Star Trek: Insurrection


Data has a bad day.

Data has a bad day.

(1998) Science Fiction (Paramount) Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Levar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, F. Murray Abraham, Donna Murphy, Anthony Zerbe, Gregg Henry, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Michael Welch, Mark Deakins, Stephanie Niznik, Michael Horton, Bruce French, Tom Morello, Jennifer Tung. Directed by Jonathan Frakes

I sometimes like to characterize myself as a Trekker with both eyes wide open. In other words, I love the world that Gene Roddenberry created, but I don’t love it blindly.

“Insurrection,” the ninth movie in Paramount’s cash-cow franchise, posits a race (the Baku) who are being studied in secret by the Federation and their new allies, the Son’a. When Data (Spiner), a member of the study team and as all good Trekkers know, an integral part of the crew of the Enterprise-D goes berserk. Captain Picard (Stewart) abruptly leaves a diplomatic mission to go and see what’s goin’ on, to quote Marvin Gaye.

What’s going on is that a smarmy Starfleet admiral (Zerbe) has put the Federation in bed with the nasty Son’a (you know they’re nasty because they use subspace weapons and even the Borg don’t stoop to that), with the intention of forcing the peaceful Baku to another world. It seems that particles in the rings of the Baku planet give off an energy that, properly processed, can reverse the aging process … indefinitely. In short, a kind of stellar Fountain of Youth.

Picard objects strenuously, but because of the planet’s location in a remote corner of the quadrant, communication with the Powers That Be in the Federation is impossible. Picard must rely on his own code of ethics to guide him. The title should tell you which direction he leans toward.

Producer Rick Berman may have been too overloaded when making this movie, with two television series and the feature film to contend with, along with the opening of a then-new attraction in Las Vegas. Insurrection is unable to break the curse of the odd-numbered Trek movies – the worst films in the franchise to this point are all odd numbered. Insurrection isn’t as bad as The Final Frontier, but it doesn’t really distinguish itself, either.

The trouble with the Trek movies is that too many of them have a perspective too influenced by the television screen. They don’t really fill up the big screen all that well, unless Nicholas Meyer is directing them. But then, unlike many of the Trek directors, Meyer already had a couple of feature films under his belt before tackling Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that Paramount has often had to offer the directing reins to actors in order to get them to play ball. This leads to the odd situation of having some of the studio’s most valuable properties in the hands of inexperienced directors.

It’s not that director Jonathan Frakes (who also plays First Officer Riker) is incompetent, it’s just that I’d wanted to see more cinematic sweep to a Star Trek movie than heretofore had been shown. For example, Insurrection alludes to a Federation that is desperate for allies after being decimated by the Borg and is involved with a life-or-death struggle with the Dominion. Against that background, you’d think you could get a better plot than one that basically says that forced relocation is a bad thing. I think most of us have already figured that one out.

In a situation like the one described above, you’d also think that the Federation’s premier starship would be on the front lines instead of making diplomatic contact with second-rate species, but that’s just a minor point. The problem here is that once again it seems to be the Picard-Data-Worf (Dorn) show, as LaForge (Burton), Dr. Crusher (McFadden) and Counselor Troi (Sirtis) are given almost nothing to do. Riker is kind of involved but for the most part, it’s all platitudes and posturing and not enough gee whiz.

At the time this was made, I really wanted to see Star Trek movies become more like Major Events with storylines that directly influenced the television shows without forcing the audience to be immersed in the show (as the X-Files movie did). That, sadly, never came to pass which might be just as well; the last two Star Trek movies which have rebooted the cinematic franchise have become Event Films. Part of the problem with Insurrection was the miserly budget which in many ways was justified – up to that point the cinematic Star Trek wasn’t pulling in enough box office for the most part to justify nine figure budgets. The reality was that Trekkers were getting more than their fix of the franchise on TV and the TV version was in many ways superior to what was going up on the big screen. Why pay to see something you can see for free at home, and it’s hard to blame audiences for that. Still, seeing what Marvel is doing with their franchise tells me that it could have been done. Ah well, I suppose in this case I was slightly ahead of my time – or overreaching the grasp of my beloved franchise.

WHY RENT THIS: You’re a Trekker completist. Holds up well among the Next Generation movies.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks cinematic scope, playing as an extended TV episode. Tame action scenes.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sci-fi violence, a few mildly bad words and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The first Star Trek movie in which all of the outer space shots were computer generated. Among the firms providing CGI and software support were Blue Sky Studios and Pixar, both of which would go on to be major CGI animation studios.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 2-disc DVD Collector’s edition includes a look at Alien women in the Star Trek universe and fairly detailed looks at how some of the special effects were created. The Blu-Ray edition (available as part of a collection of Star Trek: Next Generation films) adds a Trek Roundtable in which fans and experts discuss the film with an eye to its place in the overall Star Trek universe and a Star Trek Academy feature which is set up as an Academy lecture on the origins of the conflict between the Baku and the Son’a.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $112.6M on a $58M production budget; the movie pretty much broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rabbit-Proof Fence

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Good Neighbours

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Star Trek Into Darkness


Alice Eve and Chris Pine try to out-blonde each other.

Alice Eve and Chris Pine try to out-blonde each other.

(2013) Science Fiction (Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, John Cho, Bruce Greenwood, Alice Eve, Peter Weller, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Noel Clarke, Nazneen Contractor, Amanda Foreman, Jay Scully, Jonathan H. Dixon, Aisha Hinds, Joseph Gatt, Deep Roy, Anjini Taneja Azhar. Directed by J.J. Abrams

The trouble with taking on an icon is that the bar is impossibly high. You’re not going to please everybody, particularly the diehard old guard fans of the franchise. The fever pitch of shrieking outrage usually begins with the second film in the reboot. J.J. Abrams knows that better than most; he has had his fingers in the hands of three beloved franchises – Mission: Impossible, Star Wars and Star Trek.

