Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) (part 1 of 9)
I’m not a rabid Star Trek fan. This is not to say that I have any negative feelings towards Trek; I just don’t go crazy for it like some people do. My interest is more casual. I have always, however, felt it was one of the more solid sci-fi franchises out there. I remember watching episodes of the original series when I was a kid, and one of the first films I ever saw in the theater was the fourth film (The One with the Whales).
When The Next Generation started up, I was into it right from the start, and still enjoy it whenever I catch a glimpse on TV. After Deep Space Nine, the franchise went downhill, and I lost a lot of interest. Voyager was underwhelming, Enterprise didn’t impress me in the least, and then there were four films with the Next Generation cast which all felt like overblown TV episodes.
The third of these, and the ninth Star Trek movie overall, was Star Trek: Insurrection. It’s certainly not the worst Trek film ever—that dubious honor is shared by the dull and flat The Motion Picture and the misfire that is The Final Frontier. Insurrection is, however, the worst one to feature the Next Generation cast. A little cheesy acting from William Shatner is really the only thing that raises Star Trek: Generations above this one. And even then, only by inches.
Insurrection‘s last-place standing among Next Generation movies is widely agreed upon by everybody, including the cast. At the 2005 DragonCon, Marina Sirtis said that the last Next Generation movie, Nemesis, “didn’t suck as much as Insurrection.” She added that she fell asleep during the premiere of Insurrection, which she dramatized via slumping back in her chair and making a thumping sound with her microphone. And when the people who are actually in the movie can’t muster the slightest interest in it, what chance do we have?
Star Trek, at its best, is an invigorating combination of solid sci-fi, philosophy, and strong characterization, with a little bit of humor sprinkled in, and some occasional well-done bits of action. At its worst, it can be drab and preachy, with bad humor, and a few space battles tossed in to keep the audience from lapsing into boredom-induced unconsciousness. Sadly, this outing falls firmly into the latter category. It’s nowhere near as bad as some of the other films on this site (in terms of overall quality, it might even be in the top five), but for an entry in this particular franchise, it’s depressingly bad.
One of the main problems is the complete lack of anything fresh or original. It’s as if the entire project was greenlighted, produced, filmed, and released without anyone actually, you know, thinking about it at all. This can even be seen in the poster art, which has a layout and tagline that’s basically the same as the sixth film, only tweaked slightly. In the posters below, compare the shot of the Enterprise-A looming over the face of a Klingon to the shot of the face looming over the Enterprise-E.
I know movie advertising isn’t always the most creative thing around, but come on!
Yet another problem with this film, which we’ll get into more later, is how lax and vague it is about crucial plot elements. The whole story just barely makes sense, to tell you the truth. The movie tends to put the viewer—whether he or she is a die-hard Trekkie, or couldn’t give a rat’s ass about Trek—a step or two behind the characters, until the too-late-when-they-come revelations.
But probably most damaging of all, this story’s main element is a plot device that, in my opinion, brings down just about any Star Trek tale it appears in: That would be the vaunted Prime Directive. Granted, it doesn’t automatically turn the story into crap, but even the good stories based around the Prime Directive are hampered to some degree.
The major problem with the Prime Directive is that it’s never been stated exactly what the rules are (only parts of it were ever spelled out in the original series). So writers tend to twist it all out of recognition to serve the needs of the plot at hand. From watching Star Trek, I probably have a better idea of how warp drive works than how the Prime Directive works.
But the main gist has always been: you can’t screw around with a civilization in such a way that totally changes their world view and/or internal politics. Which means, of course, that every voyage to a new world has essentially been a violation of the Prime Directive. I mean, I have to imagine finding out you’re not the only intelligent life in the universe would be a pretty mind-blowing change of a planet’s society and culture. So the Prime Directive essentially contradicts the entire concept of the franchise. Good thing the writers change the definition of the Prime Directive whenever they damn well please, right?
