Galaxy Quest is the best-written science-fiction movie ever made.
I know, that statement sounds barmy. Galaxy Quest is a fun, tongue-in-cheek sci-fi romp that came and went in the annals of sci-fi moviedom. Why am I choosing it over 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or Star Wars, or Battle beyond the stars? (okay, maybe not Battle Beyond the Stars) Or Solaris? The list is long. The thing is, Solaris and 2001 and Star Wars are wonderful movies. They have brilliant ideas. Star Wars has brilliant acting, top-notch production values and cutting edge special effects that haven’t actually been bettered in terms of immersive involvement (although that film would have flopped in its original version. For more on that, read about how Star Wars was saved in the edit) But I won’t be swayed, Galaxy Quest is the best-written science-fiction movie I’ve ever watched. I’m not the only one who thinks so. To quote from Wikipedia:
Acclaimed writer-director David Mamet, in his book Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business, included Galaxy Quest in a list of his four “perfect” films, along with The Godfather, A Place in the Sun and Dodsworth.
In the film, the main characters are actors who used to star in a successful science-fiction television series. Since then, they’ve been making a living going to conventions and opening supermarkets. They are no longer famous. They’ve also lost their credibility as thespians. Their days are spent signing autographs and being forced to say hackneyed lines from the TV series. But one day, actual aliens turn up. These aliens want the actors, who they think are really heroes, to save them from their mortal enemy. The actors get a chance to actually be space heroes. This is a bit of a problem as they’ve only played space heroes.It’s a beautiful premise. It’s not an entirely original premise – Three Amigos is a very similar setup – but it’s brilliantly done.
The main reason, I think, that Galaxy Quest has been perfectly written is because it is about people, first and foremost. In particular, it’s about people overcoming their flaws. This is the perennial basis for any moving and memorable story. It is why Casablanca is a classic, as well as The Apartment, Groundhog Day and even Some Like it Hot. Some Like it Hot is a screwball comedy but it does have, at its heart, a redemption. Tony Curtis’s self-serving charmer realises that he’s been a dick and thereby wins the heart of Marilyn Monroe’s character. Ultimately, a dramatic and satisfying story is one where the main characters have their flaws but also their qualities, and their qualities come to the fore during the story. Such a story begins by showing the characters flaws, and then we see their external enemy. The characters then have to overcome their internal flaws in order to overcome that external challenge or enemy. They also have to overcome their internal flaws too. By the end of the story, they have conquered their internal flaws, brought their qualities to the fore and by doing so, have overcome their external problems. This sounds like a very bookish/nerdy story analysis but it’s true and if it’s done well, the audience cheers and goes home happy.
￼David Howard, who wrote the first draft of the Galaxy Quest script, was a playwright. This shows in the story. In an interview with IGN.com, he discussed the benefits of writing a play rather than a film screenplay. He pointed out that if you write a play, you’re forced to think about the characters and their relationships with each other, rather than copping out by describing a huge battle instead. He agreed that a big battle is fun but you’ve still got to get those character relationships sorted out first, or the whole story feels empty and pointless. (I would have to put Valerian and the city of a thousand planets and Star Wars: The Force Awakens into such a category). Howard states:
One of my professors said that…when you look at a play…it’s 75% verbal, and 25% visual. In a film, that’s inverted. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. In plays…out of necessity…you have to deal with language and ideas, whereas converting ideas into visuals involves using a whole different part of your brain. There is a transition to be made there. So, I suppose I would encourage any writer to write a play, for a number of reasons. First of all, because it forces you to deal with ideas rather than just blowing things up, or creating special effects. I think any good film has to have some significant human idea at the heart of it.
I would recommend anyone interested in writing to read the interview.
Galaxy Quest is also about people who believe in something wonderful; they don’t care if it makes them appear to be naive losers. This is why, I think, Galaxy Quest is loved so much by Star Trek fans because the film portrays science-fiction fans with humour but also with love. In the film, a team of nerdy science-fiction fans, who are enraptured with the series, actually get the chance to help save their heroes! As a result, this group are transformed from ‘losers’ to heroes in the same way that the main characters, the TV-actors, also become real heroes.
I’ve written a lot stories over the years. I know how difficult it is to set up internal and external challenges and then resolve them in an elegant, believable and satisfying way. I’d like to give examples of how well this is done in Galaxy Quest but I can’t, without spoiling the plot. You’ll just have to believe me; it’s a multi-layered masterclass. Watch it with an open mind and a bag of popcorn. You won’t be disappointed.