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For San Diego Comic-Con weekend, it’s time to re-watch Galaxy Quest

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It’s the only popular film to really get convention culture right — and this is its 20th anniversary

Photo: DreamWorks

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

Galaxy Quest, a 1999 science-fiction comedy in which the cast members of a canceled but still beloved Star Trek-like television series are whisked away by Thermians, a high-minded but credulous alien race. Not realizing their heroes’ adventures are fictional (they can’t grasp the concept of storytelling), the Thermians have modeled their civilization after the series and its lofty values. Oh, and they’re also hoping the actors can help defend them against a murderous, reptilian adversary.

Due to celebrate its 20th anniversary in December, Galaxy Quest arrived near the end of a film year filled with striking visions from new and emerging voices (as chronicled in Brian Raftery’s first-rate recent book Best. Movie. Year. Ever.). A big, crowd-pleasing, effects-filled comedy starring Tim Allen, Galaxy Quest doesn’t exactly match that profile, but that doesn’t make it any less daring or accomplished. (In his book Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet even includes it on a list of “perfect” films that includes The Godfather, Dodsworth, and A Place in the Sun.)

Conceived by first-time screenwriter David Howard, then reworked by Robert Gordon, Galaxy Quest began as a Harold Ramis film for the still-new studio DreamWorks. But Ramis didn’t want to cast Allen in the lead part of the vain actor Jason Nesmith — he tried to bring in Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, and others. That opened the door for Dean Parisot, who’d never helmed a project that big, didn’t mind working with Allen, and probably didn’t mind making a movie with Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, and Sam Rockwell, either.

To create the world of the film (and the world of the show within the film, and the world of the aliens inspired to base their entire civilization around that show), Galaxy Quest brought in special-effects and make-up expert Stan Winston. Winston and his team crafted elements appropriate for a modestly budgeted series — like the ridged headpiece embittered British actor Alexander Dane (Rickman, perfectly cast) wears while playing the role of science officer Dr. Lazarus — and aliens who looked like more convincing spins on Star Trek’s rubber-and-prosthetics creations. That’s just one of the ways Galaxy Quest works on multiple levels. The film offers wry commentary on Star Trek tropes, like a communications officer (Sigourney Weaver) who does little but repeat whatever the ship’s computer says, and on the clashes, disappointments, and long-simmering resentments that come with being so heavily associated with a single project and its numerous, passionate fans.

Galaxy Quest also offers an affectionate look at fandom itself, capturing what makes fan enthusiasm so infectious, even laudable. The Thermians are essentially fans writ large, driven to emulate the admirable principles that inform the series, while remaining blind to the flaws of its extremely human creators. Free from cynicism, they wholeheartedly embrace the virtues of a show that’s opened up possibilities they’d never previously imagined.

Photo: DreamWorks

Why watch now?

That final element is what makes Galaxy Quest the perfect show to watch as the annual San Diego Comic-Con takes place.

Though it’s just 20 years old, it plays like the product of a different era of fandom. 1999 also saw the release of Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, a film whose arrival coincided with the rise of fan sites like Ain’t It Cool News and the heating up of online fan debate. The years that followed saw the debuts of one major geek-friendly film franchise after another. X-Men, Spider-Man, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone all premiered within the next few years, setting the stage for our current franchise-dominated moment. This surge also helped produce our current fractious #ReleaseTheSnyderCut stage of fandom, a sometimes toxic climate in which fans wrap up their identities in a particular version of their favorite pop-culture properties, and freely attack those with differing visions.

Yet fandom still has a way of bringing out the best in people, as is often evidenced on the floor and in the convention halls of gatherings like Comic-Con, where the excitement can create a shared warmth. Galaxy Quest fills its convention scenes with familiar trappings like cheap merchandise and cosplayers, and it captures the backstage feel of weary, sniping castmates who find it difficult to spend time in the same room after years of predictable, repetitive con appearances, long after their work together ended.

But it also captures how the whole becomes greater than the same of its parts. When those castmates take the stage in front of a sea of fans clad in homemade costumes and tacky T-shirts, Galaxy Quest becomes about something bigger than all of them: the impact they had with the series that was so central to their lives.

Photo: DreamWorks

Over the course of the film, Nesmith learns to embody the heroic values his character espouses, values that have turned the impressionable Thermians into a force for good in the universe. Nesmith and the others have been so immersed in their careers and other concerns, that they’ve never been able to consider their effect on others, and how they’ve served as a moral North Star for generations of fans. (Who admittedly have also internalized a lot of usually useless information about beryllium spheres and the secret properties of Omega-13.) Galaxy Quest is an optimistic depiction of what it means to be a fan. Maybe a TV show can save the world by imagining a better, more just universe, one episode at a time.

Who it’s for

Filled with in-jokes about science fiction in general and Star Trek in particular, Galaxy Quest will have special appeal to anyone already familiar with those worlds — and especially anyone who’s ever waited in line to get an autograph from a star who almost certainly wanted to be anywhere else. And despite some initial trepidation from those involved with Star Trek, it’s been widely embraced as the best Star Trek movie that’s not really a Star Trek movie. (The film avoids any mention of the show.) But even if that’s not your world, it’s a warm, appealing comedy filled with well-realized characters and jokes ranging from the wry to the slapstick-y. It’s kid-friendly, too, and could easily serve as a fun back-door introduction to the Star Trek world.

Where to see it

Galaxy Quest is available for rental on all major streaming services, and is currently streaming on Showtime.