Friday, May 08, 2009

Zaki's Retro Review: Star Trek Nemesis (2002)

As Nemesis, the laborious fourth movie in Star Trek's Next Generation era, nears its climax, Captain Picard gives the order to ram the Enterprise headlong into an oncoming enemy vessel. The resultant crash leaves the ship's hull utterly wrecked, without even a forward viewer to see where it's going. Appropriately enough, this nicely sums up the state of the Trek franchise by the time the movie left theaters.

Back when the Shatner-palooza Star Trek V hit in '89 and nearly killed the whole big screen enterprise, the original crew got one more shot, to quote Dr. McCoy, to turn "death into a fighting chance to live." That fighting chance was Nicholas Meyer's Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, widely thought to have given Trek 1.0 an effective and affecting farewell, and once more Star Trek had proven the doomsayers wrong.

Following Star Trek: Insurrection's solid but unremarkable theatrical run in late '98, Trek was in similar straits. The days of Emmy noms and Time covers felt like ages ago, and in the interim, Voyager had ended to little fanfare, while the fifth TV series, Enterprise (so embarrassed by its Trek affiliation that it was the first series without "Star Trek" in the title) premiered to initial excitement followed by eventual apathy (a pity, in that case). Into this breach, it was expected, would ride The Next Generation to rescue the brand from irrelevance.

Well, that was seven years ago, and clearly things didn't work out that way. The film, promoted as this generation's "final voyage," was conceptualized by Gladiator scenarist John Logan along with Commander Data himself, Brent Spiner, and was intended to bring some fresh new perspectives to the proceedings while also letting the Next Generation crew walk away with their boots on. Facilitating this was the hiring of franchise newcomer Stuart Baird, famed far and wide as an acclaimed editor and mediocre director, to helm. It's a sign of how completely inoculated to public tastes Trek honcho Rick Berman had gotten that he thought the person to energize the ailing movie series was the guy who inflicted Executive Decision on an unwitting population.

In addition to the hiring of Trek newbies, "fresh" and "new" apparently also meant placing a sheet of tracing paper on top of The Wrath of Khan, cribbing all of its major narrative and emotional beats, and cutting and pasting them into a Next Gen framework, hoping no doubt that some of that earlier mojo would rub off. Instead, they ended up with the least involving, least cohesive movie in the entire ten picture catalog. That's quite the feat when you think of some of the clunkers cranked out during that twenty-four year span.

Nemesis begins with a coup on the planet Romulus, with a terrorist attack reducing the entire Romulan senate to dusty piles of kitty litter (Romulans, by the way, are the beetle-browed, pointy-eared cousins of Mr. Spock's race, the Vulcans). All of this is orchestrated by the mysterious Shinzon, about whom all that is known is that he represents a slave caste of Romulans called Remans, who soon takes the reins of power as the Romulan Praetor. And who is Shinzon, you ask? Just wait for it. You'll be glad you did.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Enterprise, fresh from celebrating the wedding of Counselor Troi and Commander Riker (with Jonathan Frakes trading off directing duties for a really awkward bedroom scene with his movie bride later on), recovers the pieces of an android left scattered on the surface of a nearby planet, which, after being rebuilt, is revealed as an exact copy of Data named B-4 (don't worry, this'll be relevant later). When they finally meet Shinzon, Picard is shocked to learn that he's...a young human (played by poor Tom Hardy, hopelessly out of his depth in a thankless role). Why shocked? Because, we learn, Shinzon is an exact copy of a young Picard. And when I say "exact copy" I actually mean "looks nothing like," except for a bald head (because Picard was apparently born bald...).

The explanation that follows is the most insanely contrived "showing your work" I've ever seen just to get to the starting line, but I'll be a good sport and try to play through it. At some point several years ago, the Romulans acquired a sample of Picard's DNA and cloned a duplicate. The goal of this engineering was so the Romulans could have their own Picard who would no doubt do all kinds of devious deeds on their behalf while besmirching the good name of the good captain. Then they lost interest and tossed him in a slave pit. The end.

It tells you something when the backstory the filmmakers concocted for their bad Star Trek movie sounds like the plot of an even worse Star Trek movie.

