Star Trek: Insurrection

The battle for paradise has begun, though the battle to stay awake is rather harder to win…

First Contact gave us some faith that a good TNG movie was actually possible. So would the third film follow that cue or fall back into the lazy pattern of Generations. Or maybe find something new to do?

Pre-Existing PrejudicesThe Boring One.  

What’s It All About, JG? The Enterprise is in the Briar Patch (cute) where some planet is being spied on for allegedly anthropological reasons and …. oh pardon me, my eyes feel heavy. Anyway, Data malfunctions, there’s… oh my, is it terribly warm in here? Picard beams down to meet… um… *yawns, stretches, nods off*  

Er, something, something face-stretching, same race, credits. That’s about it, right? 

Any Other Business: 

  • Surprisingly good opening at the banquet.  But the film kind of ruins itself by having Picard declare, “does anyone remember when we used to be explorers?”  Yes, Jean-Luc, we do, and wish that’s what you were doing this time out. Or any time out, when it comes to the big screen. 
  • “Ah Mr Worf, I see you are on my ship, as we have a movie to shoot.”  “Yes captain.”  “OK!”  I mean, in a way I quite respect it for the sheer gall it exhibits… 
  • It’s a well-known continuity gaffe, but when enquiring if there could be an issue with Data’s emotion chip that triggered his aberrant behaviour on the planet, Picard is told by Geordi that he, “didn’t take it with him”, despite us being told in Generations it was permanently fused in place. Of course, Geordi and/or Crusher could have fixed this in the meantime but if they did, we’re never told about it. 
  • So… Gilbert and Sullivan.  Hi-larious hi-jinks with a malfunctioning robot or tediously self-indulgent bullshit of the very highest order?  You decide! 
  • That duckblind thing makes absolutely no sense.  Fine, they’re invisible and spying on the locals – whatever.  But does nobody ever walk across that suspiciously large, flat rocky outcrop and bump into the shelter?  Don’t kids ever climb up there? Do birds never unexpectedly collide with it? It wouldn’t be so bad if it symbolically represented something so it worked as a representation without having to make literal sense, but it really, really doesn’t. 
  • And on a similar note, how is that relocation going to work anyway when they’re dropped off on another planet?  Do the Federation and the Son’a think that the Ba’ku are so thick they won’t even notice that their local geography has changed?  It’s one thing to reproduce their village on the holoship, and I know the script has a line about finding them somewhere “similar” but still, how similar can it be?  There’s whacking great lake, mountain ranges and caves nearby.  Someone’s going to notice (even a single line about, “and once they’re there we don’t care if they know, they’re primitive, what can they do?” would have fixed this, but it’s suspiciously absent). 
  • Data as a flotation device.  Oh, for the love of… 
  • The holoship itself is actually kind of a cool idea, and fits in with the increasingly ambitious use of holo-technology that both Generations and First Contact have previously displayed, giving us another subtle link between the three films.  It’s a shame a bit more isn’t done with it. 
  • In case it somehow doesn’t become clear from the review below, the Ba’ku are an insufferably dull hole at the centre of the film and undermine absolutely everything Insurrection seems to set out to do.  They’re impossible to care about, bland as lukewarm tapwater, and there’s absolutely nothing about them that seems remotely interesting, or even different, from a million other races we’ve encountered.  Oh, and we’re told there’s “about six hundred” of them, but as ever we get to see about a dozen extras trying to make running across a field look like the Exodus Of The Jews.  It doesn’t work. 
  • Once it’s been pointed out how often Dougherty ends almost every scene with, “Dougherty out!” it becomes both hilarious and incredibly distracting.  Makes for a good drinking game, though. 
  • Remember all that praise I gave to Alfre Woodard in First Contact?  Well here’s the other side of the coin.  Donna Murphy is somehow even duller and more bland than the culture she comes from – she becomes the colour beige in human form, she has zero chemistry with Stewart (you can practically see his flop-sweat trying to get some kind of spark between them), and might as well have been reading her lines from cue-cards.   
  • Stewart himself, though, is for the most part typically great, and his “how many does it take, admiral?” speech is a real highlight of the film. 
  • Yes!  Marina Sirtis has made it three for three!  Once again, she absolutely shines here, given plenty of scope to deliver the more relaxed, playful side of Troi.  Of course her and Jonathan Frakes have a great rapport, and it’s very easy to buy them falling for each other once again.  
  • But if Marina Sirtis is easily becoming the unheralded MVP of the TNG movies, it’s impossible not to feel sorry for Gates McFadden.  For the third film in a row she’s essentially given nothing to do (and this was meant to be the movie that pushed for a greater involvement from the female characters) and has to suffer the indignity of that “firmer boobs” scene. 
  • Riker taking control of the Enterprise with a Microsoft joystick is incredibly silly, but at least it’s entertainingly silly. 
  • Dougherty’s demise is at least fairly memorable, stretched to death by F Murray Abraham.  That’s a hell of a way to go. 
  • That ploy of beaming the crew of Ru’afo’s ship off their real ship to the holoship so they don’t realize something has gone wrong… are we really to believe that transporting has no sensation at all and it just seemed like someone shone a big bright light on the bridge? Really?  I… have my doubts. 
  • Picard ends the film by telling Anji that he’ll definitely be back to see her, what with all the shore leave he’s built up.  So naturally we never see her again.  Shame.  Let’s just call this the Kirk Manoeuvre and move on, shall we…? 

