Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Worst Star Trek Movie

No, it's not Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Let's just dispense with that notion once and for all. That movie was hampered by a rather terrible script, but perhaps the most criticized element of the film (i.e. William Shatner's direction) is perhaps the thing that keeps it from being completely unwatchable. Actually, Shatner managed to string together a few memorable action sequences, despite being severely restrained by a tiny budget. But the script is what's wrong here: the first act is cringe-inducing and full of "funny" bits that are just stupid, the second act is incredibly boring, and the third act shows some promise before descending into laughingly bad battles between Kirk and "God", a.k.a. George Murdoch.

Neither is the worst movie in the franchise Star Trek: The Motion Picture nor Star Trek: Nemesis. These are both worthy candidates, but they have the opposite problem of The Final Frontier, in that both have decent plots that are undone by incompetent direction. I'm not sure what effect Eurotrip auteur Stuart Baird was going for in making Nemesis, but my best guess is that he figured it would be a good opportunity to put on his best Lars von Trier impression. That never produces good results, especially when von Trier tries it out himself.

No, the worst Star Trek movie is the one preceding Nemesis, Star Trek: Insurrection. It's a bad film with an incomprehensible storyline and subpar filmmaking. But it's more important for what it represented. The film came out in 1998. In a few months, the franchise's best show since Shatner's original series, i.e. Deep Space Nine, would be over. Star Trek: Voyager would continue its journey into oblivion, followed by the even less-loved Enterprise and the positively hated Nemesis. But the evidence of the franchise's decline is easily seen in Insurrection, which in retrospect marked the beginning of the end of the Next Generation phase and necessitated a full-on reboot a decade later. Before Insurrection, Star Trek was still a viable franchise. After it, it wouldn't remain one for too long.

I think the best way to quantify the film's suckage is to explain what I understand of the film's premise to you. Apparently, at some point months before the film begins, the alien race known as the Son'a (don't worry, more ridiculous names (and apostrophes) abound in this movie) approaches the Federation with a proposal: in exchange for their permission and cooperation in removing a few hundred immigrant settlers from a planet in their space, the Son'a will share technology that will greatly increase human lifespans. This is the first problem in the film, and this (and all subsequent ones) will be footnooted1 because it will be impossible to linearly point out the problems with each one and maintain any sort of narrative cohesion. Anyway, the Federation Council agrees to this idea2. The plan is apparently to place all the "natives", the Ba'ku, into a cloaked3 holoship on the bottom of a nearby, easily dredgable lake4. They then send a (cloaked) survey team to extensively study the planet to make the simulation more convincing. For some reason, they decide that Lt. Commander Data of the Enterprise is essential to the mission, despite the fact that there are probably other officers that understand, um, whatever they're doing who aren't famous androids. I'm beginning to think that Starfleet's planning could use a little bit of work. What they don't do is approach the Ba'ku directly and discuss the situation, despite the fact that they seem entirely reasonable, can easily leave as they are technologically advanced, are migrants to the planet and would presumably be invited to share in the benefits of the project. After all, why should they get a fountain of youth and billions of people be unable to live longer? Evidently this prospect never occurs to the Son'a/Starfleet team, and while there's a good reason why the Son'a don't do this, there's no real reason why Starfleet Admiral Anthony Zerbe shouldn't.

So, in the course of his surveys of the area, Data finds the cloaked holoship (low tide!) and is shot by a Son'a guarding the thing5. Data goes nuts and exposes the entire cloaked operation6, 7. Anthony Zerbe, who always seems drunk in every scene but isn't because that's just how he talks, has to call Picard to save his ass8. Picard does so with the help of Gilbert & Sullivan, in the movie's only good action sequence. Picard then unravels the mystery, falls in love with a 300 year old woman who doesn't figure into the next movie, and confronts the Admiral with it.

And here's where things shift. It's true that Starfleet's shabby, stupid, oddly desperate plan is not exactly defensible. Kidnapping people to trash their planet isn't really good PR for the Federation, and it is established that the Federation does have professional politicians running it.

Like this guy

You know, the sorts of people who might sense the sorts of things that lead to bad headlines (Or blog post titles? It is the future...) Do you really think that the Federation would really like to see something like this being printed in the worlds of potential allies (which, as Picard says, are ultra-important):

The Vulcan Daily Logic Primer

Federation Caught In Kidnapping-for-Youth Scandal: Cabinet In Crisis, President Embattled, Dominion Spokesman Weyoun Comments, "I Told You So!"

