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It Took Us Centuries to Learn that It Doesn't Have to Take Centuries to Learn

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | April 22, 2009 | Comments ()

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | April 22, 2009 |


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Star Trek: Insurrection

"Do you remember when we used to be explorers?" -Picard

Of course we do, Captain, that's why we watched 20 years of television and all those movies. We just appreciate that you can also appreciate why this film is so incredibly boring.

The film opens stronger than I remember, the first half hour dedicated to setting the scene for the rest of the film. Starfleet officers appear to be watching a primitive but beautiful mountain village, accompanied by appropriately ugly aliens, who are so clearly the bad guys from the opening scene that the film doesn't even bother trying to fake viewers out otherwise. It is a nifty bit of special effects though, the way that specially suited observers are passing amongst the villagers invisibly, well directed so that you realize what's going on by the way that certain figures appear and disappear in front of special viewing screens, while the villagers pass through normally. Phaser fire erupts from nowhere, explosions and sudden invisible violence sending the villagers into a panic. Data emerges from his suit, head appearing to float through the air for a bit in a nifty little green screen effect. He disables a half dozen officers who try to stop him, uses his phaser to disable the cloaking device of a duck blind set up to watch the village. The Enterprise is quickly called from some distance away to come deal with their malfunctioning android.

It becomes quickly clear that the Starfleet officers are the antagonists of the piece, along with their ugly alien allies. There is a cloaked ship filled with an enormous holodeck replication of the primitive village, the villagers admit to having access to enormous technologies that they refuse to use, Data's logs do not line up with the story told by the ugly aliens. It's a decent hook, I'll give it that much. It doesn't just rely on the old "Captain, we have a distress call!" cliché of many of the other films, but actually sets up a genuinely interesting mystery. That's the point when it begins to unravel.

The aliens are luddites masquerading as idealists. They live essentially forever due to the MacGuffin of their planet's radiation (which is what the ugly aliens and Starfleet officers are after of course). Their philosophy is little more than a half-baked screed of technology corrupting society. Of course, it's easy to have this attitude when your planet has Hawaii's climate and magically makes you live forever. It means you don't have to deal with the actual consequences of your rejection of technology: dying of old age at 20, infection and disease killing half the babies, a particularly long winter wiping out the other half. When their way of life is threatened, they idly worry that they might have to break their philosophy of non-violence and non-technology, but they luckily have the Enterprise crew there to fight and die for them. Real courage of their convictions there.

The heart of the philosophy of Star Trek is the exact opposite of this contrived Eden: explore, learn, invent, grow. This could have set up a fascinating philosophical struggle and dichotomy, but instead shortcuts are taken throughout to ensure that there is never any true conflict of ideologies. The villagers is simply a perfect little utopia, there is no downside. There has to be a downside, or there is no drama, there's no point in showing us their pretty little world. Picard is intrigued by their life, but I can't help but think that Kirk would roll his eyes and smack them with a monologue about exploration and struggle straight out of Shakespeare, before nailing a hot triple-centenarian alien (you know they've picked up some wicked tricks in all that time).

Of course it becomes clear that the ugly aliens are really all to blame for the conspiracy and the Starfleet officers helping out had essentially gone rogue. This lends a sitcom feeling to the whole thing and reinforces the "just a long episode" feeling of the film. Everything returns exactly back the way it was at the beginning of the film, nothing of substance actually changes. Imagine how much better the film would have been had Picard discovered that the Federation really was dedicated to the atrocity, that there wasn't the easy ugly bad guy alien to pin it all on? And the plot of the film sort of depends on the antagonists not being all that bad anyway. They are relatively humanely relocating the 600 villagers when they could drop a single torpedo on them from orbit and wipe them out. Or not even bother at all: the only reason the villagers are in any danger is because the planet will be rendered uninhabitable when the bad guys suck away the magic radiation. Real horrifying bad guys there: they plan on destroying the planet but you're able to stop them by handcuffing yourself to the planet. An interesting antagonist would crack up at that threat. Khan would probably beam them down some champagne so that they could toast the end of the world as it came.

To top it off, Riker shaved his beard. They had to know that would ruin the film.

"I wish I could spare a few centuries to learn." -Picard
"It took us centuries to learn that it doesn't have to take centuries to learn." -Anij


Star Trek: Nemesis

"You are me. The same noble Picard blood runs through our veins. Had you lived my life, you'd be doing exactly as I am... Look in the mirror and see yourself. Consider that, Captain. I can think of no greater torment for you ... witness the victory of the echo over the voice." -Shinzon

This is the final film of the Next Generation crew, and there is no other way to describe it other than as a colossal disappointment. They threw more money at it than any previous Star Trek film, tossed it into theaters against Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and James Bond, and cut most of the character interaction in favor of more space explosions.

