Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.
Going into Star Trek: Nemesis this time around, I had pretty low expectations. It has a poor critical reputation, and I remember being unimpressed when I saw it in the theater in 2002. So maybe that contributed to my unexpected appreciation of this final movie for the Next Generation cast. Or maybe it was the considerable reputation and body of work that Tom Hardy has built up since appearing as the villain in this movie. Maybe it was my lingering goodwill for the Next Generation cast, who never got the chance at a grand farewell that was given to the original cast. Whatever it was, I thoroughly enjoyed Nemesis this time around, nearly as much as First Contact, and I think it might be the most underrated Trek movie of all.
Producers clearly learned some lessons from the success of First Contact and the lackluster response to Insurrection, bringing back many of the elements that worked so well in First Contact. There's a lot more action here, there's a villain with personal ties to Picard, there's a main plot that puts the entire Federation in danger, there's a Data subplot that hinges on his melancholy longing rather than dumb humor, and there's a large role for one of the well-known alien races from the TV series. All of those elements work, to varying degrees, making Nemesis far more exciting and suspenseful than Insurrection. The focus on Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Data (Brent Spiner) means that the supporting characters (especially Michael Dorn's Worf and LeVar Burton's Geordi LaForge) end up without much to do, although Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) gets her most substantial role in any of the movies.
The connection between the villainous Shinzon (Hardy) and Picard is more than a bit contrived, but the two actors make it work, and their scenes together are generally very good. Shinzon is the human leader of the Remans, the soldier/laborer caste of Romulan society, and he stages a gruesome coup over the Romulan government at the beginning of the movie. It turns out that he's a clone of Picard (via a rather flimsy explanation), which sets the stage for a lot of dialogue about mirror images and nature vs. nurture. The Data storyline dovetails nicely with that (although it's equally contrived), as Data discovers B-4, a prototype version of himself with a more naive, childlike manner (who is also being used as a pawn by Shinzon).
Shinzon's identification with and hatred for Picard resembles the relationship between Khan and Kirk, but to me it doesn't feel like a retread (even though that's one of the main criticisms of the movie). Shinzon is less sophisticated and more aggressive than Khan, and more interested in conquest along with his vengeance. Hardy gives him the tragic nobility that marks the best Trek movie villains, and even when Shinzon's plans don't entirely make sense, Hardy's performance makes them convincing. He poses a real danger and even seems close to defeating the Enterprise at the end (which of course he doesn't, but he does force a situation in which Data must make the ultimate sacrifice). There's a genuine sadness both to Data's "death" and to the death of what Picard sees as his younger self.
As much as I enjoy J.J. Abrams' 2009 Trek reboot, it makes me sad that Nemesis marked the end of the Next Generation movies. It may be a decent movie, but it still doesn't provide a fitting send-off for the characters. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) moves on to be captain of a new ship and Data is seemingly destroyed, but everyone else just continues on as they were. Screenwriter John Logan (an outsider brought in after three movies written by Trek TV writers) apparently had an idea for another movie that he was working on with Brent Spiner (who shares story credit on Nemesis), that would have also included some characters from Deep Space Nine and Voyager (Janeway makes a cameo here), and I would have loved to see that (and still would). But if the Next Generation crew is never going to make it back to the big screen, at least they got to tackle a story with real themes and character development in their last outing. For fans who dismissed it at the time, it's worth another look.