Friday, May 17, 2013

Star Trek: Insurrection

Star Trek: First Contact was a financial and critical smash in 1996 so you know there would be another film. There was no doubt about it. Star Trek: Insurrection was the second entry to be directed by actor Jonathan Frakes, the first film in the series to utilize completely CGI effects and the first not to feature the team of Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore writing for these characters. Michael Piller, who was a writer/producer for The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, took over the scripting duties (with a little input from Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner).

Data (Brent Spiner) goes berserk on the peaceful planet of Ba’ku, and Picard (Patrick Stewart) and crew are called in to take him into custody. Once there they learn that Data was attacked upon discovering a plot to remove the inhabitants of this world so the Federation’s allies, the deceitful Son’a, can harvest its fountain of youth effects for their own personal gain.
I was extremely happy that Piller chose to come up with a new villain for this sequel, therefore I had zero expectations when it came to who/what the Son’a were. Their ultimate deal is kind of fucked up (in a Star Trek way) and I really enjoyed that aspect. He also added into the mix some political commentary with the forced relocation of the Ba’ku. It’s extremely reminiscent of what happened to the Native Americans as well as the Yugoslavians in the 1990s. It was topical at the time and I remember appreciating that there was something trying to be said along with all the shoot, shoot, bang, bang stuff. The main theme dealing with the difference in “being old” and “feeling old” is nice since some of the cast members are really starting to show their age at this point.

The villains, the Son’a, are actually pretty cool. Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham goes off the rails as their leader Ru’afo in a big, fun way. His melty, sagging facial make-up is creepy and seemed to empower him to go batshit crazy in the role. The writer even seemed to have some notion as to how nutty this character was going to be performed by having him scream so hard his face cracks and bleeds at one point. Abraham is great in the part and brings the somewhat lukewarm material up a notch or two.
Another plus is the western approach to the scenes on Ba’ku. Once Picard and certain members of his crew beam down to help the inhabitants avoid being kidnapped by the Son’a the movie takes on a Magnificent Seven feel, going as far as to have a shot that pans across the faces of the heroes before rushing into a firefight. These scenes rock real hard and are quite possibly the most entertaining parts of the film.

The problem with Star Trek: Insurrection is that it feels unfinished and unfocused. The tone switches between being completely serious and humorless to being almost a feature film sitcom.  You have the Enterprise nearly being destroyed by a massive explosion in one scene and in the next Data is talking about his “boobs firming up”. It’s beyond jarring and takes you out of the movie.
There is a phony romance that begins to form between Picard and Ba’ku leader Anij, played haplessly by Donna Murphy. I never believed for a second that these two felt anything for each other because the love story just shows up out of nowhere. Her “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a bald man” line is embarrassingly hokey, as is all the schmaltzy stuff. From what I read Patrick Stewart was looking to have a little Kirk mixed into his character and wanted to have a love interest this time around. Sorry dude, it didn’t work at all.

There is a lot of dumb stuff thrown into the mix, like the Ba’ku people being able to slow down time. So the planet that has renewed them physically and made them nearly immortal also gives them superpowers? What’s the point of that other than to be a mildly cool special effect? Data didn’t bring his emotion chip with him on the mission? Wasn’t that thing “fused to his neural net” in Generations? Worf getting acne? Picard dancing a jig? Singing to Data to make him stop attacking a ship and join in during the chorus? A lot of what ruined The Voyage Home for me is definitely present in Insurrection, and it didn’t sit well with me here either.
There is a decent dogfight scene in The Briar Patch, but my problem is that it’s broken up into such small pieces it’s hard to follow. And Geordie ejects the warp core without Riker’s permission? WTF?! Some of the planet bound action is cool as well, especially when Worf takes out a drone by swinging his phaser rifle like a baseball bat (“Definitely feeling aggressive tendencies, sir”). The big finale inside the collector is very reminiscent of what went down in First Contact - Picard in a futuristic wifebeater climbing all over the place like a bald spider monkey. The way Ru’afo is taken out is okay, but I would have much preferred the less action heavy resolution that was originally shot but not used (Ru’afo took a shuttle directly into the planet’s rings and de-aged so much that he became an infant again, and during the final scene Picard hands him back to his mother and basically tells her “Don’t raise him to be an asshole this time”).

Jerry Goldsmith returned again to score this installment, and his compositions are still heavy on the cheesy electronics, but his main action motifs and the Ba’ku people’s theme are all quite good. It’s not as great a score as First Contact’s, but this one is very well done.

The special effects are all a mixed bag. Most of the starship stuff looks amazing, but on the planet everything has a fake, video game look to it. When the crew discovers the holoship hidden under the lake everything about it looks horrible, almost like the shots weren’t finished rendering before they were added to the cut. The scene where the collector is activated and its big umbrella wings spread open is especially bad. Everything has a layer of static over it, especially the umbrella material itself. It almost looks like a cartoon. This sequel had the biggest budget of any Trek movie before it and they couldn’t get better FX? I have to call bullshit.
Jonathan Frakes pulls double duty again as director and star. He actually has some cool stuff to do here, like commanding the Enterprise as it takes on a fleet of Son’a warships. A big plus was something fans had been wanting to see since the television series began – Riker and Troi rekindling their romance. His direction is a little off this time around, almost like he was resting on his laurels because his directorial debut was so successful. Everything has a lazy feel to it, almost as if whenever he was presented with two solutions to every problem – an easy way to save time and a better way that might take a little more effort, he chose the easy way each time. It’s evident throughout the entire film and is why I assume he wasn’t asked to return to direct the next film.

Star Trek: Insurrection is not a complete bust. I like it about as much as First Contact for its action scenes and some fun banter between characters. But there were some embarrassingly bad choices made here, as in the previous film, as far as I’m concerned. It’s watchable, but it’s not a high point for the series.

3 out of 5

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