– Two and a Half Badges – “Not bad. But too much unfocused stuff prevents any greatness from emerging.”
2020 UPDATE – Twenty-two years later I can see that I went way too easy on this movie. This movie is truly the speedbump that killed the momentum of the Next Generation movies, mostly due to a ridiculous Fountain of Youth parable plot that drew, as you’ll see below, plenty of comparisons to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. I’m right that the villains are superficial and the conflict forced, but upon repeated viewings its clear that the character work is superficial and the humor is forced as well. Just a miss on most cylinders, setting up the subsequent box office failure of Star Trek: Nemesis.
**These Star Trek reviews/opinion pieces were originally written as forum posts on the old Trekweb.com forums, back when Deep Space Nine and Voyager were still airing first-run. Those forums are now long gone, so if these passages start a bit abruptly or seem to continue an off-screen conversation, at least you know why even if the surrounding context is lost to time.**
This film is very enjoyable in a loose, unfocused way. The irony of this all is that Trekkers, and I, simply cannot be loose and unfocused about it. Oddly, it may play better to those not too deeply involved in Trek fandom, but will those folks make it out to see this one?
“Loose” is a good word for it because the movie zips about from locale to locale, from plot point to plot point, with reckless abandon. This gives the movie a breezy sense of pacing that, for me, is a welcome change from the dire and static standoff of “First Contact,” and the dire standoof followed by the extended Nexus sequence in “Generations.” The film overall has a greater sense of adventure than the others, and much of this is augmented by impressive location shooting (although the obligatory Star Trek Cave Scene is still present). Plotting of the adventure is imaginative and varied, with twists and turns aplenty that are unexpected and suspenseful. Frakes’ directing is most appreciated in this regard, as his pacing and attitude paints a somewhat small story on an epic canvas–forcing you to imbibe the movie as a crafted whole rather than as a few scenes of impact. This is, in fact, very refreshing, and gives the movie a flow and sense of pacing superior to any Trek effort I have seen, EXCEPT that there was no pivotal moment, no one arena of conflict or major concept that took center stage, took some time, and created a unified thematic through line for the picture. The movie, in a strange way, screams by and engages your imagination, and then is gone–leaving you to assemble the whole of what it is you just experienced. No doubt, for us fans, this movie will hold up best under repeated viewings. Yet the story at play may not have enough depth to warrant those repeated viewings.
That brings us to “unfocused,” and the fault for that lies on the story at work. We have adventure. We have an ethical dilemma. We have humor. We have relationship development. We have grave political implications. We have romance. We have space battles. Data plays. Geordi grows his eyes back. In fact, this movie has so much crammed into it, it feels a bit more like an engineered hybrid rather than an organically grown story. Every fascinating, involving aspect of the story gets about half the attention I wanted it to so something else could be included. Consider, if you will, the wonderful timing taken on the scene in “First Contact,” when Picard is forced to confront his hatred of the Borg and his refusal to give up the ship. The similar moment in this film, the discussion of the morality at play between Dougherty and Picard, is rushed in comparison, and the ethical debate carries no weight because it is not a question in the minds of our characters–their moral stand is not in question in their minds. Starfleet Command itself is never addressed, there is no massive conspiracy that would increase the weight of the issue or the personal impact of it on Our Heroes. They are confident, and, it turns out, correct, that Starfleet would reconsider if they had all the facts. And as enjoyable and worthy and worthwhile and admirable and effective every part of this movie is, always hovering overhead is the sense of how enjoyable and worthy and worthwhile and admirable and effective they could have been if other elements of the story had left and made way for them. “Too much good stuff” it turns out, can be a problem with a movie, but certainly not as grievous or thorny an issue as having “too little.”
The “Insurrection” part, the namesake of the movie and the angle hit hard by all the preview copy, is really some of the least significant matter here. The ethical debate, although more than welcome, feels like lip service, and it is clear from the very beginning that the true bad guys are, as the script itself admits, “a bunch of thugs.” Repellent, sufficiently motivated, creepily played thugs–in fact, thugs with a backstory that weaves them nicely into the whole of the plot–but thugs just the same. They do not seem particularly smart or exceptionally terrifying. In fact, near the end of the movie they even break ranks. When compared to the commanding opposition of Khan, the Klingon commander of STIII, General Chang, Dr. Soran, the Borg Queen, they come up short. V-Ger and the probe of Star Trek IV were more challenging circumstances than villains. This means that the Son’a place just ahead of the God Creature of Star Trek V in villain menace (actually well ahead since the God creature was so very very bad), and Dougherty is even slightly LESS compelling than Sybok in terms of bringing about and motivating the clash with the villains. The villains aren’t even particularly dangerous, planning to steal a world and kidnap its powers, and never presenting a physical harm to the Bak’u until foiled in every other attempt at getting rid of them. I find this surprising, since good villains have so obviously been a vital component of successful ‘action’ Trek films. F. Murray Abraham certainly has the ability, but Ru’ofo is simply given no screen time to ooze and fester through words, to give us a peak into his head–all this time is taken up watching him ooze and fester literally, giving us an unwanted peak behind the skin of his face. These scenes become gratuitous and give us only a visceral response to the villains, forever keeping them shallow and unimpressive in the long run. And as social commentary regarding our obsession with age, it is about as subtle as a kick to the head, and in the end, hypocritical as well, since the planet of the Bak’u IS presented as an unquestioned paradise.
