Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek: Insurrection' (1998)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

More than any other Star Trek movie, Star Trek: Insurrection feels like a slightly overgrown TV episode, and not even a particularly notable TV episode. After the rousing success of First Contact, it's disappointing to see the franchise take such a dip in quality, and it's especially disappointing to watch the movie now, knowing that the Next Generation cast would never get a chance to match the quality of First Contact (even after the disaster of The Final Frontier, the original cast got one more try). I wouldn't necessarily call Insurrection the worst Trek movie, but it's probably the most disheartening. The Final Frontier is a train wreck, but at least it's clearly an ambitious passion project for William Shatner; Insurrection is just a listless, obligatory extension of the franchise.

The problem starts by introducing villains and allies with no connection to any previous Trek stories. Previous movies may have sometimes misused Klingons and other familiar Trek antagonists, but at least those characters brought some accumulated fan interest and history with them, to give them a way to match up to the beloved main characters. Insurrection instead offers up the Son'a, a race of decrepit, genetically modified senior citizens who are desperate to steal the fountain of youth-like radiation on the planet of the peaceful Ba'ku. The Ba'ku are kind of insufferably smug space Amish, who shun advanced technology and live in a bland utopian village where no one ever ages.

The movie starts out with an ethical dilemma that is at least somewhat interesting: Should the 600 or so Ba'ku be forcibly relocated so that the resources from their planet can be harvested and used to improve the health of billions? To me, the answer is obviously yes, so it's a little hard to care when Picard makes a righteous stand against moving the Ba'ku, especially when it's revealed that they aren't even indigenous to the planet. They just stumbled on it randomly, much like the Federation has, and now they are hogging it all for themselves. But the screenplay by veteran Trek TV writer Michael Piller doesn't allow this potential gray moral area to last for long; the Son'a quickly go from technologically advanced Federation allies to homicidal villains, planning to wipe out the entire Ba'ku population mostly out of spite. So Picard ends up on the obvious moral high ground, even though his reasoning to get there was highly suspect.

That wouldn't necessarily be such a problem if there were more exciting or suspenseful action, but the stakes of the story are so low (especially compared to the fate of Earth and the entire Federation in First Contact) that it's hard to get invested in the outcome. Instead of building big action sequences, Piller and returning director Jonathan Frakes focus on dopey comedy (after his genuinely creepy turn in First Contact, Data once again gets a terrible comic-relief subplot, this time alongside an annoying kid) and drippy character moments, including an insipid romance between Picard and a Ba'ku woman played by Donna Murphy.

F. Murray Abraham chews scenery, but not in a particularly entertaining way, as the villainous Son'a leader Ru'afo, but he never seems like much of a threat. At one point, when one of his plans is thwarted, he gives this ridiculous yelp that makes him sound like a toddler having a tantrum. That's sort of the point of the Son'a, who turn out to literally be petulant children of the Ba'ku, but it doesn't make him a very layered or compelling antagonist. He's not a proud warrior with misguided intentions; he's just a petty asshole. And his plans amount to very little of consequence, which would have been fine for a semi-interesting episode in the middle of a Next Generation season, but is a giant failure when it comes to crafting a meaningful, large-scale sci-fi feature film.

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