Written PostFrom the DVD Shelf: Star Trek: Insurrection

From the DVD Shelf: Star Trek: Insurrection

I recently picked up Crescendo Record’s release of Jerry Goldsmith’s complete score for Star Trek: Insurrection.  I’ll have thoughts to share on that soundtrack soon, but after listening to the CD several times I decided it was high time to re-watch Insurrection, a film I hadn’t seen for several years.

Star Trek: Insurrection is the third of the four movies made with the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  The Enterprise is drawn into a region of space nicknamed the Briar Patch (due to the stellar phenomena that makes travel in the region treacherous), because Data — on assignment on a planet within the Briar Patch — has apparently gone rogue and attacked a Starfleet research team.  It it turns out that Data has uncovered an ugly truth about the Starfleet mission in the Briar Patch.  Although officially sanctioned by the Federation Council and supervised by an admiral on-sight, the Starfleet team — working with some local thugs called the Son’a — plans to forcibly remove a peaceful people called the Ba’ku from their planet, so that they can harvest the incredible rejuvenating power of the metaphasic radiation found within the planet’s rings.  Picard and his crew take up arms to stop them.

Insurrection is generally considered one of the worst of the Star Trek films (and it definitely was near the bottom of my list when I recently ranked all the Star Trek films from worst to best), but there really isn’t anything all that awful about Insurrection.  The film’s biggest crime is that it is a trifle, a fairly light, low-key adventure.  Had Insurrection been a two-part episode of the Next Generation TV show, I think we would consider it very solid.  But this trite little adventure is not at all what Trek fans like me were looking for in a big-screen movie.  When we were only getting a new adventure every few years — and considering that, although the studio seemed supportive of the Trek franchise, there was no guarantee that they’d get to produce movies indefinitely (indeed, the lukewarm business that Insurrection did nearly derailed the Next Gen movie franshcise completely) — fans wanted their Trek movie installments to be BIG, IMPORTANT stories that felt worthy of the big-screen canvass.  These adventures needed to depict critical moments in the lives of our characters, and also hopefully be a story with an epic scale and, you know, the fate of the galaxy at issue.

Insurrection is none of those things.  It’s a very small scale, low-significance adventure.  The whole thing is a big mis-step, seemingly right from its initial conception.

It’s a shame, because coming off of the success of Star Trek: First Contact, the Next Gen film franchise was poised to take a big leap forward.  Instead they stumbled, and stumbled badly.  After Insurrection, we only got one more Next Gen film, the abysmal Nemesis, and then that was it for the film franchise until J.J. Abrams rebooted the franchise.  The Next Gen film series died not long after having being born, with just one successful Next Gen-only film (First Contact).  I guess four movies is nothing to sneeze at (X-Files fans look on longingly!), but I am sure Star Trek fans — along with Paramount — had far loftier ambitions when the Next Gen TV show ended so that a film series could begin.

It’s also a shame because, forgetting the impact on the overall Trek franchise and just focusing on this movie, Insurrection is a fairly decent story.  I like the mystery the film opens with — what has gone wrong with Data? — and I absolutely LOVE the hectic first sequence on board the Enterprise.  That fast-paced scene is my favorite part of the whole film.  It’s a great peek into the busy life of a starship captain and the pressures weighing upon Picard, and I love the hints at the tense overall political situation for the Federation (a nice nod to the galaxy-shaking events of the Dominion War happening on the Deep Space Nine TV show, and something that the Trek geek in me wished the film had explored a lot more deeply).  It’s a shaply-written, well-performed rat-tat-tat sequence that nicely spotlights the entire Next Gen crew (minus Data) and that is funny and engaging (no pun intended).  I wish the rest of the movie was that good!

I admire Insurrection for trying to be a story that is about SOMETHING rather than just shoot-em-ups.  The central moral dilemma that Picard must face is a rich one — might not the good of the entire Federation, consisting of billions of people on countless worlds, outweigh some suffering afflicted upon 600 people in one little village?  It’s a thorny question and a nice exploration of the classic line from Star Trek II that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”  Who gets to make those decisions, though, about what exactly the “good of the many” is?