In Conclusion:

America has had a sometimes-clumsy relationship with imperialism and colonialism which comes about, at least in part, because by the time America emerged as a real player and superpower on the world stage (that is to say, in the immediate aftermath of World War II) the great periods of colonialism in history had passed – not entirely over, but on the way out, certainly.  The British Empire was on the wane, never to recover.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire was gone.  The Prussian Empire had gone.  Imperial Japan lay in ruins.  Nazi imperialism had given even the idea of such a thing such a dirty association that it was essentially verboten.  For America, that meant they had what they had and that was pretty much it. This is, at least in part, why the fetishization of the Western holds such a place in American popular culture. Before the war it stood as a symbol of expansion and exploration, fulfilling the same cultural role in 20th century America as the exploration of India and Africa had in 19th century Britain – exporting the ideals of a nation to areas which lacked them and needed to be “civilized”, along with taking any handy resources that might be needed.  And after the war it represented something America couldn’t have but wanted, so the nostalgic mixed with the brutal.  It’s from these roots, of course, that Star Trek sprung, with the original series essentially describing a pattern of American colonialism (well, yes, Federation technically, but still) as it could conceivably have been executed, through the filter of possible future developments and deeply 1960’s social and political concerns. 

Well, that’s what detractors would say anyway.  The common myth about the original series is that the Enterprise wanted to go out in to the stars, meet aliens, and make them just like us.  It’s not true, of course, as even a cursory glance at the show would demonstrate. It’s still an easy joke to make though, like lame comedians making comments about how short Uhura’s skirt was (“hey, that’s progressive guys! Wink-wink”) without understanding anything of the context surrounding it (the miniskirt was, of course, an instrument of liberation).   But that perception of Star Trek “going overseas” to make them just like us marries up with the traditional view of how colonialism functions, and it’s easy to project onto a series which both comes from the same roots as the Western and is deeply entwined within it.   What Rudyard Kipling, a profoundly racist man, once called the “white man’s burden” – going abroad and “civilising” the natives whether they want it or not – seems like an easy fit for a show that goes to “strange new worlds” (read: continents) and “new civilisations” (read: exotic foreigners). 

Yet this is a lazy, obvious conclusion that isn’t supported by the evidence.  It’s true there are occasions when Kirk acts all too heavy-handedly which play into this reading of the original show, as with any episode where the Enterprise turns up and blows up a computer controlling the local population regardless of their apparently-expressed desires (but let’s say… oh, “The Apple” for example).  But there are many, many more counter-examples where the whole point of the episode is that the explorers should not interfere with the local population, and when they do the results are generally disastrous (“Patters Of Force”, for example).  Indeed, Star Trek seems so rooted in anti-colonial sentiment that the Prime Directive is one of non-interference.  Even something as broadly execrable as “The Way To Eden” functions as an environmental parable, a homily about taking responsibility, and actually understanding the place you want to live in and not just taking a privileged, blinkered overview.   

