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Films
by Kathi Maio

And a Good Time Was Had By All

Let us now praise stupid movies. No, I am not referring to the stupidity exhibited by the majority of American films-a lack of coherence and intelligence that is completely unintentional. I am, instead, alluding to movies that are purposefully silly in the hopes of entertaining an audience.

These films don't necessarily wish to move us to the depth of our emotions, nor do they hope to provoke in us deep thoughts. They are shallow, and proud of it. A chuckle, a sigh, and two hours away from our worldly troubles is all they offer. And, speaking personally, I have never needed that more.

I am not alone in this feeling. Which is why an SF/espionage pastiche like Mike Myers's Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me did such boffo box-office last summer. Mr. Myers is a very funny man. And the screenplay for his sequel to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), which he co-wrote with Michael McCullers, is often very funny stuff. Full of sight-gags, double-entendres, potty humor, and every bit of comic shtick available to man (and, let's face it, this is not the kind of movie women tend to write), Austin Powers was a hoot and a half.

Nevertheless, it was more an extended comedy sketch than a feature film. Even as I laughed, I found the rhytym of gag-punchline-naughty quip, gag-punchline-naughty quip, just a wee bit monotonous. Yet it was easy to see why Mr. Myers chose to be so relentless with his jokes and japes. He was hoping none of us would pay the least attention to his storyline (relating to Dr. Evil's theft of dear Austin's mojo), which was insubstantial, to say the least.

The thing is, I did notice. And that's what made The Spy Who Shagged Me a less than completely satisfying movie for me. Perhaps, what I want is an oxymoron: Intelligent Stupidity, Thoughtful Mindlessness. However it is expressed, I know that although I truly enjoy a just-for-fun film, I still want it (on some basic level) to be a meaningful movie experience. A want a real story, and not just a screen version of the Mammoth Book of Jokes.

Hey, I don't ask for much! Just a lightweight film with a bit of narrative heft to it. And, once in while, I even get it. As I did with a holiday season release called Galaxy Quest. It had an honest-to-gosh story to tell. (A totally wacky one, it's true. But so much the better.) And, in the real clincher, this particular fable was good-hearted as well as witty.

Like the Powers spy comedies, Galaxy Quest is, superficially, a genre parody. In this case, David Howard and Robert Gordon have written a pastiche of the Star Trek phenomenon. For a few short years in the late seventies and early eighties, they tell us, a show called Galaxy Quest played on network television. And that episodic space opera featured an all too familiar cast of adventurous jumpsuited archetypes.

Commander Peter Quincy Taggart was the natural-born leader; fearless and just a little too self-important. He was played by Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen). Lt. Tawny Madison was the token space-babe; blonde, stacked, and there for display purposes (and the occasional conversation with the spaceship's voice-responsive computer). That role went to Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver). A classically-trained British actor named Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman) won the part of the crew's highly logical resident alien, Dr. Lazarus, and lived to rue the day. (All that make-up to wear! And stupid lines like "By Grabthar's hammer, by the suns of Warvan, you shall be avenged!" to spout . . . time after time!) And rounding out the multicultural cast was Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell) as Laredo, and Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub) as Tech. Sergeant Chen.

Like the actors who played the original shipmates on Star Trek, the cast of Galaxy Quest has never been able to shake their identification with their short-lived television roles. But unlike William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and their other real-life counterparts, the Questors never had a movie franchise to maintain their incomes. So they are trapped in the "special appearance" hell of opening electronics superstores, and traveling the convention circuit.

The film's early scenes, which take place at an SF fan convention, contain its most pointed satire. But although they are on target, the filmmaker's shots at fandom display no mean-spiritedness. Like last year's documentary, Trekkies, Galaxy Quest is dumbfounded by the devotion of the obsessive fan. And yet it treats SF fanatics with so much exasperated affection and respect that no Trekker could take offense at the ribbing. And the same is true of the way the movie mildly mocks a group of "has-been" actors trapped in their hackneyed roles.

In the end, both groups-SF fans and SF actors-prove to be the brave heroes of a "real life" outer-space adventure, which starts when an amiable band of black-clad, and pasty-faced folk show up at the convention. Although they look like just another group of costumed crazies, these newcomers are actual aliens: Thermians from the Klatu Nebula. Lead by the beaming Mathesar (Enrico Colantoni), they approach "Commander Taggart" for help in saving their race from a merciless invader named Sarris (Robin Sachs, completely hidden in a sensational lobster/cockroach creation from Stan Winston and his wizards).

