What Screenwriter's Can Learn From Galaxy Quest
When asked what my guilty pleasure is in movies, I often respond that I like Galaxy Quest. In my mind, it does a lot of things right, and we screenwriters can learn a thing or two from this fun film.
A strong and creative concept
What if has-been “Star Trek” actors were called to an actual space mission? That’s a pretty strong concept, and audiences enjoy a good fish-out-of-water story. Does your logline or story concept or premise statement make people say, “That sounds like a (good/fun/fabulous/peachy-keen) movie”?
James Nesmith is loosely patterned after William Shatner/James Kirk, but the others are unique and quite different from each other. Any one of them could be contrasted to another. For example, Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub) is the only one who seems to adapt well to things alien. That pays off later when he falls for the alien ingenue. Contrasts help define your characters.
And the Thermians are not your typical aliens. They are honest, completely without deception, and much more intelligent than Tribbles. And that gives rise to a second creative premise: The childlike Thermians (aliens) believe the Galaxy Quest TV show they have observed from afar is actually a library of historical documents.
It’s not necessary to create bookends for your screenplay. It’s just one tool of many that may work for certain stories. This movie is one of them. It opens with the old TV show introduction followed by a Galaxy Quest convention. It closes with a Galaxy Quest convention followed by the new TV show introduction. Can I say the story resolves into an emotionally satisfying ending? Yes. I admit; I was delighted.
In a nutshell, each Galaxy Quest TV show actor becomes the character he or she portrays in the TV show. Here’s a rundown.
James Nesmith as Commander Taggert (Tim Allen) is narcissistic and a pretender. He resents that he can’t get a high profile role. When he admits to the truth about himself to Thermian leader Mathesar, he says “All fake, like me.” And then he is forced to lead…for real. He uses tricks from past episodes, grows into his role gradually, and becomes a true leader and team player, just like his character in the TV show.
Gwen DeMarco as Lt. Tawny Madison (Sigourney Weaver) resents being cast as a well-endowed dumb blonde, but soon embraces her role and becomes a pretty smart cookie.
Alexander Dane as Dr. Lazarus (Alan Rickman) may be my favorite. He’s above this stupid sci-fi convention stuff, which makes him ripe for comedy. Good comedy often involves giving a character a pretense and then bringing him or her down a notch. Alexander is a former Shakespearean actor who resents his hokey role as Dr. Lazarus and especially repeating his famous oath. But he is given a personal motivation to grow: when his Thermian comrade who idolizes him is killed, Dr. Lazarus repeats the oath: “By Grabhar’s Hammer, by the suns of Warvan, you shall be avenged.”
Fred Kwan as Tech Sergeant Chen (Tony Shalhoub) is in charge of the digital conveyor (transporter). He warms up to the Thermians immediately. He grows in his role when he is forced to learn how to properly use the transporter. Fortunately, he comes up with a couple of useful and clever ideas, too.
Guy (Sam Rockwell) played a disposable extra who died in Episode 81 of the original TV series. Now he is a Questarian that wants to be part of the cast. When he becomes one, he is constantly afraid of being the one who will be killed, but Fred assures him: “Maybe you’re the plucky comic relief character.” After that, he becomes more useful, and he ends up a member of the cast of the new TV show!
Tommy Webber, the pilot (Daryl Mitchell), is forced to learn to pilot the ship. He practices. As you know, movie audiences appreciate efforts made as much (or more) as actual successes.
Mathesar (Enrico Colantoni) is the Thermian leader who grows from naïve child to wise adult and true leader of his race. In the end, he knocks out the enemy alien with one of his crutches.
Brandon (Justin Long), a young devoted Questarian, knows everything about every show and becomes the lifeline (providing the precise information when needed). He thinks the Galaxy Quest show draws upon a secret reality, and (in his mind) he learns he is right.
When Laliari’s translator is broken, it’s not revealed in a boring line of dialogue. It is revealed in the context of action when Laliari utters babbling nonsense. “Oh, her translator is broken.” Now we know through creative means why the Thermians can speak English.
Instead of the Thermians telling us what they actually look like, we are shown their disgusting appearance when our TV heroes “beam” onto the alien ship. It’s a scary moment until the Thermians push a button and instantly transform into human shape again. Whew! Show is usually better than tell.
Early in the movie, Nesmith’s real communicator (given to him by the Thermians) is accidentally swapped with teen Brandon’s fake communicator. This sets up or foreshadows two later incidents.
Brandon appears three times in Act 1. I think the writer designed that because it’s a long wait before we see him again when he is sorely needed. Among other things, he provides the necessary information about the Omega 13 (through Nesmith’s lost communicator), which saves the day. Incidentally, the Omega 13 is established early in the first act. If you want to know about the Omega 13, watch the movie.
The Rock Monster is used a second time against the bad aliens.
The mine field is used three times. The first time it creates problems. The second time Tommy avoids the mines. The third time, our heroic crew uses the mines against the bad guys.
It seems that nothing is wasted or used only once. The first use foreshadows the next. That helps lend the story a sense of cohesiveness or unity.
Near the end, the ship is about to self-destruct. Nesmith and Gwen work frantically to stop the countdown, but fail. They gaze into each other’s ides and wait to die. But surprise! The countdown stops at the number 1. I’ve never seen that before in another movie, but it makes sense because the Thermians built the ship based on TV shows they saw, and of course they believed the shows were true “historical documents” and they had never seen a countdown go past 1 in those shows. So it doesn’t happen just to get a laugh. There’s a plausible reason for it.
Just when James Nesmith needs Brandon the most, Brandon is yanked out of his room by his parents to take out the garbage. His parents have no idea of the importance of what he is doing in his room.
Little, plausible twists in scenes will delight the reader of your screenplay…and your movie audience.
Do you have any guilty pleasures, or any movies that you love that seem to resonate with you and others? Pick them apart and see what you can learn from them. It’s an out-of-this-world recommendation. And keep writing!
DAVE TROTTIER has sold or optioned ten screenplays (three produced) and helped hundreds of writers break into the writing business. He is an award-winning teacher and in-demand script consultant, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible, and friendly host of www.keepwriting.com.