TNG continues this philosophical thread throughout its run.  There’s no other lead captain that demonstrates respect for other cultures more than Picard, often at the expense of having to make extremely difficult decisions.  It’s within this space that Insurrection carves out its approach, and in doing so feels like the most TNG of the four TNG movies.  There’s a real philosophy at work behind Insurrection, and it’s the same anti-colonial philosophy that drove much of both the original series and TNG itself.  The very fact that this movie has a core concept and then takes the time to analyse it from different moral perspectives immediately places it directly in line with the show from which it sprung, and after the muddle of Generations and the action-adventure of First Contact it feels like the movie is actually reaching for something that is part of the core of TNGTNG did action-adventure like First Contact but it wasn’t the core of the show, and it did crossovers like Generations but it was a rarity. Insurrection’s honest, earnest attempt to put philosophy in front of action feels exactly like something the TV show would have done (around Season Five maybe). 

And certainly wide-open panoramas, discussions of forced relocation, and how far one must go down a path before one becomes irredeemable, feel very different to First Contact’s cramped battle sequences and desperate struggle for survival, and that’s no bad thing at all.  First Contact was very successful in its own way at delivering a particular approach to Star Trek, but Insurrection swings in completely the opposite direction, mostly dropping the special effects and space battles in favour of building a culture and then actually exploring it.  The twist this time out is that actually the supposedly “primitive” locals are perfectly technically advanced, thankyouverymuch, just uninterested in using that technology.   That’s a fairly neat idea, and the Ba’ku do if nothing else benefit from not being put in the “patronise the locals” box.  The reveal that they know all about technology is in fact one of the best things about them, and it allows them to fulfil plot-relevant functions without endless reams of exposition.  And it means we get to spend a little bit of time actually inside their culture, so small details like someone being an apprentice for thirty years before becoming an artisan actually add up to more than just, “ohh these people live for a super-long time, don’t they?”  That’s important because once their culture is under threat of forced relocation by the Son’a we need a real reason to actually care beyond the abstractions of another Picard speech about the rights and wrongs of resettlement, and seeing a specific example of that helps to root the culture in something real. 

Is this successful?  Nope. In truth Insurrection is a frustrating film, because of the four movies it’s the one that feels like it hovers closest to the TV show that spawned it but without ever sticking the landing.  Earnest treatises about respecting the rights of other cultures is exactly what TNG does well, and big speeches from Picard about how many people need to be relocated before it becomes wrong obviously give Patrick Stewart plenty to get his teeth into (and boy does he ever).  The direction, from Jonathan Frakes again, is markedly less flashy than First Contact, and feels much more “house-style”, which again very much lends this the feel of a TNG two-parter (though how good an idea that is when this is a big wide-screen movie rather than a 4:3 TV show is another matter).  And so on.  The frustrations with Insurrection, unlike Generations, don’t lie in the basics of the plot – “aliens live on planet and have special McGuffin, bad guys want to take it away” doesn’t leave a lot of room for mistakes, really – but there’s something very insubstantial about all of this.  There’s basically no moral grey area here – the guys that look like they’re the bad guys are the bad guys, and we meet another in a long line of “but it was for the Federation!” crazy Admirals who can’t see the woods for the trees.  It’s all extremely standard fare, and that’s really where the core of Insurrection’s issues lie. There’s no flair here, absolutely nothing to get excited about, and not one single new idea on offer. For all First Contact’s (comparatively few) faults, huge pitched space battles and vast numbers of assimilated crew-members showed ambition and scope, even if it was ambition in a thread of TNG that wasn’t often explored.  Insurrection made the entirely correct choice to not try and top the action of First Contact and instead strike out in its own direction.  This was a wise decision, and it was even wiser to choose the kind of enquiry that has thus far been lacking in the TNG films.  These are the things Insurrection nails. The only things, in fact. Because taking the time to explore the culture of the Ba’ku is only really a worthwhile exercise if they’re interesting, and this is the point where doing any kind of redemption becomes essentially impossible, because the Ba’ku are one of the blandest, most generic civilisations that the Enterprise has ever encountered.  Even the twist that the Son’a are the same race doesn’t do anything to make them more engaging. 