At first, Nesmith thinks the Thermian job is just another personal appearance gig, for a fan group with a good budget and a little too much enthusiasm for role-playing. His hosts have done an excellent job at replicating Taggart's spaceship, The Protector. (In fact, their copy looks even better than the original set.) But, before long, Nesmith gets an inkling that he has fallen down the rabbit hole-or up a worm hole-into another world. What fun! (Or so he still thinks.) And, of course, he wants to share his high old time with his former cast-mates.

At this point, the film shifts away from simple parody to something closer to a traditional Star-Trekian-style, valiant struggle, plot. But, all the while, it repeatedly, and quite humorously, plays with the plot conventions of old SF television . . . with good reason, as it turns out. It seems that the Thermians have based their environment-nay, their entire society-on the model provided them by the old "Galaxy Quest" series. Here we have the ultimate SF fans! To Mathesar and his cohorts, these intercepted TV transmissions were no mere fiction. They were "historical documents" offering a design for living.

And when the group of earthling actors steps through their own cultural looking glass, they are at first bemused, then disoriented, then terrified by their situation. Happily, in the end, our crew meets the challenge. They are able to live up to their fictional characters, and then some-with a little help from their earthbound fans, and the gentle Thermian people.

Helmer Dean Parisot (Home Fries) maintains a light touch throughout. But his tone, mercifully, never degrades to arch campiness. Instead, the director embraces the heart of fantasy, which is belief. A true "quest," he seems to tell his audience, is never just a battle against an evil force, it is a process of personal growth for all the characters involved. Sigourney Weaver says that Parisot told her that their story was "like the Wizard of Oz. Each of these people lacks something important, and they can only get it by sticking with each other and going through this adventure."

He's right. And that's what transforms this Trekkian parody into quite the heartfelt action comedy. That, and the fact that the movie is well-written and ably-directed, with solid production values. The special effects are worthy of special mention. I found them delightfully cheesy in the original TV show clips, and wonderfully realistic in the rest of the film. (A rock monster, that makes two quite dramatic appearances, is a particularly impressive creation.)

Since I've already listed the primary players, it may go without saying that Galaxy Quest is also skillfully acted. Sigourney Weaver is, well, Sigourney Weaver. She can't help but impress. But it's quite a treat to see her having so much fun playing the "Anti-Ripley." The distinguished Ms. Weaver makes quite the bodacious babe in her silicone-enhanced bra and her blonde wig. Still, she can't help but bring strength and intelligence to a part most actresses would have played as a straight-out bimbo.

Alan Rickman, a personal favorite, glowers marvelously as Alexander Dane. (You can almost see him writing a book called I Am Not Lazarus!) And I also enjoyed Tony Shalhoub as the baffled but amused Fred Kwan. But my favorite character was a guy called Guy, played by Sam Rockwell. A series bit-player, mistakenly transported into the star ensemble's real deep-space mission, Guy is initially thrilled to be part of the show again. But as he grasps the reality of their peril, he is horrified by the blithe innocence of the others. ("Didn't you guys ever watch the show?" he asks, as he pulls Gwen away from a tribe of deceptively teletubby-ish aliens.) Moreover, his fears are completely justified. As a bit player, poor Guy realizes that he alone is the expendable one, destined--by plot convention--to die.

But the film's biggest surprise is Tim Allen. I've never been particularly impressed by Allen's acting. But playing Buzz Lightyear, twice, must have given the former sitcom and standup star all the preparation he needed for this particular role. Allen gets the egotism and insecurities of his Shatnerish role just right. The real pleasure comes from seeing his Jason Nesmith develop into a man of mettle, worthy of the title "Commander."

Make no mistake, Galaxy Quest is no cinematic masterpiece. Who wants it to be? It is enough that it a first-rate trifle of a movie. It doesn't insult our intelligence, but neither does it ask us to think too much about what we're watching. It invites us simply to sit back, and be entertained.

I watched Galaxy Quest with a general audience who gave it a spontaneous ovation as the credits rolled. I can honestly say that as we all ebulliently filed out of the theater, I got the feeling that a good time was had by all.

High praise, indeed.

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