Even the scene wherein it is supposed to be revealed that he is “truly mad,” when he ices the admiral, has limited impact, is no surprise, and, if you’ll notice, the most impactive moment of that scene is the long pause after Ru’ofo has left the room. A good directorial choice, in that it does indeed highlight and strengthen a scene that might have just snuck by. Yet the fact that Ru’ofo’s handiwork and aftermath inspires more dread than his performance or action is testament to what’s missing here. My feeling is a great deal of this could have been solved if the big “revelation” of the Son’a’s relationship to the Bak’u had been played a lot earlier, giving the Son’a freedom to expound on their obsession–much the same way Soran did in ‘Generations.’ Without that revelation, the Son’a are simply about what they want, and a lot of potential for ideological conflict is lost.
We end up back at the traditional TNG series conflict, which is not a question of who is right, or who will win, but “how will the crew come out on top?” This handicapping of the titular conflict is the most frustrating thing about “Insurrection,” primarily because it ends up taking a great deal of time and focus from some of the most rewarding stuff the film has to offer–the location work, the character moments, the intrigue of discovering what goings on are afoot on the planet below.
It really is the work on the planet below that stands out, too. The introduction to the plot of the movie itself is one of the more suspenseful openings to any Trek film, leaving one adrift in questions and anticipation. The previous TNG films were so lean in terms of character work, the moments in this film come like a breath of fresh air. Even humor that is anachronistic and over the top is appreciated as I sat and marveled at the opportunity to, after so long, feel like I was getting into these characters heads a bit. As in Star Trek IV, the humor is grounded in a plausible premise. We are dealing with fish out of water once again. Rather than displaced into another era in history, our characters are displaced into another era in their own lives–their sense of youth is returned to them. The concept of the “fountain of youth” is thankfully dwelt on very little. No one wanted to see our characters scratching their heads at the significance of a concept so fanciful, repeating the mistakes made in Star Trek V. Instead, the choice is wisely made to nod in acceptance at the existence of this phenomenon and dwell instead on the effects it has on Our Heroes. This is where Star Trek V totally failed to pay off.
Yet “Insurrection” doesn’t pay off fully in this aspect either. Due to the split focus of the plot mentioned before, I constantly found myself wanting more time on the planet, or more time on the conflict. The movie does not achieve the satisfying split playing field of First Contact, but instead lightly touches on multiple threads, delving into none with much depth. Unfortunately, this means the humor, though welcome and appreciated, is shallow and comes suddenly with little set-up. The humor is so INTENTIONALLY a part of the script. It isn’t given time to flow from the character’s response to their environment and so feels punched up too much. In fact, some of the humorous response to the environment occurs before we, as an audience, are even aware of an unusual environment (the Riker/Troi flirtation). Yet the humor is there, however, and damn funny. There’s another place where this movie succeeds where Star Trek V failed to pay off. Nonetheless, at times the humor does the same thing as in STV, turning Our Heroes into jokes themselves. Picard’s moments are more effective, and, despite a slow and unmotivated beginning to his romance with Anij, I found the scenes regarding the moments of slowed time strangely evocative. How deeply, agonizingly maddening, then, that he doesn’t even get a big, heart-stopping kiss to cap the relationship.
That, in a nutshell, is the spirit of this movie. A lot of flirtation and titillation without a full consummation. It really seems to be an epidemic in modern movie making: the larger the budget, the more things to more people the movie tries to be. Yet “Insurrection” is engaging, fun, well-paced, and probably does have a lot of appeal to those who are not heavily into Trek. In the final analysis, it doesn’t inspire, but it definitely entertains. One of the brightest spots about the movie is its visual appeal–not only in terms of its effects but in terns of location shooting, production design, and direction. Insurrection is without a doubt the best looking Star Trek movie to date. It may also be the best looking one we’ll ever see, considering the budget it received and the uncertainty as to whether it will earn enough to make Paramount consider going to the well like this again.
Enjoyable but none-too-deep, despite pretensions at ethical debate. An heck of an adventure movie that both takes itself too seriously and makes fun of itself. Watching “Star Trek: Insurrection” is like eating half a hamburger, half a plate of lasagna, a few fries, a bite or two of broccoli, part of a cookie, and half an ice cream cone. Everything tastes good but you never get the satisfaction of finishing a good, complete meal. You won’t, however, leave the theatre hungry.