But… well, this maybe seems like an odd observation, given I’ve spent the preceding few paragraphs pointing out how closely Insurrection hews to its parent series, but actually this movie gives us something that we hardly ever get from TNG – a hangout vibe.  Really, the whole movie functions as a hangout vibe, and seen that way it starts to make a lot more sense.  Insurrection was released in 1998 and hangout vibes were big in 1998.  Friends, probably the ultimate hangout TV show, was about mid-way through its run, at its cultural peak, and its influence was vast, but it wasn’t the only show that captured this feel.  Frasier was doing it as well.  Seinfeld was just coming to an end.  Hangout shows were everywhere.  Seen in this context, Insurrection at the very least seems to spring from culture as it was around the time of its release.  The plot shenanigans are there, ticking away in the background, but really, this is an excuse to hang out with a bunch of characters you already know you like for a couple of hours.

That might not make it riveting viewing, but it does make it explicable. There’s a bit of a moral dilemma, a bit of action, a bit of faffing about on the planet, a bafflegab McGuffin, and you’ll enjoy yourself.  Taken purely on those terms, Insurrection is a minor triumph of the hangout genre.  It’s great fun watching Troi and Riker flirting with each other.  Or Data’s halting attempts to befriend a small child he initially scared.  Or Picard putting on his game face while in the middle of a diplomatic mission.  Or… well you get the idea.  This film is littered with hangout moments, and they all show a cast and crew completely at ease with the characters they’re playing and the situation they’re portraying.  Do the other characters fade into the background?  Well yes, but the point of a hangout vibe is that you hang out with the characters you know and love, so a newly-shaved Riker telling Data he’s as “smooth as an android’s bottom” becomes more important than a few natives running to some caves.  In a better balanced film they shouldn’t be, but we have to work with what we have here. But while the hangout vibe is largely successful, the balance in this film is simply dreadful and it never quite seems to know when to play it straight and when to go for – largely, extremely limited – laughs.  The sense that everyone is mostly here to have a good time actually becomes quite infectious (well, until about the mid-point, where they try to take it all seriously and things fall apart) and it’s awfully hard not to enjoy Riker bouncing his way into a “counselling” session, or Picard doing a mambo.  The actors have inhabited these characters for so long now that everything looks natural, a logical extension of what we’ve encountered before. But it’s just a smear of stuff. A bunch of unbelievably minor incidents with very little to actually link them.  

Because, really, the plot here is small fry.  Subspace weapons and ejected warp cores might try and convince us that there’s a bit of threat going on but there isn’t, not really.  The relocation of a bunch of bland-as-bland-can-be natives doesn’t provide enough impetus to feel real moral outrage over, even if that is what the film is going for, and the bad guys plan make the usual little-to-no-sense.  Indeed, after a certain point you can hear the gears of the film grinding as the script desperately tries to find excuses for the bad guys not to just wipe out the Ba’ku and Our Heroes, as if the writers have realized this is an issue and keep sticking in lines to hand-wave it away.  We’re going to secretly relocate them! They’ll lose support in the Federation!  Um, Some Other Reason!  A Picard speech!  Erm… Yeah, it doesn’t convince. To an extent, some of these problems are OK in the context of an ongoing TV show. This one’s a bit dull? No worries, there will be another episode along next week!  The issue comes when all these problems combine and they no longer exist within the context of an ongoing TV show but instead as part of a sequence of films you get once every couple of years, if you’re lucky.  This does, at least in part, explain Insurrection’s poor reputation.  If it had happened in the middle of a season it would be a perfectly decent if unremarkable two-parter but it’s simply not acceptable as something you expect members of the public to actually pay to see. There’s absolutely no hiding that this film is simply inadequate and as one of only four cinematic outing for this crew it can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity.  Because it is one. 