The basic plot has potential: a clone of Picard (Shinzon), raised as a slave laborer under the Romulans, leads a slave uprising to seize control of the Romulan Empire and threaten the Federation. It's ambitious, features an antagonist from the original series that is both unique and interesting, while having relatively little screen time ever devoted to them. If the Klingons were the projection of Russians from our time, the Romulans were a projection of the Chinese, and a perfect antagonist for the post-Cold War world.

The clone angle may be clichéd, but clichés get that way because they work so often. Take a hero, and now show his opposite. It's the essence of quality heroic fiction, the villain and hero as opposite sides of the same coin. Clones and twins are the most literal representation of this story, but when done well they can work brilliantly.

The problem with Nemesis is that they do everything wrong with the premise. First, on a meta level, if you're going to make the antagonist a clone of Picard, why in the world wouldn't you have Patrick Stewart play the clone? The man's done Shakespeare for decades, it's just a waste to sideline him and bring in an unknown to be his clone. Second, there is no characterization to Shinzon, just a "my life sucked, now I'm evil!" back story along with a horribly convenient flaw in the cloning that means he needs a technobabble from the real Picard in order not to die. It's terribly frustrating to see such a promising seed so bastardized by the writers, especially when the same seed was spun several times into well developed themes in the original television series. There is some half-hearted soul searching by Picard about identity, but it rings hollow and does not really spring from the scenes around it. The theme of identity is paralleled by the discovery of a prototype version of Data who lacks the intellectual and emotional development of the Enterprise android, but it too seems to exist in a vacuum, with interesting lines, but little actual involvement in the development of the story.

Finally, Shinzon is undone by that pointless megalomania that commits the worst sin of story-telling: it's boring. His entire grand plan is that he's going to ride on his big super ship and blow up Earth. Because he's mad at the entire human species ... because ... well it was the Romulans that cloned and enslaved him ... well, I've heard tantrums from 16 year olds that had more logic than Shinzon's plan. And that makes it easy for all the protagonists because it means they have to blow him up first. Convenient. But wouldn't the better story be of the dark clone of Picard ruthlessly ruling and reinvigorating the Romulan Empire? Or the moral gray areas of a vicious slave revolt, dragging down and massacring their former masters wholesale? By making Shinzon blandly evil, they make him far less interesting, and as a result the film deteriorates into a tedious parade of CGI and tropes.

From the very start the cracks of bad science fiction begin to show. The Romulan senate is dissolved by a fancy little sci-fi weapon that turns them all to dust, which while visually nifty, is a lot of sound and thunder for something that basically does the same thing as a claymore mine. Of course, the scary dissolving weapon ends up being the basis of the big super weapon mounted on Shinzon's big sexy super ship. It conveniently can be blown up by shooting it with a handgun though, which might be something to address in version two of the ultra death ray's specifications.

Ultimately the film fails because it sacrifices character development and a creative premise for space battles that are all CGI with little strategy or gravity to them.

"The B-4 is physically identical to me, although his neural pathways are not as advanced. But even if they were, he would not be me." -Data
"How can you be sure?" -Picard
"I aspire, sir. To be better than I am. The B-4 does not. Nor does Shinzon." -Data



Final score card!

Star Trek I: Probably not worth seeing.

Star Trek II: Definitely worth seeing.

Star Trek III: Underappreciated but still holds up fairly well.

Star Trek IV: Holds up well, I'd put it a notch below both Star Trek II and VI if only because it doesn't have quite the same thematic weight.

Star Trek V: This film was never made. There was simply a numbering glitch. Six comes after four in the Star Trek universe.

Star Trek VI: A notch below Star Trek II, but definitely worth seeing.

Star Trek VII: not horrible, but just feels like a mediocre episode. Rent one of the really good episodes instead.

Star Trek VIII: definitely entertaining, and definitely the best of the four Next Generation films. Probably not quite as good as Star Trek II and Star Trek VI, but might be able to hold its own against Star Trek III and Star Trek IV.

Star Trek IX: Just feels like a long episode, and one in particular that is at odds with much of the point of Star Trek.

Star Trek X: The layers upon layers of bad science fiction tropes and lack of creative vision result in an extraordinarily disappointing science fiction film. But it's still better than Star Trek V.


Summing it up:

Star Trek is a 40-year-old cultural icon with hundreds of televisions episodes and ten feature films to the franchise's name. It began as a vehicle for telling philosophical and socially relevant stories upon a futuristic canvas, influencing a generation of thinkers, writers and engineers. We named the first space shuttle the Enterprise. Leonard Nimoy said once in an interview that he had never understood how much Star Trek was more than just a franchise until the day he first flipped open a cell phone and realized it was exactly the same as Mr. Spock flipping open his communicator all those years ago. Do yourself a favor and see a few of the old original series episodes since they're free online. If you only watch one of the old Star Trek films, watch Wrath of Khan. If you only watch two, tack on The Undiscovered Country. If you really want to get the Star Trek experience also watch Search for Spock, The Voyage Home, the television episode "Best of Both Worlds" and the film First Contact.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego's strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.



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