Thursday, May 07, 2009

Zaki's Retro Review: Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

Wow, what happened?

Whatever momentum the Star Trek franchise may have built up on the heels of First Contact's box office and critical reception was quickly squandered a mere two years later, with the listless, lackluster Star Trek: Insurrection knocking the venerable movie series back on its heels. Whether a result of steadily dropping quality or the sheer volume of product in the marketplace (or some interconnected combination of both), this film is arguably the juncture at which Trek hit overload.

By fall of '98, Deep Space Nine was nearing the end of its seven season run. While a ratings success, it received nowhere near the admiration and adulation of The Next Generation (despite becoming far superior to that show, in my opinion). Meanwhile, Voyager was continuing on its merry way on UPN, content to dispense weekly doses of technobabble to the subdued applause of an ever-shrinking base of Trek faithful.

Enter into this mix Insurrection, again helmed by Jonathan Frakes, fresh off proving his directing chops on First Contact, and written by the late Michael Piller, instrumental (in his role as head writer) in fostering Next Gen's reputation as quality television (and also co-creator of the two spin-offs along with producer Rick Berman). This time around star Patrick Stewart used his new clout as associate producer to also help in shaping the story (not that he'd want to brag about that, necessarily).

It's an odd feeling when you watch a movie go through the paces of trying to defend a plot it doesn't have much faith in. Such is the experience of struggling through Star Trek: Insurrection, which begins with Data going rogue and revealing the existence of a Starfleet research base to the native population they are observing. These natives, it turns out, are the Ba'ku, peaceful, human-like beings living an agrarian existence on a planet in a region of space called the "Briar Patch" (and if you don't think that'll lead to a "Br'er Rabbit" pun at some point, clearly you haven't been watching movies long enough).

As the Enterprise is called in to investigate Data's supposed insubordination, they soon learn that the Ba'ku are recipients of perpetual youth thanks to the some blah-blah about the radiation in their planet's rings. After discovering that a clueless Federation admiral (Anthony Zerbe) is conspiring with the stretchy-faced Son'a (led by the evil Ru'afo, another low-rent Khan played by F. Murray Abraham, several light years away from his Amadeus Oscar) to forcibly remove the Ba'ku from their home, Picard gives up his commission to lead a revolt or, if you like, insurrection (ahhh...get it?), against the Federation to help the Ba'ku.

Meanwhile, owing to the youthifying effects of the radiation, the Enterprise crew is exhibiting symptoms of newfound friskiness, with Riker and Troi rekindling their dormant romance. There was some potential here for real character growth, but the closest we get is blind Geordi's moving reaction to seeing a sunrise for the first time after his eyes regenerate themselves. The rest of the time we have to suffer through Worf's Klingon puberty (including a giant bright red zit on his honker), and Deanna and Beverly (left looking for a storyline yet again) waxing philosophic on how their boobs have gotten firmer.

While the problems with Insurrection are multiplicitous, they can be summed up by a singular lack of ambition. After the many-pronged success of First Contact, you'd think that Berman and Co. would have tried to up the ante and make the follow-on feature even more epic in scope and scale. Instead, it's as if they were content to bank that success and assume the same fans who showed up then would gladly line up for just another adventure of the good ship Enterprise.

The resultant mish-mosh of high-falutin' moralizing and by-the-numbers pyrotechnics is about par with a really average episode of the series, and as we've already dissected to death, that's just not good enough for a cast that had to work twice as hard to keep our interest in their big screen adventures. Put even more simply, Insurrection has no reason for being other than simply being.

Further, in attempting to derive some conflict from the situation by placing Team Picard at odds with their Fed bosses, the story has to jump through one too many hoops, contriving a square fit parallel with the forced relocation of Native Americans, etc. throughout human history in the name of "progress." "How many people does it take before it's wrong," says Picard to Zerbe's Admiral Dougherty, in one of the film's many speechifying moments.

In fact, speechifying is pretty much where Insurrection spends most of its time. Whether Picard to Dougherty on the rights of the Ba'ku, or Anij, Picard's Ba'ku love interest played by Donna Murphy (aiming for "serene," arriving at "sleepy"), about what it means to experience a perfect moment in time, or the "precocious" boy (Michael Welch) explaining to Data what it means to have fun. The script never bothers with attempting to drive home the importance of the struggle to the audience, probably figuring that since it's important to the characters we'd just go along with it.

The difficulty here is that the movie's central conceit just doesn't hold up to scrutiny. The Ba'ku, a group of six hundred, are essentially monopolizing a commodity that can provide an incalculable benefit to the galaxy. You know it's a bad sign when Dougherty says to Picard, "Jean-Luc, they're only six hundred people," and you end up thinking, "Hmm, he's got a point." Granted, relocating them obviously wasn't an option, but surely there was a diplomatic means of satisfying all concerned before it descended to the level of running-and-jumping. Hell, diplomacy is what these people are supposed to be best at!