But the problem is that this film is called Star Trek: Insurrection, which puts one in mind of Picard & co. leading some kind of massive revolt against Starfleet and/or the Federation.  Yes, in the movie, Picard defies orders and goes against the will of Admiral Dougherty.  But A) we have seen Star Trek heroes defy orders so many times before that there is no emotional impact to one more violation of orders, B) we don’t actually see Picard & co. go against lots of fellow Fedation officers.  It might have been cool had the Enterprise been forced to battle other Starfleet officers and other Starfleet ships, in order to stand up for what they believed was right.  But in the film, there’s just one dickish admiral who they go up against — the rest of the time they are fighting ugly aliens (the Son’a) who clearly look and act like bad guys.  And C) the film stacks the deck in favor of Picard’s side, meaning that when watching the movie it’s pretty clear that Picard does the right hing.  There really isn’t any sort of tough emotional struggle behind Picard’s decision over what to do.  (Compare this with, say, the wrenching end of Gone Baby Gone, in which the main character is faced with an excruciating moral dilemma with no clear right or wrong answer.)  So there’s just no real weight to anything that happens in the film.  Calling this film Insurrection way over-sells what Picard & co. wind up doing.

I have other complaints as well.  Worf is criminally misused in the film, played for dumb comic relief (are we really supposed to laugh at Worf getting a big Klingon pimple?) rather than, you know, actually using his fighting skills and tactical knowledge to help the crew defend the Ba’ku village.  The joystick on the bridge of the Enterprise is a preposterously stupid sight gag, and frankly I wasn’t a big fan of the whole Enterprise vs. Son’a spaceship fight in the third act.  The entire sequence with the subspace tear created by the Son’a weapon (an “isolytic burst”) was a lot of needless technobabble when phasers and photon torpedoes would, I think, have quite sufficed.  And anyways, it doesn’t make any sense, because the Enterprise was nearly destroyed evading the first isolytic burst, so why wouldn’t the Son’a just launch another?  As Riker himself comments, “we’re fresh out of warp cores.”  More than that, the whole idea that the Enterprise could get smacked around by these backwater aliens seems ridiculous.  The Son’a — a tiny band of homeless aliens no one has ever heard of before — really has technology that is a match for the flagship of the Federation, a mighty alliance of hundreds of worlds?  Give me a break.  (It’s like at the end of Quantum of Solace, when the movie asks us to believe that evil finance geek Dominic Greene can give Bond a run for his money in hand to hand combat.  Please.)

I have complained about the story of Star Trek: Insurrection being small-scale and insignificant, but a momentous event DOES happen in the film when Riker and Troi finally get back together.  Unfortunately, that event is glossed over completely by the movie, relegated to a comic subplot in two or three scenes.  What a missed opportunity!  How about a real exploration of the complicated emotional history between these two characters?  OK, so the “metaphasic radiation” from the Ba’ku planet caused them to get frisky, but why do they then decide that the time was right for them to get back together permanently, that re-entering a serious romantic relationship with one another was the right thing for them to do?  This story-line had been building since the pilot episode of The Next Generation, so I would have expected this story-line to be one treated as an event of some significance by the film, rather than as just a source for a few jokes and a reason for Riker to shave his beard.

And hey, speaking of long-simmering relationships between the Next Gen characters, the movie totally ignores the decades-long, just-beneath-the-surface affection between Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher.  How much weightier would the film’s story had been had the central love story been about Picard and Dr. Crusher, rather than Picard and Anij?  THAT would have made the events of Insurrection far more interesting to long-time Trek fans, and far more significant overall to the overall Star Trek story, no?  Again, one missed opportunity after another.

What Insurrection is really isn’t that bad.  It’s a diverting enough Star Trek adventure.  But the problem with Insurrection is everything it ISN’T — everything it SHOULD HAVE BEEN but wasn’t.  It was fun to go back and watch the film, after not having seen it for so long, but it’s also hard not to think about the much longer series of awesome, exciting, epic-scaled Next Generation films we might have gotten, had the producers made savvier choices when making their follow-up to First Contact.

Oh well, it’s still a hell of a lot better than Nemesis!