Friday, October 07, 2016

TNG Flashback: Nemesis

Now it's really time to close down the Star Trek: The Next Generation reviews, with the cast's final feature film -- Star Trek: Nemesis.

While heading to Betazed for one of two wedding ceremonies for Riker and Troi, the Enterprise detects the presence of an android on a nearby planet. There they find B-4, a less advanced precursor of Data built by Dr. Soong. But before they can delve into this discovery, the ship is dispatched on a mission to Romulus. A group of Remans has taken over the government in a violent coup, and is now making a peace overture to the Federation. Yet nothing about the situation is as it seems. The peace offering is a pretext to set up an attack on Earth, and the new Praetor isn't Reman at all -- but a young clone of Jean-Luc Picard.

This is the movie that destroyed the Star Trek film franchise for the better part of a decade. It's hard to overstate how big a bomb it was. It was the first Star Trek movie not to debut at #1 at the box office. Its revenue then fell 76% in week two, the biggest drop ever for major studio film -- until Gigli came along. (That's how bad we're talking.) And while you could argue that the movie never had a chance against the competition of late 2002 (a James Bond film, a Harry Potter film, and The Two Towers), there can be no doubt that bad word of mouth was a factor.

After the lukewarm reception to Star Trek: Insurrection, the Powers That Be seemed to conclude that outside blood was needed to reinvigorate Star Trek. To write the script, they hired John Logan, who was fresh off an Academy Award nomination for Gladiator. To direct, they recruited Stuart Baird, a director of two prior action movies who boasted a lengthy resume as an editor. Nearly everyone involved in the resulting movie blames Baird for its shortcomings (and oh, I'll get to him), but I believe this movie was a disaster on the page that no director could have saved.

First, the story is little more than a pastiche of past Star Trek films. John Logan seems to be following a recipe. You need a villain with a personal hatred toward the captain (Star Trek II). You need a peace overture from a longtime enemy (Star Trek VI). You need a powerful ship that can fire while its cloaked (VI again). You need the logical character to conclude it's worth sacrificing himself to save the rest of the ship and crew (II again), and you need a framework for that character to be resurrected (Star Trek III). And just for garnish, let's recycle pieces of a few episodes -- telepathic rape ("Violations"), Data meeting a previously unknown brother who is secretly a threat ("Datalore"), and Picard forced to think about how his life would be different given different circumstances ("Tapestry").

Of course, a long-running franchise can recycle old elements and still produce something worthwhile. (The Force Awakens.) For me, the bigger problem here is how this movie handles the characters. John Logan was praised by many involved with this movie as a life-long Star Trek fan. Yet this supposed fan has Worf, after a lifetime of hating Romulans, beaming that they "fought with honor" after one battle. He has Wesley returning to Starfleet after most definitively walking away from it. He's awkwardly referencing Picard's family wine after the whole vineyard burned to the ground. Data's character development from the films has been erased; the android clearly no longer possesses emotions (or even a Season 7 level of understanding of social graces).

Not that Logan's inept writing of character is limited to the Star Trek regulars. The espionage-minded Romulans seem to have no security at their Senate chamber. They want mass-scale destruction one moment, and then change their mind without cause when they're on the verge of getting it. It's unclear whether Remans in general have telepathic powers, or if these are abilities only the Viceroy has. It's even less clear why the Remans are willing to be led by a human.

And that human! Shinzon is a total mess. He hates Romulans for oppressing him, but he's lashing out at people who have never done him harm. He has a weapon he could use to kill every person on Romulus, but he's going to use it on Earth instead. He needs Picard's DNA and concocts an elaborate ruse to get it, but then gives up and chooses to die in a childish fit of anger. And that's just the internal inconsistencies. Try to apply external logic to him and he gets even worse.

After a lifetime as a slave in a mine, how does Shinzon possess any skills as a tactician, or the ability to design a ship with advanced technology? Why is he dying now, after 20-some years? Why would the Romulans have sought to clone Jean-Luc Picard 20-some years ago, before he was captain of the Enterprise? How did Shinzon manage to locate a Soong prototype android that no one else knew existed?

So no, I don't buy into the notion that John Logan wrote a great script that was botched by bad directing. But to be clear, Stuart Baird's directing is horrible. It starts with his total lack of respect for the universe he was stepping into. Multiple sources confirm that he refused to watch even one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in preparation for this job. He called LeVar Burton "Laverne" on set, and thought his character Geordi was an alien. He demanded redesigns of several established props and sets. He pitched Worf's voice down in post-production, as if we all don't know exactly what he sounds like after 11 seasons of television and 3 movies. He used anachronistic camera and lighting techniques that felt completely out of place in a Star Trek film (the washed-out color scheme of the planet where B-4 is found; the hokey light shining in Troi's eyes during the final telepathic sequence).

After running roughshod over Star Trek during the filming of the movie, Stuart Baird did so all over again in editing his footage. Over 45 minutes of material was cut from the original assemblage, most of it character moments that stripped any sense of why the audience should care about anything that transpires. The DVD edition of the film features two sparse audio commentaries -- one of Baird crowing about how tightly he'd cut the film to keep it moving, the other of producer Rick Berman often disagreeing with Baird's creative decisions. In an interview Patrick Stewart gave years later, he suggested that of all the Star Trek he'd done, Nemesis was most in need of an extended edition -- and he specified: "It wouldn't be a Director's Cut of the film. That may have been even shorter. But maybe an Actors' Cut.”

Even the handful of good things about Nemesis are hard to think about without entangling more bad things. The design of Shinzon's ship, the Scimitar, is fantastic. (But the fact that it has this lengthy transformer sequence to fire its Death Star weapon is a stupid plot contrivance.) The Reman makeup design is appropriately creepy. (But the fact that the Romulans couldn't really be the main bad guys in their own movie is disappointing.) Riker and Troi finally getting married is a nice inclusion for the fans. (Though there's the sense that it was done mainly to raise the stakes grotesquely on Troi's mind rape, and to position Riker to "ride to the rescue" by defeating the Viceroy in the end.) Tom Hardy gives a dedicated performance as Shinzon, despite the shaky material. (But one wonders if the poor reception of this film actually set his career back a few years.) Jerry Goldsmith's heavily synth-driven score is arguably his best contribution to Star Trek since he started with The Motion Picture. (Yet it would also be one of his last movies; he died a short while later.)

Other observations (or really, a "this makes no sense" lightning round):
  • When finding a disassembled android that looks like Data, wouldn't the first thought be that it's Lore?
  • Geordi says that B-4's computer intrusion stole no vital or classified information. Aren't the positions of Starfleet ships vital or classified? And if not, why is Shinzon going to such lengths to get them?
  • Shinzon's clever maneuver during the final battle is to drop the cloak on part of his ship and then brake hard to fire weapons when an enemy flies by. How is that an improvement over invisibly positioning your ship beneath the target?
  • The moment the Enterprise shields go down, shouldn't they just beam over Picard (or everyone on the bridge), rather than beam a Reman boarding party on?
  • When two ships are locked together in space, how does one ship reversing engines separate them? There's nothing to be pulling against.
  • How does Picard rip a steel bar off the wall with his bare hands (to stab Shinzon)?
This has been a long one, yet I feel like I've really only scratched the surface of how bad, how disappointing, Star Trek: Nemesis was. I guess because I'd rather watch bad Star Trek than bad "other movies" (and because this is still better than a couple of the other Trek films), I won't give it a rock bottom grade. But I feel generous in calling it a D+. As I indicated in my "All Good Things..." review, I'd willingly trade away all the Next Generation movies to avoid having this be the final voyage for these characters.

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