Star Trek: Insurrection
I’m not much given to quoting myself, but leaving Star Trek: Insurrection, I remembered what I’d written in my review of 1994’s Star Trek Generations, the first film featuring the Next Generation crew. “The Trek movies,” I wrote, “are comfortably familiar; you can count on them to be either terrible or better than you expected. It’s no fun when they’re just sort of competent and not-bad.” In the same review, I talked about the Odd Number Curse, which afflicted Generations (the first Next Generation film and the seventh Trek feature) and also taints Insurrection, the third Next Generation outing and the ninth Trek movie. (The Odd Number Curse theory holds that all even-numbered Trek movies are good, while all others disappoint.)
Perhaps I shouldn’t feel guilty about rehashing myself, since the people behind Insurrection have done essentially the same thing. Here, the crew of the Enterprise, led by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), find themselves on the horns of a moral dilemma. A civilization of blissed-out immortals named the Ba’ku are threatened by a rival race, the Son’a, who want to benefit from the Ba’ku’s life-giving turf — specifically, by evicting the Ba’ku and claiming their planet. This, of course, makes large veins pop out of Picard’s forehead. More than once, he draws implicit parallels between the Son’a and the Nazis or slave traders — a hefty historical allusion that this movie, which is basically a sci-fi joyride, can’t handle. We know all the agonizing will just lead to the usual zap-zap, good-vs.-evil stuff.
It should be said that Jonathan Frakes, who plays Commander Riker and who directed 1996’s terrific First Contact as well as this one, is a whiz at zap-zap. Give him an action scene to play with, and he goes at it with retro, masculine gusto; he works with a precision and vigor that are particularly satisfying in this era of stubbornly incoherent Hollywood spectacles. Trouble is, this voyage is short on zap-zap and long on furrowed-brow scenes — it feels as if Picard directed it, except for the clownish scenes of the crew members regressing under the rejuvenating powers of the Ba’ku atmosphere; these scenes seem to have been directed by the android Data (Brent Spiner) in his goofy mode from Generations. (There’s much character comedy to tickle the fans; neutral parties, like myself, may find it fairly precious.)
Every Trek movie needs ugly villains, and the Son’a are real lookers, all right; they’re led by Ru’afo (F. Murray Abraham), a scowling, rather pissy fellow with Silly Putty features stretched across his skull, like Katherine Helmond in Brazil. The unintentional comedy of Star Trek is that the ugly mega-villains — the Klingons, even the Borg (in the curvaceous person of Seven of Nine) — eventually become Federation-friendly anyway, so why lose sleep over them? Me, I thought there was more going on with the Son’a than with the Ba’ku, who struck me as insufferably pure and noble. “We understand technology,” one bright-eyed Ba’ku announces, “but we choose not to use it because if we let machines do our work, it takes something away from humans.” Well, good for you.
The movie is full of such gassy moralizing, and Picard falls in love with an angelic Ba’ku named Anij (Donna Murphy), as if to say, “Why should Captain Kirk get all the interspecies nookie?” It never occurs to Picard that his feelings may have a little something to do with the fact that lovely Anij will never sag anywhere, have hot flashes, or need to bleach her upper lip. By the end of the movie, the innocent Ba’ku have been defended without having to dirty their hands, there is effortless and highly implausible reconciliation (this movie shares with A Bug’s Life the questionable theory that if you get rid of the evil leader, all his minions will see the light and repent), and the crew of the Enterprise go off to their next adventure.