Tuesday, September 13, 2016

TNG Flashback: Insurrection

Star Trek: Insurrection was a deliberate effort, on the heels of First Contact, at a lighter film. Unintentionally, it also ended up being a lesser film.

Data has malfunctioned while on assignment, and his friends on the Enterprise are determined to get to the bottom of it. They take the ship into a dangerous area of space known as the Briar Patch, where a Starfleet Admiral has been working with an alien species, the Son'a, to observe and relocate a small native population, the Ba'ku. When it's revealed that the Ba'ku planet is actually a "Fountain of Youth," Captain Picard leads his crew in open revolt of the Federation, who would violate its own sacred principles to exploit the discovery.

Of the four Next Generation feature films, Insurrection feels most to me like "just another episode." It doesn't quite feel like a movie, as it lacks the flashy Kirk crossover of Generations, the high stakes of First Contact, and the Frankensteined-from-other-Trek-movies plot of Nemesis. (But we'll get to that last one another time.) Many scenes are shot on Star Trek: Voyager's sets. It's also the shortest of all Star Trek movies to date, lending to it coming off like a two-part episode of the series itself.

Script writer Michael Piller had previously turned down the chance to write a script for Generations, as he disapproved of the "competition" with fellow writers Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga. Here, the decision was made not to separate Moore and Braga from their work on Deep Space Nine and Voyager (respectively), so Piller was made the sole offer here, and this time accepted.

I've blogged previously about Piller's book Fade In, in which he documented the creation of this story in fine detail. Thus, I'll focus more on the results here. And frankly, the opening seconds of the film encapsulate the biggest thing wrong with the movie. We start in "the Shire," for all intents and purposes, with kids playing in haystacks and citizens plying Renaissance Fair trades. I could question starting an "action" film with total inaction, or the incredibly small scale of the stakes relative to the previous two films. But I think the problem is much deeper: this feels anti-Star Trek to me.

These Ba'ku have utopia (well, their version of it), but they've rejected technology to get there, like Amish or Mennonites. Here in the 21st century, I think it's already a weird notion that a few centuries ago, humanity reached the perfect level of technology (no more, no less) to achieve happiness. It's all the more peculiar in the 24th century. And this isn't a matter of pacifism either, as the Federation held on to its technology, yet devoted itself to cooperation and culture all the same. Insurrection seems to espouse that a rejection of technology is the only path to true happiness, and Picard and company seem to lap it up, slapping the core of Star Trek in the face as they do it. Or maybe I just don't like camping enough to identify with all this?

Much of the story feels lifted from other sources. The Son'a might have been imagined after watching the movie Brazil. The duck blind cultural observation idea came from the episode "Who Watches the Watchers," while the relocation-by-holodeck plan came from "Homeward." The climax involves Picard racing to get to a console before the villain, exactly as in Generations. We get the overused "kid heading back into danger to get his pet" trope. And Picard's little mambo is literally from another movie -- it was composed by Alan Silvestri for Soapdish.

There's also a tremendous amount of inconsistency in the movie. The Fountain of Youth properties are said to be concentrated on the planet (so much so that it's why the Son'a have to destroy it to get what they want), yet the Enterprise crew starts being affected the moment they enter the Briar Patch. There doesn't seem to be much reason why Ru'afo wouldn't just attack the planet whether there are people on it or not -- and indeed that's what he ends up doing. Anij teaches Picard to slow down time and draw one moment out, which somehow non-sensically helps him save her life when she's dying of real-time internal injuries.

Then there's all the inconsistencies surrounding the character of Data. To grease the plot, his initial malfunction is quite selective in scope. He's such a threat that the Son'a call the Enterprise for help, but so "not a threat" at the end of the movie that Ru'afo dismisses him and falls for the holodeck trap. Data is now able to remove his emotion chip -- backtracking two movies in his emotional development and understanding of social graces -- just to facilitate a minor subplot with a local child and a handful of lame jokes.

On the other hand, the cast does mostly make a lot of what they're handed. While most of the Data jokes bomb (through no fault of Brent Spiner's), the Worf humor is pretty great (his refusal to sing, his second puberty, and more). LeVar Burton gets his best scene of the films as Geordi tearfully watches his first sunrise. Marina Sirtis and Jonathan Frakes make so much of the flirtation between Riker and Troi that the next movie finally decided to just marry them already. (Frakes also directs well, making the most of extensive shooting on location -- and beautiful locations, at that.)

There are some nice moments with the guest cast. As Admiral Doughtery, Anthony Zerbe sells "disgust" with Ru'afo repeatedly, to great effect. Donna Murphy is a worthy love interest for Picard. (I particularly liked the moment where she gently shut down his "mansplaining" of holographic technology.) F. Murray Abraham chews the scenery with gusto as Ru'afo, and reportedly enjoyed it so much that he said in interviews that he could happily do nothing but Star Trek movies for the rest of his career.

Other observations:
  • This was the first Star Trek movie not to include a single scene on Earth. (And it remained the only one until Star Trek Beyond.)
  • Alright, silly question lightning round:
    • If the joystick (manual steering column) is so much easier to use for steering the ship, why isn't that the regular method for doing it?
    • Why does the Son'a face stretching machine have a "murder" setting?
    • Why is the Son'a captain's chair a love seat when there's no "co-captain" situation going on there?
    • Why does the big plan at the end only involve beaming the Son'a bridge crew off their ship and not every Son'a (or everyone, period) aboard?
    • How does an interstellar ship suddenly run out of air at the most (in)convenient moment?
  • This movie passes the "Bechdel test"... by including a moment in which Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi talk to each other about their boobs. Sigh.
  • In the climactic fight on board the Son'a collector, was the plan to put something on the bluescreen in the background and the money just ran out? It looks unfinished.
Star Trek: Insurrection has some good visuals, and the cast clearly cuts loose and comes to play. But the movie falters due to a lack of urgency and stakes, a plot that actually kind of craps on Star Trek ideals while claiming to stand up for them, and many weak jokes. I give it a C+

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