It’s been a rough couple of weeks. After the shocking and seemingly sudden passing of David Bowie — one of our greatest, weirdest, and universally beloved artists — the great Alan Rickman went and died last Thursday. It’s a terrible loss.
Known primarily as Hans Gruber to movie fans my age, in cinema history’s greatest Christmas film (sorry, Frank Capra), and as Snape in the Harry Potter series to many, many more, Rickman was a formidable talent who brought an enormous amount of nuance to every role he played.
Of course, he was also much more than Hans Gruber or Snape. Rickman was a classically trained actor with years of stage experience before becoming intimately related to the phrase “Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho” (at least in my mind). And it showed. His combination of sardonic wit, exasperation, and menace elevated many films to a level of quality that they might not, honestly, have deserved. But his full investment in characters routinely improved the goings-on.
Case in point: Galaxy Quest.
I did not know about Galaxy Quest until Rickman’s passing, when a surprising number of people I know started singing its praises. “That Tim Allen movie?” I asked myself. “Why do all these people like that Tim Allen movie?”
Having watched it now, I understand: because it’s really “that Alan Rickman movie.” He steals scene after scene, a quiet, hilarious part of a pretty winning ensemble, in a story that revels in its own silliness.
Improbably, the story of a group of TV actors — led by the guy from “Home Improvement” and The Santa Clause 3: The Clausening*, who get confused by aliens with their screen personas and have to go fight in space in real life — turns out to be enormous fun, and even thoughtful. It’s a credit to the entire cast, but to Rickman most of all.
Galaxy Quest is a TV show inside the movie – think an amalgamation of Star Trek tropes. It went off the air years ago, but the cast continues to make a living going to Cons, fan meet-and-greets, promotions, and the like. Tim Allen is the commander, shepherding his adventurous crew through space and time.
Rickman is a sort of Spock-like figure named Dr. Lazarus on the show (Alexander Dane in “real life”), but also brings to the role something of Patrick Stewart, hilariously referencing his own training to portray an actor who realizes he’s been type-cast in an art-form he clearly finds beneath him. It’s all kinds of meta, and simply hearing Rickman deliver his most hated (and most popular) line, “By Grabthar’s hammer …” is enough to provoke laughs. (He even has to deploy it in pitches: “By Grabthar’s hammer … what a savings.”)
Through a whole lot of plot I won’t go into, a race of aliens have come across Galaxy Quest and believe it to be a historical document, and, unable to process the notion of fiction, have come to seek the crew’s help in their struggle with an actual space monster named Sarris. Hijinks and space-thrills ensue, and the film finds humor and insight in a goofy fish-out-of-water plot, whereby our intrepid, clueless heroes have to save the universe.
This is all much more fun than it has any right to be. But at the heart of it is Rickman, generating actual pathos from a guy who feels he’s always been second fiddle to Tim Allen’s commander, who resents his rather profitable career for pigeonholing him into cut-rate television sci-fi at the expense of something more meaningful, but who ultimately comes to accept the power of his influence on his fans. I expected many things from Galaxy Quest – I did not expect Alan Rickman to effortlessly turn it into an acting showcase of a sort, or to nearly start crying at a movie where, at another point, Tony Shalloub makes out with an octopus.
But that’s the sort of thing Rickman could pull off. As with the layers he added to Hans Gruber, a character who could just as easily have been a one-dimensional baddie but instead became the ultimate action movie villain. As with Snape, a character who definitely did not need to be so complex for the plot to function, and who audiences ate up every time he appeared on screen.
And as with so many others. Galaxy Quest is a lark, silly and fun and escapist, and it might not be the greatest film of all time, but Rickman makes the case for it with his every gesture, every time he lets loose his English baritone to say something wry and exhausted. It’s the sort of movie in which, if nothing else, you can point at one person on screen and say, “See? It helps when the people in the movie care.” Alan Rickman always seemed to care, and that’s one of the things that made him a master of his art.
* Not actual title of Santa Clause 3. Actual title is “The Santa Clause: Clause This!”