Movie Review – “Star Trek: Insurrection”

Star_Trek_Insurrection
Taken from Wikipedia, made by Paramount’s marketing department, I think.

“In the event of a water landing, I have been designed to serve as a flotation device.” – Data. That’s the best piece of dialogue in the whole movie.

PremiereDecember 11th, 1998.

Written By: Rick Berman and Michael Piller. (Directed by Jonathan Frakes.)

Plot: The Federation has to deal with a conflict on a planet that seems to generate youth. The Ba’ku and the Son’a are in cahoots, and the Federation seems to side with the Son’a. However, Picard and Co. seem to have a conflict with this arrangement, particularly after hearing the Ba’ku’s side of the conflict… and encountering the youth-generating properties of the new planet themselves.

Review:

There’s a general consensus in Star Trek fandom that Season 1 of The Next Generation is, well, not up to par. Various reasons have been cited, but the one that seems to take precedence was the overly moralizing tone that the first season had. Granted, Star Trek has always been about exploring the human condition, but there was a certain smugness to the first season of TNG – this idea that humanity had reached perfection, and the mere thought that earlier civilizations or those that had different ideas (read, those that went against Roddenberry’s socialistic utopia) were wretched and needed to be talked down to. Considering that this show was made in the Reaganite/Thatcherite era, it’s a small wonder that it didn’t get axed after one season.

Thankfully, Roddenberry was kicked upstairs and the show’s reputation improved dramatically. It became less pretentious, the characters became far more likable, and hell, conflict between the characters began to pop up. By the time TNG ended seven years later, it had etched itself as one of the most beloved TV shows of the late 80s/early 90s time period.

By 1998, the Star Trek franchise had evolved, with Deep Space Nine adding far more character complexities and an over-reaching plot – the Dominion War – to the entire Star Trek universe. Still, evolution doesn’t necessarily mean perfection – DS9 was coming to an end the year after, having been punted to poorer timeslots due to the decline of syndicated drama; the consensus was that Voyager massively underperformed in terms of writing, with some accusing it of the same smugness that seeped through early TNG; and ratings for both never reached the heights of TNG. There was this slow feeling coming in that the franchise was starting to run out of steam.

First Contact, though, was a resounding success commercially and critically – guaranteeing a 9th movie for the franchise. To keep up, Trek would need to continue to build its universe on a larger scale, keep in tune with the events of Deep Space Nine, to learn from the writing flaws of Voyager, etc. Frakes was back in the director’s seat, and Rick Berman was teamed up with Michael Piller to pen the new movie. Would the franchise that gave us Kirk and Picard boldly go into the 21st century?

Well, Insurrection came in and gave us our answer.

…It’s boring.

Far, far more boring than TMP. Yes, I went there – I was more fascinated by The Slow-Motion Picture than Insurrection.

But why?

Well, first off, the Ba’ku. As a civilization, they fail to entertain. They’re set up so perfectly and properly that there’s no conflict within. (I mean, even Vulcan had some conflicts, such as Spock’s role in “Amok Time” and “Yesteryear”.) The planet provides enteral youth, no arms, no conflict, no advanced technology. There’s no reason to care about them, as they’re just a generic “pure, perfect” planet that needs saving. I could understand this relatively “simplistic” planet in contrast with the technologically advanced Federation. That is if I could buy it. I don’t – everything is just, again, too perfect, thus preventing any serious analysis of the pros and cons of a simpler society.

That wouldn’t be quite as bad if the movie wasn’t so friggin pretentious about it. Virtually every single line out of the Ba’ku residents is said with a smugness that would rival much of the dialogue from TNG Season 1. Hell, it’s probably worse, because that had the justification of a clearly insane Gene Roddenberry at the helm. This? Rick Berman.

Now, for the meat and potatoes – the ethical dilemma. The Son’a and the Federation want to move the Ba’ku – a population of around 600 smug shmucks – because of the healing properties of this planet. Comparisons are made to the relocation of Aboriginal peoples by European explorers/conquerors, which would probably carry more weight if a) the Ba’ku were sympathetic, or 2) the Federation were land-grabby bigots who weren’t interested in making scientific discoveries. Sorta takes away from the argument. In their defense, they didn’t appear on the planet until 2075, years before the founding of the Federation, so I guess that

Still, what pushes that aspect from “idiotic” to “insipid and infuriating” is three simple words – Deep. Space. Nine.

For the unaware, the last half of Deep Space Nine revolved around the Dominion War, a conflict that cost scores of lives for the Federation. I mean, “In The Pale Moonlight”, one of DS9s most acclaimed episodes, dealt with Sisko having to commit an act of sabotage that will drag the Romulans into the war against the Dominion, all to give the Federation a fighting chance and to try and stem casualties. It was just one example of how the Federation had to reshape its principles and reexamine them in order to so much as survive and serves as a reason why Deep Space Nine remains a fan favorite.

I mean, those healing powers could help a lot of people that were being displaced by the war, such as the Betazoids… Troi’s species…

Now, don’t get me wrong – I try not to think of myself a neo-conservative. Hell, I love Steven Universe, and the only way you could make that show more left-toned is if Greg was voiced by Jeremy Corbyn! But the writers of that show, at least, try and give some shades of gray to the protagonists, even if the show’s philosophy is undeniably liberal.

That leads us to our next problem…

Now, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, right? Indeed, some could counter that Search for Spock was about how sometimes, the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many. But the writers knew damn well the consequences of that logic in Search for Spock – the Federation would have to deal with a scandal, and Kirk and company basically threw their careers out, only getting saved because a giant trash can wanted to talk to whales. Here, it’s glossed over, if acknowledged at all. It’s poor writing at best, and at worst, pretty insulting.

