More ingratiating than uproarious, "Galaxy Quest" nonetheless emerges as one of the holiday movie season's more pleasant surprises. A mischievously clever and slickly commercial sci-fi comedy with strong cross-generational appeal, pic gets impressive mileage from a one-joke premise -- stars of a "Star Trek"-type TV series are drafted into battling real extraterrestrial villains.

More ingratiating than uproarious, “Galaxy Quest” nonetheless emerges as one of the holiday movie season’s more pleasant surprises. A mischievously clever and slickly commercial sci-fi comedy with strong cross-generational appeal, pic gets impressive mileage from a one-joke premise — stars of a “Star Trek”-type TV series are drafted into battling real extraterrestrial villains — thanks in large measure to game efforts from a first-rate cast. Look for good-to-superior B.O. numbers, followed by stellar homevid biz.

Scripters David Howard and Robert Gordon persuasively limn a parallel universe where a cheesy primetime space opera called “Galaxy Quest” continues to inspire a cult following almost 20 years after its cancellation. Die-hard fans known as Questerians flock to conventions where stars of the beloved series sign autographs — for a price — while enduring scads of questions about ridiculously arcane trivia.

Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), the “Quest” equivalent of William Shatner, is an overbearing and unreliable egotist who clearly enjoys the adulation he receives at the conventions. And with good reason: Since his heyday as Cmdr. Peter Quincy Taggart, a heroic National Space Exploration Agency officer in charge of the starship Protector, Nesmith’s career has been in almost total eclipse. It’s only at the conventions — and, better still, during solo promotional appearances unknown to other “Galaxy Quest” alumni — that Nesmith gets a chance to jump-start his faded stardom.

But the conventions are painfully mixed blessings for Nesmith’s overshadowed co-stars, who haven’t done much since the series either: Gwen DeMarco (a becomingly blond Sigourney Weaver), who did little more than serve as a bosomy babe on the TV series; Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), a cynical Shakespearean actor who permanently typecast himself by playing the half-human, half-reptilian Dr. Lazarus; Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub), a conspicuously non-Asian fellow who nevertheless played Tech Sgt. Chen; and Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell), who was a child actor back when he played the 10-year-old navigator of the Protector.

Guy Fleegman (Sam Rockwell), a frequent convention host, has an even more dubious claim to fame: In an early “Galaxy Quest” episode, he played a semi-anonymous crewman who was killed before the first commercial.

After an amusing prologue at a typical “Galaxy Quest” convention, the real fun begins when Nesmith is approached by a group of what he assumes to be odder-than-usual fans. The worshipful strangers — who move stiffly, smile sweetly and sound more than a little like Coneheads — turn out to be extraterrestrials in human guise. Mathesar (Enrico Colantoni) is leader of the Thermians, naive creatures who assume the TV programs they’ve picked up from Earth are documentaries, not dramas. They believe that “those poor people” on “Gilligan’s Island” really were shipwrecked. And, more important, they believe Cmdr. Taggart and his crew are true-blue heroes who can help the Thermians defend themselves against the intergalactic marauders led by the dreaded Sarris (Robin Sachs).

Even though the Thermians have built a fully functioning version of the Protector, meticulously copied from the TV series, Nesmith and his co-stars (including Fleegman) are singularly ill-prepared for offscreen heroics. And Sarris and his warriors are far less credulous — and much more media-savvy — than the innocent Thermians.

You don’t have to be an ardent Trekkie to fully appreciate “Galaxy Quest.” But your enjoyment of the comedy will increase in direct proportion to your familiarity with the cliches and conventions that the screenwriters affectionately spoof. In addition to the running gags about the high mortality rate among bit players cast as unnamed crew members, there are cheeky jokes about pinch-penny set designs, absurdly booby-trapped tunnels and air ducts, and distant planets where human visitors conveniently find all the oxygen they need to breathe. Attention is also paid to the notoriously active libidos of starship commanders.

Under the fleet and playful direction of Dean Parisot (“Home Fries”), the well-cast actors are exceptionally deft at playing thesps who aren’t always quite so comfortable in their roles. Allen might have been even funnier if Nesmith were written — and played — with more of an edge. Still, Allen’s quite good at charting the character’s predictable evolution from self-absorbed ham to empathetic hero.

No stranger to outer space after her “Alien” misadventures, Weaver makes the most of an all-too-rare opportunity to demonstrate her talents for graceful pratfalls and spirited self-mockery. (In the grand wink-wink, nudge-nudge tradition of coed space adventures, “Galaxy Quest” contrives for Weaver to flash increasingly generous swaths of cleavage as the plot progresses.) Rickman smoothly underplays while delivering Dane’s snooty and acerbic wisecracks, while Rockwell, Shalhoub and Mitchell earn laughs as their characters acknowledge (and work against) the limitations of the TV series roles.

In sharp contrast to what we see of the cult-fave TV series, “Galaxy Quest” is decked out with all the flashy production values and f/x wizardry you would expect in an age when “Star Wars,” not “Star Trek,” sets the standard. Some of the trickery has a welcome touch of spoofery. The Sarris character looks like a cross between the Borg of “Star Trek” and the evil grasshopper of “A Bug’s Life.” And when he tries to drive the Protector out of its intergalactic parking space, Mitchell’s Tommy Webber demonstrates just how hard it is to maneuver something that big without causing a little friction.

While trying to maintain a brisk pace during the slam-bang climax, Parisot occasionally sacrifices transitional detail for warp speed. On the plus side, “Galaxy Quest” remains light and bright as it races along, and never turns nasty or mean-spirited as it satirizes the cliches and cults of “Star Trek.”

Galaxy Quest

Production

A DreamWorks Pictures release of a Mark Johnson production. Produced by Johnson, Charles Newirth. Executive producer, Elizabeth Cantillon. Co-producers, Suzann Ellis, Sona Gourgouris. Directed by Dean Parisot. Screenplay, David Howard, Robert Gordon.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Jerzy Zielinski; editor, Don Zimmerman; music, David Newman; production designer, Linda DeScenna; art director, Jim Nedza; set decorator, Ric McElvin; costume designer, Albert Wolsky; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Lee Orloff; alien makeup and creature effects, Stan Winston; visual effects supervisor, Bill George; ILM visual effects producer, Kim Bromley; animation supervisor, Christopher Armstrong; associate producer, Allegra Clegg; assistant director, Vincent Lascoumes; second unit directors, Andy Armstrong, Stefan Fangmeier; second unit camera, David Boyd, Robert La Bonge, David Drzewiecki; casting, Debra Zane. Reviewed at AMC Studio 30 Theater, Houston, Dec. 17, 1999. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Jason Nesmith - Tim Allen Gwen DeMarco - Sigourney Weaver Alexander Dane - Alan Rickman Fred Kwan - Tony Shalhoub Guy Fleegman - Sam Rockwell Tommy Webber - Daryl Mitchell Mathesar - Enrico Colantoni Sarris - Robin Sachs Quellek - Patrick Breen Laliari - Missi Pyle Teb - Jed Rees Brandon - Justin Long Kyle - Jeremy Howard
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