And what of the overarching theme of loss that permeates all TNG films?  Well, as discussed in the last two reviews, this is one of the aspects that gives unity to the TNG films, but ironically for the film which most resembles the TV show this is where the theme of loss is least expressed.  Which is not to say it doesn’t exist, but of the four films it is in Insurrections where it’s the most downplayed.  The most obvious anchor for loss is the Son’a having lost their home – this is brought up in a late-in-the-movie twist when we discover the Ba’ku and the Son’a are, in fact, the same race, but the Son’a were ejected from Ba’ku society for trying to embrace technology.  There’s a potentially fascinating debate there, especially from a show whose usual approach is that technology makes everything better and often equates human progress with technological progress. But this never really amounts to much.  The loss the Son’a experience is a direct motivator to their attempted revenge but, a couple of “ohh, aren’t you so-and-so…?” questions aside, there isn’t any real sense that the two races have anything in common at all.  Indeed, it’s the old mistake – we’re told they’re the same, but we’re never really shown anything to bring what we’re told into relief.  

There are other losses, but as with most of the film these feel comparatively small – inconveniences as much as thematic points that link the sequence of films together.  Indeed, this is the only one of the four TNG films which actually concludes on a constructive rather than a destructive note (you could make a case for First Contact here, since the last moment of the film is the coming together of humans and Vulcans, but it’s a historical event, not one happening in the present of TNG). Yes, the bad guy is killed, but ultimately the Son’a and Ba’ku begin the healing process.  That in itself marks Insurrection out as different from the movies that surround it, but as with First Contact, the suggestion here is that even when the loss is as terrible as exile and being cut off from your friends and family apparently forever, loss doesn’t have to be a one-way street.  You can, it seems, go home again.  This constructive ending again feels very much a piece with the TV show, and the more brightly optimistic approach Insurrection takes to its conclusion feels both earned and consistent with what happened throughout the film, even as it really struggles to make that mean anything. 

It’s fair to say this review has rambled a bit, but really that reflects the nature of the film itself.  An explicit rejoinder to the evils of colonialism and forced resettlement doesn’t sound like the sort of territory a big late-90’s sci-fi movie would naturally cover, and even now it seems like an unusual approach to take.  Insurrection has, if nothing else, that going for it, and it was a good decision to do something that connects much more with TNG’s roots.  It feels politically, socially, and philosophically consistent with the show that spawned it, more than any of other TNG films, and that can only be a good thing.  The real issue here is… well, it’s not even that the stakes are low.  I mean, they are, but as mentioned earlier that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  It’s more that they feel inconsequential.  The Ba’ku are some of the least interesting people TNG has ever delivered – the fucking Space Irish were better than this lot – and as a result it’s very difficult to care about what happens to them.  That makes all Picard’s worthwhile, meaningful speeches kind of evaporate. It’s not that Stewart doesn’t sell the speeches – of course he does – but such grand gestures over such a boring collection of colonists just doesn’t amount to very much of anything.  The Son’a have potential but when even F Murray Abraham doesn’t make much of an impact you know something’s gone wrong (Idris Elba will be along in four films’ time to show this isn’t just an issue with TNG). 

The Son’a fail as a satire of the beauty industry which again could have been a potentially lucrative direction for the film to explore – partly because this angle just so obvious and partly because the script never does anything with them – and fail as colonial aggressors because the script doesn’t quite know how to address this aspect of the story, even though it seems to be nestling at the heart of everything.  Oh, and it all ends with a big explosion and Picard being rescued by someone else in the nick of time.  Just like First Contact.  And Generations.  And, for that matter, Nemesis.   The romance at the centre of the film is completely unconvincing (and possibly the tamest, least passionate romance in the history of cinema – there are Smurfs with more raw sexual magnetism than Picard and Lily display). It’s mostly very bland, but the one saving grace is that hangout vibe. It’s never enough to make Insurrection compelling – it’s never compelling – but at least it gives the film a reason to be.  Its good fun hanging out with our old friends again, seeing them piddle about in a minor story, and at least for the first half, it’s largely enjoyable.  Trying to take the plot seriously hobbles things in the second half, and muddy script editing mutes a lot of the potential power of the two big twists.  Insurrection could never be mistaken for a good film, but it’s probably a bit better than its reputation, and viewed with a degree of indulgence, a bottle of wine, and maybe some friends, isn’t a completely terrible way of spending a couple of hours.  But there’s absolutely no shaking the feeling that this should have been so much more.  All the key elements that make TNG so compelling – the philosophy, the exploration of culture, the moral outrage, the character work, everything – are there to make this a proper, genuine slice of TNG on the big screen.  That Insurrection never achieves this is a terrible, terrible shame. 

