Galaxy Quest (1999)

I can’t believe how badly this film has dated. It sure didn’t stand up to a second go-around for me. It was amusing and entertaining, and the kid enjoyed it very much, but I swear the whole shebang has got to be among the least funny “comedies” ever scripted. In Galaxy Quest, some aliens think that a 1980s TV series was real, and ask the actors to help them save their planet. The underemployed actors think it’s another gig, but it’s real. That’s it. That’s the joke. It’s a mighty fine premise, I’ll grant you, but the movie is so busy having fun with saving the Thermians from their implacable enemy that it forgets to mine that premise for actual comedy.

So anyway, the movie features Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shaloub, and Daryl Mitchell as the stars of an early 1980s sci-fi show that ran for eighty-odd episodes, along with Sam Rockwell as a glorified extra who got killed off as a redshirt in one installment. They’re all pretty fun to watch, and Allen especially does a mighty fine job when his character gets to be “Commander Taggart” and play things straight. Enrico Colantoni, rudely, steals the movie out from all of them as the hero-worshipping leader of the aliens. The gag is that since their species does not understand anything other than absolute honesty, they’re easy prey for space conquerors who can lie to them with impunity, and they think that Galaxy Quest and Gilligan’s Island are historical documentaries. Nothing is done with this. Our heroes somehow don’t use lies and subterfuge to trick the Thermians into defeating their enemies; and the hapless aliens end the movie no wiser than they began.

I think what frustrated me this time around is that the film plays everything so straight that it has the same tone as any mildly amusing or wry sci-fi movie, when this thing should have had me laughing so hard I couldn’t hear what they were saying anymore. It knows that its audience is in on the joke, so it doesn’t bother to tell them any. At one point, the actors phone up a blueprint-loving “tech manual” style of fan who knows the schematics of the ship to help them get through the actor-sized ventilation ducts, and the joke seems to be “this kind of fan actually exists,” when of course they do. Was that supposed to be funny? I appreciate the design and the work of the actors, technicians, designers, and visual effects crew, and resent the screenplay for being so damn lazy.

What would have been better? Miles more on Earth. The aliens navigating agents, finding the stars’ homes, renting limousines. More of the actors’ other roles. The aliens looking up Tina Louise and Bob Denver to make sure they got off the island. The revelation that Tina Louise or Bob Denver had been a guest star in a 1982 episode of Galaxy Quest and the aliens trying to square that with what they think about television. Lots more gags about television. Heck, the fact that the aliens were able to get a working spaceship out of technology that does not make any scientific sense whatever is a gold mine of gags left untouched. I swear they spent $45 million on a movie with only one script draft. Into the sell pile with you, Galaxy Quest. You didn’t even produce a fake 1982 episode as a DVD extra!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

This morning, we sat down to enjoy the funny and very entertaining film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s flawed, but I’ve always liked it very much. It’s true that it occasionally feels like the work of a talented repertory company doing a speed-read of the original, but I was still impressed by just how much of the original that they kept in, even when it wasn’t necessary. I mean, if you’re going for a lean and compact 100-odd minute movie, then the sperm whale bit is really not needed. But since Hitchhiker’s Guide was never meant to be a 100-minute movie, it was always going to feel a little odd, no matter what they included or chopped out.

I try to believe in judging things on their own merits, rather than against what came before. With that in mind, I’m perfectly pleased with what Hitchhiker’s Guide accomplishes. I think Ford Prefect is badly underwritten, and that’s the movie’s biggest mistake. Everything else is charming and fun, just a bit rushed.

So this time out, Arthur Dent is played by Martin Freeman (fourth billed!), with Mos Def as Ford, Sam Rockwell as Zaphod, and Zooey Deschanel as Trillian. Guest voices are provided by Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman, and Helen Mirren, and Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast. The story is largely much the same as episodes 1-4 of the TV series, and most of the first book, with a radically different ending, two huge detours, a lot more Vogons, and a gigantic change that actually makes a huge amount of sense: the order to demolish the Earth was signed off by Zaphod, who, idiotically, thought somebody was asking for his autograph. It helps get Arthur and Trillian together a whole lot faster, for those of you hoping Earth’s last survivors would become a couple.

The movie kind of signaled the beginning of Zooey Deschanel’s Imperial phase, where she spent the mid-2000s as the It Girl of pretty much everything I was interested in. The records she did with M. Ward as She & Him were everywhere, and she was on TV in Tin Man and breaking my heart in (500) Days of Summer. I didn’t watch everything she did, but I adored what I had a chance to see, and she’s perfect as Trillian.

She’s so perfect that the rescue scene makes all kinds of sense, while I think that if the TV Trillian were to get abducted by Vogons, I’d just shrug a little. This leads to the movie’s greatest moment: the Vogon planet’s defense system, keeping anybody on the surface from having any kind of original thought. Our son liked the film very much, but he and I howled the loudest here. The Vogons are particularly amusing. Their design is terrific and I think there’s a little sensible magic in making the guard’s “Resistance is useless!” such a dull afterthought of a catchphrase. They’re bad-tempered but really lazy, after all.

Hitchhiker’s Guide was one of those unfortunate movies that made a little money, but not enough to justify a sequel. It’s a shame this team couldn’t have taken the story to Milliways and places further on. Maybe we’d have got the Krikkitmen and Fenchurch and the Grebulons… well, probably not Fenchurch. It’s a funny, clever movie with some great visuals, “Journey of the Sorcerer,” John Malkovich, the original BBC Marvin costume, and the beautiful sight of all those bad-tempered and lazy Vogons all becoming incredibly depressed as well.

Plus, now that we’ve seen this movie, Marie can go ahead and read Life, the Universe, and Everything to our son. Just as soon as she finishes the Target novelization of “The Wheel in Space,” anyway.