Though he initially makes overtures for peace, shock of shocks, Shinzon turns out to be evil. Why? Who the heck knows. Something about hating Picard, humans, and Earth. This is Star Trek, where villains apparently stopped needing realistic motivations several movies ago. Anyway, Shinzon captures Picard and attempts to drain all the blood from his body, without which he'll die. When that doesn't work, he makes a beeline for Earth (of course) to unleash his deadly suppy of Thalaron (the movie's McGuffinesque substitute for the Genesis device) that will destroy all life on Earth, yadda yadda...

Honestly, I felt bored just typing that, much less watching it. The movie is a chore in every sense of the word. In picking through the wreckage and trying to figure out why Nemesis fails so collossally, it once more comes down to ambition. While Insurrection suffered from its lack thereof, Nemesis is actually striving for some resonance, and still comes up wanting. Unlike The Undiscovered Country, which filled you with sadness watching these beloved characters go through their paces for the last time, Nemesis fills you with pity as you watch these beliked characters being put out to pasture in such an ignominious fashion.

As usual, the secondary characters are left without much to do besides standing around and pushing buttons (along with usual victim Dr. Crusher, Worf is another casualty of neglect this time around, with his "arc" beginning and ending with the bender he ties on during the wedding scene), and the primary storylines of Picard dealing with his double and Data with his (ooh, symmetry!) just aren't compelling enough to draw us in. Even the late, great Jerry Goldsmith, trying mightily to liven things up with the last of his Star Trek scores, isn't able to muster much enthusiasm.

Add in Shinzon's odd fixation on Troi, now Mrs. Riker, leading to a truly bizarre mental rape sequence with absolutely zero bearing on anything, and you get a sense of the extreme scattershot nature of the plot. Things are just tossed in for the sake of tossing them in, while other, seemingly important, material has clearly been left out that might have given the whole thing a greater sense of cohesiveness and weight.

By the end it all just feels so tired. Every dramatic "change" is undercut by a desire to maintain the status quo juuust in case, so even as the crew goes their separate ways, with Riker and Troi off to their new ship, and Beverly to a new posting on Earth (maybe she'll actually have something to do there), there's a distinct lack of the gravity that made The Undiscovered Country such an emotional experience.

This is perfectly summed up by the movie's climactic sequence with Data sacrificing himself (in a development lifted wholesale from Trek II) for the sake of his ship and friends. Of course, what should have been an important Trek turning point is rendered null-and-void just a few short scenes later, with "Backup Data" waiting in the wings in the form of B-4 (I told you he'd be important later).

By the time the movie hit screens just before Chrismas of '02, the Trek audience, so loyal through so many iterations of the franchise, had finally decided it was time to move on. Nemesis suffered the triple indignity of being beaten during its first weekend by a Jennifer Lopez movie, becoming roadkill for the The Lord of the Rings five days later, and an embarrassingly floptastic total box office take of $43 million when all was said and done.

Although Enterprise (which would, like a penitant spouse, reclaim the "Star Trek" tag in its third year) limped along for another couple of seasons before putting the period on eighteen years of uninterrupted TV trekking, the film renaissance ushered in with the 1979 premiere of The Motion Picture and which led the franchise to unimagined levels of sustained prosperity was effectively dead.

But then, to paraphrase a certain Vulcan, Star Trek had been dead before. D

(Back soon with my review of you-know-what!)


Ian Sokoliwski said...


I tried watching this again last night.

It was a decent enough attempt. Two different TV stations were broadcasting it at pretty much the same time, plus one of them rebroadcast it a few hours later.

Plus, I've just got the DVD sitting there on the shelf with the rest of the movie series.

And I could not do it. I could not make it all the way through. After about a half hour or so, I went and watched the second half of First Contact instead...eventually making it back to the still-running Nemesis to catch the last twenty minutes.

To be clear, I have watched it all the way through in the past. At least twice, I do believe. But then I tend to leave movies running while working, so it's easy to zoom past the bad bits (as opposed to actually trying to watch the thing).

That dune buggy sequence. Did anything about that make sense? I mean, correct me if I'm wrong here, but wasn't that entire scene written just to have a Road Warrior pastiche at the end of it? I just hope that those aliens on the other equally-improbable buggies were actually telepathic twins (triplets? whatever) with Corsican accents. (and if those guys aren't in the new G.I.JOE movie then I ain't gonna bother with it ;) ) Anyhoo, if you have the kind of tech level that Starfleet has, why would you issue leftover Cobra vehicles to boogie around the outback in? Guh.