This is his second film in the reboot of the Trek franchise. The first got some grudging respect from the notoriously difficult-to-please Trek fandom who might very well turn their noses up if Gene Roddenberry were resurrected and turned up to direct a new Trek movie.

The new film starts out with a terrorist attack in London, ramps up with a conspiracy to militarize Starfleet’s science and exploration mission (think of NASA with missiles and bombs) and finishes up with the appearance of a familiar foe.

Normally I’m one to describe the plot in great detail, but I think I’m going to abstain this time – for one thing, I found that knowing little about what was to occur in the movie made it far more delightful. Knowledgeable Trekkers and those fairly familiar with the canon of the original series will find lots of references here, from Harry Mudd to Transwarp drive to tribbles. There is also a great deal of referencing one of the original series most popular episodes and most beloved films but not exactly as you might remember it.

Abrams has re-energized the franchise without a doubt. Part of the success of the reboot has to do with the casting – each of the choices are spot on. Pine in particular takes the essence of Captain Kirk created by William Shatner and loses some of the mannerisms that made the character a bit of a parody in later years. Pine understands the basics of the legendary Captain – the recklessness, the ego, the brilliant strategic mind and the penchant for womanizing, but takes out the quirks – the stunted speech patterns, the over-reaction reactions and the writers have kindly aided his cause by giving Kirk fewer pronouncements and more self-analysis.

Quinto also makes a terrific Spock, although I noticed in this movie that his jaw seemed a bit more set and he looked a little less like the original Spock in a lot of ways, but he does capture the constant war between the emotional human side and the cold, logical Vulcan in him. The trauma of Vulcan’s fate in the last film weighs heavily on him, although he doesn’t show it.

The relationship between Spock and Uhura is an interesting one, given that this is a recent invention. Zoe Saldana gives the character a little more action-orientation than Nichelle Nichols did in her day; I like also that the writers give her a lot more to do than being a glorified answering machine. She is much more a member of the team than she was in the original series, where much of the planning, decision making and risk taking was done by the male members of the crew. You’ve come a long way, baby.

Cho is a worthy successor to George Takei as Sulu. One of the great regrets I have when it comes to Star Trek is that we never really got to see too much of Sulu as Captain – in the couple of instances when we did see it Takei was amazing. Cho gets an opportunity to take command as Sulu and makes the most of it; I’m kind of hoping we see Cho in a spin-off someday.

Pegg is one of the world’s outstanding comic actors and while Scotty becomes more of a comic figure than he was in the original series (although depicted as a heavy drinker he had his share of drunk moments that James Doohan played beautifully) the main thrust of his character is his brilliance as an engineer and we get that from Pegg as well, although he is a bit more willful than the original Scotty and in one of the new film’s most underrated scenes stands right up to Kirk, something I don’t recall seeing the character ever do before but was a welcome moment here.

There are also “guest” characters; Greenwood as Pike is a bit of a mentor and a lot more of a father figure to Kirk. Alice Eve is gorgeous and plays her pivotal character as a lot more than you might guess from the surface – and the writers leave room for future glimpses of her character. Peter Weller, who had a couple of appearances on the Enterprise TV series, plays an admiral here whose character might remind long-time fans of an admiral who had a small but pivotal role in one of the last movies featuring the original crew.

That leads us to Benedict Cumberbatch whose character is…well, not who he appears to be. Fans of the original series will doubtlessly guess early on who he actually is but for now let us say that he is a brilliant adversary worthy of Kirk and Spock and whose appearance is done in what I believe is the proper way – coming into the series sideways, making the surprise all the more pleasant (although again savvy Trekkers will either know from Internet chatter who he is or guess based on the clues the filmmakers give us early on). Cumberbatch is an up-and-coming actor who looks to have a brilliant career ahead of him, and based on this film is already getting some scrutiny for some plum roles in franchise films. Before you know it this man is going to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Bet on it.

The stakes are higher here and the effects are as crazy good as they were in the last Star Trek film. I chose not to see it in 3D – who wants to see those annoying lens flares in 3D? – and I think that’s a wise choice. Some of the scenes are set in pretty dark places and the 3D glasses will only make it murkier. Besides, I didn’t get the sense that 3D would have added anything to the experience.

I liked the movie just a smidge less than the first one; what pleased me most is that the filmmakers are developing the characters in just the right way to set up more thoughtful episodes in the future. While there was some underlying commentary about the militarization of space, the usefulness of drones and of terrorism in general, this is still a little more action-oriented than fans of the original series may like but that does make the movie more palatable to non-fans. Oh, and you get to see Klingons too.

In my review of the first film I wondered if Abrams could repeat his successful reboot in the second film. The answer is a resounding yes. This is great entertainment not only for Trekkers but for general audiences as well, managing to thread the line nicely. Certainly this bodes well for the future of the franchise and with the 50th anniversary of Trek’s debut in 1966 only a few short years away, one can only be hopeful that there are a lot more places for the crew of the Enterprise to boldly go.

REASONS TO GO: Pine turning out to be an excellent Kirk and the rest of the supporting cast works well also. Nice effects, battle sequences and stunts.

REASONS TO STAY: The story is a little bit all over the place.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some pretty intense battle sequences in space as well as some pretty nifty fisticuffs.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Christopher Doohan, the son of the original Scotty (the late James Doohan), makes a cameo appearance as a transporter technician working alongside the current Scotty in the transporter room.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100; pretty impressive reviews for a Star Trek film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avatar

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Russian Ark