What Percentage Of This Film Can Be Cut? 

Oh dear, I again can’t go for 100%, can I? The problem is that most of the film is actually relevant to what’s going on, even as what’s going on is mostly just very tedious. I would gladly, gladly lose Data’s emotional breakdown at the beginning, and there’s whole scenes that just make me embarrassed to be a Star Trek fan – “firmer boobs”, flotation device, Worf’s Klingon puberty… basically any time the film goes for a gag rather than a relaxed vibe, it can go. Eh, let’s say 15% and assume all those dreadful jokes ended up as a passingly amusing DVD extra rather than actually in the film itself.  

How Rikered Is Riker? 

Well this time he has the perfect excuse to get away with that bout of daytime drinking. Everyone is being affected by the strange planetary atmosphere. Nobody can quite control themselves. He can get away with boozin’ it up to the rafters! And I think we can be pretty certain he does. That counselling session for one… there’s no possible way Troi can’t smell bourbon on his breath (I always assume he drinks bourbon when Rikered. Maybe it’s the jazz link with the trombone). And certainly, when he decides he has had enough of those “bastards” (the shock of him using a bad word!) and grabs the joystick to Blow Shit Up he has all the righteous fury of the morning imbiber who is suddenly sick of having their bad habits pointed out to them. So yes – pished (as we say back home). 

Data’s Annoyingometer Scale:

Off the fucking charts. Data is beyond insufferable here, to the point where this movie makes me want to side with the Borg Queen in First Contact. The “model of a modern major general” scene just isn’t funny, even if you are a Gilbert & Sullivan fan (it will surprise exactly none of you that I am not, because I have at least a modicum of good taste). The problem with Data being written as he is in this film is that it gives Brent Spiner the opportunity to indulge his very worst instincts, so as a flotation device he is unbearably smug, the hysterical laughter he nailed in Generations here seems like a 1st year drama student who hasn’t really learned the basics, and so on. I’m giving him a 9, and the only reason it’s not a full 10 is that the scene with him and the little boy – which could have been cloying in the extreme – end up somehow being fairly sweet. But that’s it. Data is simply horrible here. 

MPV: 

I’m not quite convinced that there is one. Stewart gets a couple of good speeches here, but it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before, and to be honest he can’t get the relationship with Lily to seem convincing. That’s mostly her fault, but he’s visibly struggling in a way we almost never get from Stewart (though who could blame him). I’ve scarcely even mentioned F Murray Abraham, lost under endless layers of rubber than stop him becoming even remotely interesting. Again this isn’t his fault, but the movie has cast a fantastic actor then proceeded to bury him in a stock character role with make-up he can’t – or to be strictly fair, doesn’t – manage to act through, and the character himself is something you’ve seen plenty of times before, and the odd face-stretch simply isn’t enough to make him interesting. So, you know, it’s going to be the Rt. Hon. Ms Marian Sirtis again. She’s utterly delightful, again gets maximum punch out of minimal lines, and the warmth between her and Frakes is just phenomenally infectious. He’s good fun too, but you know how it is with warm drunks – they’re always fun until they’re not.  

Movie Rankings: 

  1. The Undiscovered Country 
  2. First Contact 
  3. The Voyage Home 
  4. The Search For Spock 
  5. The Final Frontier 
  6. The Wrath Of Khan 
  7. Insurrection 
  8. The Motion Picture 
  9. Generations 

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