Sometimes it only applies to pre-warp civilizations, sometimes not. Sometimes it means that Starfleet can’t interfere in a planet’s internal politics, and then the very next week Starfleet is more than happy to screw around in local affairs. And several times, it’s been used to justify letting entire civilizations die off, which makes no sense to me whatsoever.
It really makes me wonder why such a troublesome plot device was ever introduced in the first place. Every captain in Trek history has basically wiped their ass with it, and it really does little besides call attention to the flaws within the franchise itself, something no good story should ever do. Sure, one could argue that it makes it easier to introduce ethical dilemmas into a story, but isn’t that why you hire creative screenwriters?
That being said, there are a few Prime Directive stories that work well as thoughtful and compelling science fiction, because they’re told in a very tight, intelligent manner. Interestingly enough, the best Prime Directive episodes tend to be ones in which someone else has violated the Prime Directive big time, and Kirk has to fix it, like “Patterns of Force” (The One with the Nazis) or “Bread and Circuses” (The One with the Romans).
But when Kirk or Picard (or Sisko or Janeway or Archer) is faced with violating the Prime Directive to resolve a crisis, you can usually count on scads of pretentious brooding, circular arguments, and heart-rending shots of suffering natives, culminating in the moment where the Captain defies all logic and everything he stands for by shouting, “Screw the Prime Directive, I’m going in!”
Next Generation unfortunately had several of these episodes. One of the most egregious was probably “Pen Pals”, in which Picard tells Data to stop communicating with a sweet little girl whose planet is about to bite it. So Data, by way of complying with Picard’s command to stop communications, pipes the sweet little girl’s pathetic pleas into Picard’s office so he can go, “Aw, how sad,” and let Data walk all over him because, hey, it’s a sweet little girl.
Another horrible PD episode would have to be “Homeward”. This is the one where Worf’s brother (Worf has a brother? And he’s Paul Sorvino?) wants to save a village on a dying planet. But Picard refuses, because it would violate the Prime Directive. I say again: their planet is doomed and the entire species is about to die. And yet, Picard chooses not to interfere. Does it really matter if you interfere with a culture that’s about to get completely wiped out? Sadly, Insurrection brings to mind about a dozen unanswerable questions just like this.
The origins of the movie are a dark harbinger of how much it would suck. They couldn’t get the same guys who wrote the great First Contact script, namely Ronald D. Moore (who later went on to recreate Battlestar Galactica) and Brannon Braga (hey, isn’t that the guy who wrote “Threshold”?). And so, the project fell to producers Rick Berman and Michael Piller. Anybody who watched Enterprise will know that Berman’s name attached to a script is always trouble. And while Piller is the guy credited with turning around TNG after its first few seasons of suckitude, he was really off his game this time around.
Piller later said he got the idea for the youth-restoration angle of the plot one morning while he was putting on his Rogaine. (If only Alexandre Dumas had had such modern opportunities for inspiration.) Piller’s original idea was to have Picard growing younger as he closes in on the Fountain of Youth, while tracking down a rogue Starfleet officer named Duffy. Sure, that’s plausible.
The prospect of de-aging Patrick Stewart probably would have induced as much anxiety in the makeup department then as their current counterparts are experiencing now, as they contemplate how to make Zachary Quinto look the slightest bit like Leonard Nimoy. Especially since these days ol’ Leonard looks like death warmed over, with a side of gravy.
Berman, meanwhile, wanted to recycle a classic series story about aliens abusing paradise. The framework would have involved stealing from Joseph Conrad’s Africa story Heart of Darkness. Basically, they would have reused the device of going upriver as a metaphor for becoming more and more removed from the familiar and the understandable.
These two incompatible storylines were eventually violently hulk-smashed together into the mishmash we’re about to see here, in which Picard has to hunt down Data (who’s replacing Duffy here, because who the fuck cares about some guy named Duffy?), only to have this become completely irrelevant as the plot instead veers into being about an alien race trying to take over a Fountain of Youth planet. As you’d expect, the whole thing comes off like it was written by the cerebrally atrophied Eymorg women from “Spock’s Brain”. Only, in this case, there’s far more “pain” to be had, than “delight”.