production and marketing to gun for a family audience and so rip out everything even slightly dark or edgy - but the last place I'd lay the blame is at the foot of the movie itself. It's a little fuzzy around the edges, and filmed with proficiency but little imagination by director Dean Parisot (a TV veteran making only his second feature, which cuts both ways for the movie: it's a touch bland but that also makes it feel more authentically like fake Trek), but the script by David Howard and Robert Gordon is a peach, full of well-placed lines and smart details about the lives of burned-out semi-talented actors with the questionable fortune to have an unquestionably loyal and ravenous fanbase. It also has a virtually faultless collection of performances - I will not say "a perfect cast", because they are not, on paper, all people that you'd want to see in a movie you intended to enjoy. But Galaxy Quest pulls top-shelf work out of performers as apparently incompatible as Alan Rickman and Justin Long, while also serving as the film that more or less introduced the world to Sam Rockwell. For which it would deserve our thanks even in the absence of anything else praiseworthy.

The film opens in the eighteenth year after the campy sci-fi adventure Galaxy Quest went off the air, leaving behind a small but embarrassingly passionate fanbase that holds annual conventions at which the C-list actors who brought that show to life are brought out to be worshiped and bothered by the faithful. By this point, most of the cast has grown sick of this - Shakespearean-trained Alexander Dane (Rickman), a hybrid of Leonard Nimoy and Patrick Stewart, is much the angriest about it, but former child star Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell), perpetually stoned fake Asian Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub), and token woman/sex interest Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver) aren't any more fulfilled with the shape of their current careers. But what they really hate is the prima donna attitude adopted by Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), the show's lead, and enough of a raging narcissist that even the cheapjack stardom he now enjoys is enough to feed his ego. It's bad enough that he doesn't even register the highly unusual behavior of a bunch of pasty people with improbable haircuts and a distinctly non-standard grasp of English, who he just writes off as a bunch of particularly invested fans. But indeed, they are emissaries of an alien race, looking to the great hero Commander Taggart, captain of the NSEA spaceship Protector to save them from an invading force. Once he and, eventually, his castmates have been convinced that the aliens are telling the truth, it takes surprisingly little goading for them to agree to pitch in and help, and finally do something that feels good after years of trading off their one goofy little TV show.

"Actor is mistaken for character, enters an adventure" isn't the most original concept - in most of its general details, Galaxy Quest was beaten to the punch by the 1995 telefilm The Adventures of Captain Zoom in Outer Space, and if we take "cheesy sci-fi television" out of the mix, it's a much older gimmick still - but it's done particularly well in this particular case. Maybe even as well as it could be done. The particulars of Star Trek lend themselves especially well the the basic scenario, especially the particulars of William Shatner, whom Allen isn't copying in any particular way, though the egotism, vague dislike by his co-stars, and peremptory treatment of his fans are all ultimately taken from that sort. What we have, in essence, is screenwriters drawing upon a very specific real situation to flesh out their work of fiction with a plethora of real, lived-in details, but keeping themselves free to do whatever they want with those details. The result is an entirely plausible cast of characters, all of whom feel just sufficiently more deep and specific than the stock version of themselves that when the generic sci-fi action-adventure hits, we're more concerned about what these people we like will do about it than the sci-fi itself. Which is the reason Star Trek itself works, so it's satisfying to see it employed so well here.

The details extend beyond the writing to the acting: for a frothy comedy with lots of CGI, these are some unbelievably wonderful performances. A lot of the acting is simply about building and committing to a reality: Enrico Colantoni, as the leader of the helpless aliens, brought some kind of insane wizardry to his part in which he delivered lines in a pained sing-song that sounds perfectly like somebody who knows nothing of English pronunciation trying to fake it, while wearing an enormous smile in a way that clearly indicates that he has no idea what a smile is supposed to be for. Mechanically, it's astonishing acting, and the impressive thing is how quickly it recedes into the background as something true about the character, and not something Colantoni is doing because of sci-fi. Comparatively, all of the humans have it easy, though all of them are still awfully good: it's the best Allen has ever been in a live-action film, playing up his standard "idiot alpha male" persona with an unusual background of slow-arriving self-awareness; Weaver's frequent outbursts of confused impatience are consistently the funniest things in the movie ("This episode was badly written!", screamed at a totally useless death trap that exists solely because it was randomly tossed into the show once, is a great laugh line and all the greater because she delivers it with the exquisite frustration of someone who has decided to cling to one thing that makes sense as a shield against everything that doesn't).

Thanks to its emphasis on its characters - which extends to the obsessive fans it charitably treats as the real heroes at the end, after having engaged in the usual light mockery about introverted teen boys with nonexistent social skills - and its dogged pursuit of a PG rating. the film is probably a bit more genial than it is funny, though many individual lines are hilarious (in one case, Weaver has obviously re-dubbed herself saying "screw that!" instead of "fuck that!", which her mouth visibly says; it's obviously the case in context that the latter would have been funnier. And that is the kind of trade off that, in less specific forms, lets a bit of air out of the whole movie). And it's certainly more of a comedy than a sci-fi action film, though in its defense, the film at no point pretends otherwise. But it does leave it feeling a bit weirdly dated, in these days when genre-based comedies are so eager to have full-on action movie third acts. In a good way, I think; the film never really bloats or sags, and remains utterly pleasurable throughout its entire running time. "Pleasurable", of course, isn't the most full-throated defense of a movie that could be made, because a sharper, funnier, more merciless Galaxy Quest that ended with the same warm affection for its characters isn't hard to imagine. But the Galaxy Quest we got is still an awfully good thing, mixing warmth and cleverness to unexpectedly durable effect.