In praise of 'Galaxy Quest'

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I spotted a little nugget of news this week that's reporting that the 1999 science fiction comedy film 'Galaxy Quest' may be made into a T.V. series some time soon. It got me thinking and I've come to a strange and surprising conclusion:

'Galaxy Quest' is the best-written science fiction movie ever made.

I know, it 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. 'Solaris' and '2001' 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. But I won't be swayed, 'Galaxy Quest' is the best-written science-fiction movie I've ever watched.

Interestingly, 'Galaxy Quest' was written by a playwright, David Howard (Robert Gordon was responsible for honing the script, which is an important job but not the same as writing the original story). 'Galaxy Quest' isn't the only excellent science fiction story created by a playwright. Orson Scott Card was a playwright when he wrote Ender's Game, which definitely belongs in my top twenty science fiction novels of all time. Both stories reflect the playwrighting approach as they are primarily about people and their relationships with each other. They're also about people facing up to their internal challenges. The key characters in both stories have internal flaws that they need to resolve and they must overcome these internal flaws, along with the external challenges, during the story. By the end, the main characters have conquered both their internal flaws and the external challenges. This is standard epic story stuff and you can see it in a film like 'Casablanca' (which also started out as a play). For fun, compare Tim Allen's character in 'Galaxy Quest' with Humphrey Bogart's character in 'Casablanca'; they're not that different.

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David Howard discusses the benefits of writing a play rather than a film screenplay in this interview. He points 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 (although there are times when a huge battle is cool. End of Star Wars, anyone?):

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.


It's a very good interview and it's full of perceptive and helpful points, not just about writing a screenplay for Hollywood but the simple problems of writing any long piece of work, whether it's a screenplay or a novel.

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Why is 'Galaxy Quest' the best-written science-fiction movie ever made? For me, it's the successful, seamless layering of the story that puts it above other sci-fi tales. For example, in the story, [PLOT SPOILER] the aliens think Tim Allen and his bunch of TV actors playing starship heroes are real starship heroes and they want the actors to help them defeat a real space enemy. The aliens have even built a ship that exactly matches the ship as it was portrayed in the TV series. Later on in the story, as the conscripted TV actors are trying to fight off real enemy aliens, they have to get through an actual copy of their TV series ship to stay alive. To do this, they end up contacting some teenage fans of the TV series and ask them where they should go? The nerds are overjoyed at the prospect of helping as they always thought the series was really real! The fun ramifications of this fun idea spread out through the story like a fractal Mandelbrot pattern. I won't add any more, as it'll just spoil things, but it's this kind of successful layering in the story that pushes it to the top of the pile. Successful layering is very difficult to write; it takes ages to get right. The fact that 'Galaxy Quest' is low-brow, tongue-in-cheek and a bit silly sometimes is irrelevant; I think it's a screenplay masterpiece.

post script: 'Solaris' may not be the best science fiction script in my mind, but it has the best line. Near the end of the film, the main character (played by George Clooney) asks his scientist friend for answers to the mystery of the 'Solaris' planet. His friend shakes his head and replies: 'There are no answers here, only choices.'