With the recent passing of Alan Rickman, it’s appropriate to recognize this versatile, powerful actor and (by all accounts) wonderful human being by celebrating one of his iconic roles.
We’re referring, of course, to 1999’s Galaxy Quest, the improbably cast-up and successful sci-fi comedy film, in which Rickman played Mr. Spock stand-in “Doctor Lazarus”. Galaxy Quest is one of those rare films, like The Princess Bride, which succeeds as both parody and on its own genre terms. In other words, it’s a great science fiction adventure movie that also happens to be a Star Trek satire, and a satire of late 20th-century fan culture.
In an interview for the 10th anniversary DVD release, Rickman sat for an interview and gave he most droll summary of the improbable cast: “Sigourney Weaver, Tim Allen and Alan Rickman… together at last.” While Allen may have been a slightly obvious choice to play a Shatnerian Captain, and Weaver is wonderful “get”, adding genuine sci-fi cred to the whole affair, Rickman was a slightly surprising (though, in retrospect, brilliantly suited) choice to play an ageing British actor, stuck re-playing the silly role that made him famous. Rickman plays exasperation, desperation, pathos and finally tenderness with such consummate skill, it elevates the whole film. His performances often had that effect, but in this role, Rickman gets to play so many beats, and the role has such post-modern richness, that we’re choosing to single it out amidst a career littered with brilliant turns on stage and screen.
One of the greatest things about Rickman in Galaxy Quest is that, in some ways, he’s playing our impression of him, the actor. North Americans tend to have this image of British actors as very proper, very highly trained, wonderfully-spoken people who, when the director calls cut, are bitching about craft service and boozing it up. Rickman in particular sometimes came across as the actor who could be odd and eccentric in his private life, something Family Guy pointed out in a famous sketch featuring Rickman calling his own answering machine. (Of course, Rickman played himself in that segment, which was a big hint that he was in on the joke the whole time.) In Galaxy Quest, his character is named “Alexander Dane”, clearly a made-up name, who complains backstage about his scene-stealing cast leader (Allen) and laments his early days when he played Richard III (and got five curtain calls). He’s also forced to wear an elaborate facial prosthetic with silly purple spray-paint and, in one final humiliation, is forced to spout a worn-out catch phrase he has come to despise. For one brief moment, we see Dane at home, still wearing pieces of his prosthetic, fishing through his fridge with his pants undone, looking for some leftover Chinese food.
All of this sort of professional strangeness and theatrical insecurity are qualities that we, as an audience, always seem to project onto British actors of a certain age. Rickman must have been aware of this, and infuses Dane with all the impotent rage he knew we were expecting. That choice alone illustrates what’s being said about him this week, that he himself was the very antithesis of that kind of person, and was actually one of the sweetest and brightest people who ever graced the earth. He had no problem making fun of himself or his audience’s expectations.
The other great thing about Rickman’s character in Galaxy Quest is that, like all the well-written major characters, he has to play a true arc. Dane’s arc takes him from scorn and resentment towards the mercenary nature of his current professional life to finally embracing not only his identity but his fans as well, personified here by some real fans (led by a young Justin Long) and the “Thermians”, aliens who hire the Quest crew to fight a real space war. The Thermians are true innocents, who have watched re-runs of the TV show for years and, despite being tentacled non-humanoids, have modelled their entire society on it. A brilliant acting choice by Enrico Colantoni as Mathesar, the lead Thermian, gives them all a strange, off-center way of awkwardly speaking and an equally strange way of moving that conveys a complete lack of social awareness, mixed with a deep obsessiveness about a single cultural artifact. In other words, the Thermians are a funhouse reflection of real fandom, perhaps even revealing how fans appear from the performer’s perspective.
Dane initially detests these fawning creatures as much as he does his human fans, but like many performers he also craves their attention. Without his legions of earth-based fans, we are led to believe, Dane would have little or no livelihood, a fact about which he is acutely aware. He expresses his resentment by constantly running down his catch phrase and those who quote it to him, but it’s just a symbol of his wasted life and lost dreams. When the Quest crew is brought up into space and gets involved in a real adventure, Dane turns on his fellow cast members, particularly Allen’s character, Jason Nesmith, constantly reminding them that they are in a real situation and profoundly under-qualified for their part in it. He’s dismissive of the Thermians at first, but then there comes the turn, late in the film, where he and the rest of the cast become loyal to them, and touched by their fundamental sweetness and innocence. Rickman is so subtle in playing this arc that we might not even notice that scene by scene and minute-by-minute, Dane is warming to his fans and embracing his place in popular culture. When his Thermian “number one fan”, played by Patrick Breen, is killed in the final act, Rickman brings all of his acting skills to bear and elevates a bit of sci-fi babble to poetry. He fully earns the scene that follows, when Dane takes arms against the Thermians’ enemies and becomes a true warrior hero.
Galaxy Quest is a great way to remember Alan Rickman because his very presence in the role speaks to his personal character and it’s a very strong piece of acting, in a film that didn’t ask for it, but truly benefits from it. (And of course, none of us really needs an excuse to play Questerian. That film is always welcome.)
So, let’s all say it together, one last time for the great Alan Rickman:
“By Grabthar’s Hammer, by the sons of Warvan, you shall be avenged!”