When all is said and done, Star Trek: Insurrection really isn't a bad film. Of course, that's not say or imply that it's anything close to a good film either. It's just that calling it "bad" implies a level of energy that it can't even muster in itself, much less its viewers. It's perhaps more accurate to call it aggressively mediocre, content to skate on the pre-existing audience's fondness for these characters and the Star Trek brand.

As it turned out though, that audience was rapidly waning, and that brand was getting pretty badly tarnished. Even though Insurrection ended up doing alright, the full extent of this tarnish would become devastatingly apparent in just a few short years. C-

8 comments:

Ian Sokoliwski said...

SPACE HIPPIES.

Geordie's eyes shouldn't have regenerated. He was born blind. There was nothing that had degenerated that should then regenerate.

SPACE HIPPIES.

Ain't no way the Federation (that we are supposed to know stands for peace and the promotion of universal paradise and such) would ever forcibly relocate people just to speed up a rejuvenation process, when they could just insist that the stretchy-face people just go and live on the other side of the planet.

SPACE HIPPIES.

Nobody even has to move to the other side of the planet! The Enterprise crew members felt themselves getting younger and healthier while remaining in orbit! Nobody even needs to set foot on that planet for the regenerating effects to take hold.

SPACE HIPPIES.

Heck, throw in a few holodecks in orbital stations, and you've got the greatest health spa in the known universe. Risa would have to set up their own franchise here just to compete. Briar Patch or no Briar Patch.

SPACE HIPPIES.

Okay, so even if the Federation gave into the whole but we can't wait decades for those health effects to take place thing, the involvement of the Enterprise at the start of this little farce doesn't make any sense. How would Starfleet not already have schematics of Data on file? He was under the examination of Starfleet engineers for TWENTY YEARS before he joined the Enterprises. Someone in San Francisco download too much pr0n and get a virus?

SPACE HIPPIES.

This is the only Star Trek film I've ever seen in the theatre. I cannot begin to describe how mad that makes me.

SPACE HIPPIES.

Oh, yeah. Those frakking SPACE HIPPIES. So, let me get this straight, just so we are clear:
you spend centuries developing mental techniques (or something) to be able to experience a perfect moment (or something) which then allows you to freeze that one moment in time for as long as you like. Because you didn't have enough time to waste on staring at your own bellybutton. Being functionally immortal. Because you are FRAKKING SPACE HIPPIES.

At least if we had some better shots of a wet t-shirted Donna Murphy, there would have been something going for this film, but even that gets cut far too short.

Yeah, these are all nitpicky points that don't talk about the overall story, the human drama, yadda yadda yadda. That's because these nitpicky points were more interesting than the human drama going on.

SPACE.

FRAKKING.

HIPPIES.

Zaki said...

And that about sums it up. :-)

David Carr said...

I never got the "Briar Patch" thing, and I don't think Michael Piller fully understood it, either. In the Br'er Rabbit story, he keeps telling Br'er Fox NOT to throw him in the BP, because that's precisely where he wants to go!

And then there's the gigantic hole in the Federation's plan, that just makes all of them look incredibly stupid. If they relocate these people to a holographic fake world off-planet...aren't these people going to realize what's going on as soon as one of them gets the sniffles or a wrinkle? Gah!

Ian Sokoliwski said...

Personally, I'd be quite happy with all those SPACE HIPPIES dying a slow, agonizing death from the swine flu or something because they were away from their precious metaphasic radiation.

...frakking space hippies.

Adam Hutch said...

Zaki, you forgot the absolute pinnacle of Star Trek battle scenes; Riker flies the Enterprise with a friggin' joystick that pops out of the bridge floor!

The Mad Swede said...

Zaki, I can only agree with your side note that DS9 is the better show by far. In fact, tying it back to your argument on First Contact, I think one of the reasons why I myself prefer DS9 to TNG is that is moves further away from the utopian stalemate and gives us the backside of humanity, the imperfect stuff, continually.

Ian wrote:
"Nobody even has to move to the other side of the planet! [...] Nobody even needs to set foot on that planet for the regenerating effects to take hold."

Well, unless I misremember very badly, they didn't want to just have people on the planet or close by, they wanted to extract what caused the effect so that they could turn it into mass production of some sorts. Medicine from the p.o.v. of the Federation (though not so much from the p.o.v. of the Son'a).

Watch Movies said...

Great Conversation ! Thank you very much !I really loved it.

Ian Sokoliwski said...

SPACE
FRAKKING
HIPPIES!!


Sorry. The link to the Nemesis review in your new Mad Max blog entry got me heading down memory lane here, and crashed me right into my anti-SPACE HIPPIE rant.