The Ba’ku have this entire planet to themselves, and are unwilling to even assist the Federation with their goals because… reasons, I guess? Instead of “some ideological differences are too complex”, it comes off as “my healing properties are my healing properties, get your own, technophiles!” By not fleshing this conflict out, they come off more as a selfish society that even Ayn Rand would disavow.

None of the Ba’ku are interesting on an individual level, either. The kids are there because, well, kids and because Data needs to learn how to play (because he didn’t do that with the Shakespeare simulations), the woman is there because we need a romance for Picard (yeah, who cares about Dr. Crusher), etc. Since I don’t care about them, I can’t get invested when the Son’a try and wage war on the planet.

Speaking of which, the Son’a are also rather ineffectual antagonists. Again, the Federation does have a point to support the Ba’ku, as the Son’a were in bed with the Dominion, so it does make some of their claims a bit sketchy. But it’s pretty clear that they’re just there to provide an “obviously evil” antagonist. The movie frames it as “the Federation and the Ba’ku are unquestionably correct.” Even The Wrath of Khan, despite showing the titular character as a nut, managed to present some sort of reflection as to how Kirk’s actions (or lack thereof) created this mess, or how First Contact showcased Picard getting more antagonistic in his attempts to lay waste to the Borg.

Not so much here.

You could argue that the Son’a could be painted as a tragic figure, but the story doesn’t seem to give them the time of day to justify that argument. Thus, neither our protagonists nor antagonists come off as effective. There’s no antagonist to pity, no protagonist to root for, and even the TNG crew are treated like setpieces reduced to one key aspect of their characters.

Instead of giving off grey morality, Insurrection tries to frame the conflict in the staunchest possible dichotomy, while also not making a whole lot of sense.

Still, the ethical debate of this movie is bound to raise controversy somewhere. I guess you could make it work if the writing elsewhere was good.

Unfortunately, the threshold seemed to be set at “make it like a two-parter of TNG”. Because that’s what it feels like – a two-part episode of TNG. A really weak two-part episode of TNG.

Again, none of the Ba’ku are intriguing in the slightest, making any sort of conflict involving them pointless. But the Enterprise crew aren’t much better in that regard. Every single conflict there has been tackled before in the show – Riker and Troi’s relationship, Data’s quest for his own humanity, Picard speechifying on how humanity has learned from the callousness of the past, the basic conflict of relocating an entire people – and tackled in more effective and memorable manners.

The special effects are also TV-quality… actually, they’re worse. Even TNG looked better than this. CGI rarely ages well, and boy, does the CGI in this movie stink. At least Voyager had the excuse of a TV budget on a fledgling network.

Pacing in this movie is dire. Maybe it’s because all of the things I talked about here combined in the worst possible way, but my god, I don’t remember a movie that felt longer than it actually was like Insurrection. It’s an hour and 40 minutes, but it feels longer than the Reboot movies, all of which run over two hours. Yes, those movies are flawed, but at least they move at a speed fast enough to mask some of their problems at first glance.

The worst part of it all? Every single thing I complained about adds to a boring, boring movie. It’s not enjoyable, it’s not mockable… it’s vapid. Say what you will about The Final Frontier, but at least that a) explored some intriguing ideas about religion, if not with the best execution, b) showcased some intriguing character development, even if it was followed by character simplification in other areas, and c) was actually fun to watch. I mean, come on, I think most of us are going to remember Uhura’s fan dance and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” compared to Insurrection.

This movie has nothing. The characters are boring when they’re not irritating, the ethical dilemma is a bit too one-sided at best and arguably backfires in the worst possible way. Anytime the movie tries to be “emotional”, it instead comes off as cloying because of the pointless/botched characters and because of the less than stellar dialogue and pacing.

Even the action scenes lack energy. (I mean, The Wrath of Khan only had one scene that could be considered face-to-face action, and even that stretches it a bit given that the only injuries are self-inflicted phaser suicide and a mite crawling out of one’s ear.) Did we need to see Picard in another fight scene? It makes no sense. There’s no impact to it.

In fact, 95% of the scenes have no impact. The scenes where the Son’a fire on the Ba’ku (these apostrophes, man) all feel like the same. The comedy is honestly worse than Fial Frontier. That’s not saying too much, but still. It rotates from comedy to drama so jarringly that it feels like a long, boring rollercoaster.

And that’s pretty much what Insurrection is. There might be worse Star Trek films, but this one I saw, and then I didn’t. It’s characters, plot, and everything that could be connected to either all fade into the ether. I don’t care about this film, and in many ways, that makes it the weakest of the Trek films.

My opinion seems to match up with the general consensus. There are a few that despise this film, a few that find it heartwarming, but most people tend to find it serviceable at best, and forgettable at worst. I fit in the latter, with traces of “distaste” – albeit because of the substandard execution.

Tidbits:

  • Strange fact? Despite Trek being renowned for its progressivism, this movie got a more positive review from the conservative Daily Mail than the leftist Daily Mirror. Weird. Or not.
  • And, well… yeah. Nothing more to say, I guess. If I wanted a TNG episode, I’d watch a TNG episode. Hell, Seasons 1 and 2 had episodes better than this.

Wrap-Up

Favorite Scene: To be fair, I did think Geordi seeing the sunrise was the least worst of all the scenes in this movie. It was actually pretty moving.

Least Favorite Scene: Uh… I don’t know. I guess the ending “fight scene” for being so unimpactful.

Best Character: Uh…

Score: 2… but that’s contingent on a rewatch of Nemesis. There is a real chance that I will slam this down to a 0. I’ve adjusted scores before, but none so dramatically.

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