Is it worse than The Final Frontier? No. It never got quite as uncomfortably bad as that one was. There were lots of fun ideas. Heck, I'm a big fan of the whole evil twin and alternate version of Data idea...but neither of those things worked here. The Scimitar looked damn cool...but never got beyond looking cool.

Although the whole ramming starships idea was awesome! Probably that's what elevates this for me over Frontier. Oh, it's stupid as all outdoors, but anything that visceral is gonna make me happy.

Maybe this would have worked better if they had also taken a few notions from The Undiscovered Country, and set it just after Riker took command of the Titan - perhaps having both the Enterprise and the Titan, and the storytelling gymnastics involved in getting them both to Romulus, could have actually trimmed away some of the sillier concepts - for instance, it would have demanded enough running time that they would have had to trim away the whole mind-rape thing. That scene served nothing except to further illustrate how evil Picard's evil twin was. Yeah, we got that when he murdered the entire Senate. Not to mention dressing like Pinhead. Emotionally scarring a major character (and feeding the rape fetishes of a whole dominate Troi subculture - you know there is one, this is the internet after all. Rule 34, people) simply to prove a point that was already proven does nothing to endear yourself to your audience. Except maybe the dominate Troi subculture. And that fanbase canNOT have enough money to justify that!

And, honestly, if they really were pandering to some fetishists out there, it would somehow have involved B4 in the rape. I'm just sayin'...

Tacking on the Remans without even a casual reference in any previous Trek show...well, it smacked of tacking on the whole Cardassian War partway through TNG. It worked there only because of how well-written that first episode was, about how it was more about O'Brien and the underlying themes of revenge and desperation, and, ultimately, with how much was done with them in later shows. Here, they have no time to be developed...and aren't even integral to the plot of this movie!! Seriously, there wasn't any reason to have them - they could have just used a criminal class of plain-vanilla Romulans, rather than trying to set up something fundamentally new about Romulan society without bothering to then do anything with it.

Guh. I'm rambling. I wanna go see the new movie.

Zaki said...

Dude, great comments. Can't say I disagree with anything, except that I'll always give any bad TOS flick the edge over a bad TNG one.

Excellent point about the Remans. Totally pointless.

Thanks for all of your commentary on all ten flicks. I feel like you've been my wing man. :-)

Ty said...

Haven't seen the movie in a few years, was there anything in it that indicated Shinzon was aged at an accelerated rate? If not, and since he appeared to be about 25 years old, you have to wonder how the Romulans knew way back when that Picard would be a good subject to clone, long before he ever even became a captain.

Zaki said...

I believe he had been rapidly aged over something like ten years. That's also the reason he's in such bad shape by the end, because it was killing him prematurely.

Ian Sokoliwski said...

If by wing man you mean riding on your coat tails, then I agree :D

I've really enjoyed these reviews. They've saved me from having to rewatch the entire series of films, and encouraged me to rewatch Kahn and First Contact. So, win/win!

Ian Sokoliwski said...

Khan. I mean Khan.

I'm still a bit spinny from the cold I had this past week and seeing the new Star Trek film today.

Now THERE'S a movie!!

Mr. Boy said...

This movie sucked butt.

The Mad Swede said...

Another interesting review, Zaki. While I, unlike yourself, am more inclined to give the edge to a bad TNG movie than a TOS movie, I can certainly agree that this is a film with plenty of flaws.

As Ian says, the dune buggy sequence is way off. It seems more than anything to reflect a desire on Stewart's part that he really wanted to drive a cool vehicle in high speed.

I also agree on a lot of Ian's comments on the whole Romulan/Reman situation, but would have to say that what disturbed me the most was that the whole set up with a Romulan underground and political fractions (set up in the Unification two-parter of TNG) is just left out there in the void. And it seems as if that would have been MUCH more fertile ground to root a Romulan ST film in.

Secondly, the colossal surprise and incredulity in handling B4 also seems disingenuous. I mean, have the film makers forgotten all about Lore? It's not as if there isn't a precedent here.

I'm not saying that the film needs be referencing the TV shows ad infinitum, but missing out on MAJOR bits that are important to the film (as in these two cases), just seems like bad research and/or writing.

Ah well, just my penny.

And for the record, I too have enjoyed this ten piece retro review deal Zaki (and, Ian, your coat tailing has been noted with appreciation as well).