This, needless to say, would be an embarrassment. But what's even more embarrassing is Picard's reaction to this situation. His plan is two-fold: the first part is to send the Enterprise to shame the Federation into dropping its plans, which is sound. But the second part is where he decides to gamble his life, his career, his ship, his crew and the lives of the 600 or so civilians on the planet, in the world's most vociferous defense of squatter's rights ever. His assumption--that Admiral Zerbe would be able to keep the admittedly murderous Son'a in check--turns out to be wrong, though it works just long enough for his plan to come together. Zerbe gets killed by head Son'a F. Murray Abraham, who in turn gets killed by Picard9, who is saved by the Enterprise returning at exactly the right moment to save him. Oh, yeah, and the Ba'ku and the Son'a are the same race, the Son'a left the planet for some reason (evidently because they didn't care for the provincial life). Now, everything's fixed, the Son'a are returning home, the end (of footnotes). And the film. Well, sorta10.

The film leaves a lot ambiguous, but the biggest question it doesn't answer is this: why should I care? The moral situation here is confused. On the one hand, it's difficult to defend the right of 600 non-indigenous people to be able to enjoy the benefits of a planet they randomly found once. On the other hand, the Ba'ku could have voluntarily left without injury if only Picard had been responsible and pressed that option. The stakes were literally 600 peoples' eternal lives. It's pretty hard to feel sorry that the Ba'ku would have to die like everyone else--including themselves, had they not found the planet. Ultimately, a big yawn.

There is more yet to be unpacked. The Son'a are presented as sick, disgusting creatures who continually need to have their faces tightened and their bodies flushed. There could have been some sharp social commentary here about vain, greedy Westerners, but it isn't developed. If anything, it's the Ba'ku who should come across as selfish, though in the end it's mostly Picard who looks like an ass because of his very questionable decisions. Admiral Zerbe is a complete cipher, and much of the movie's problems would have been solved had it just been asserted that he had gone rogue and was insane. This is not asserted--in fact, the opposite was asserted at multiple points. There is a scene where the Enterprise jettisons its warp core and blows it up, which is apparently the Star Trek Deus Ex Machina for when the ship is in great peril (see also the most recent Star Trek movie). And, finally, there's the scene where Commander Riker exerts "manual control" over the Enterprise by activating the built-in Graviton Thrustmaster joystick (circa 1998), which basically implies that those shitloads of buttons, screens, and panels needed to control the Enterprise can be supplanted by a $10 product from CompUSA.

But by far the most tragic material is the attempts to turn tongue into cheek. The film includes such lighthearted gags as having Worf break out with Klingon acne, reuniting Troi and Riker in some of the most ridiculous romantic scenes in Star Trek history (and considering that William frickin' Shatner starred in the first series, that is impressive), and infamously having several jokes about how certain crew members' boobs were firming up. Aside from this sort of thing being the sign that a franchise is about to be laid way low (Superman III is a further example of this trend), it forgets a central fact of the series: that, deep down, Star Trek is really cheesy. But it's also about very serious things. Winking at the audience does not solve this contradiction--indeed, it heightens it. Ever since the beginning of Star Trek, the series has been almost comically self-serious for a reason: without conviction in the product (and its message), Star Trek would never have been popular and would have been completely unloved and dismissible. It's one thing for a movie like Army of Darkness to be tongue-in-cheek, as the movie isn't really about anything aside from fun and silliness. Star Trek isn't The Evil Dead. It's Star Trek. And there are only so many ways to convince people that you're serious about what you're saying, none of which work if you're constantly winking at the audience.

Make no doubt about it, Star Trek: Insurrection was more than just a bad film. It's a bad dream, a nightmare from which Star Trek tried to awake, before they had to blow it up and start over again. It hits many of the correct Star Trek notes but those notes never turn into a symphony, and it mostly shows that the passionate moral stances of the Roddenberry Era of Star Trek had long since calcified into slogans and dogma by the time Rick Berman and Mike Piller hashed out the story for this turkey. Berman is often accused of killing Star Trek, and not without justice. But it wasn't because his reign over Voyager resulted in a bad show with a dull cast that became overdependent on the two developed characters portrayed by people who could act, nor was it because Enterprise wasn't all it should have been. In the end, it was because Roddenberry's heir never really understood: he never understood why people liked Star Trek, and he never understood what made for a good television show (or movie). Now practically everyone versed in such things loathes Berman for his failures, but watching Insurrection only makes the story of his downfall seem tragically inevitable11.

  1. The Son'a apparently do this despite demonstrating extreme loathing for the Federation and being perfectly willing to destroy ships, kill an admiral, murder civilians, etc., to achieve their goals. Additionally, the planet is in the "Briar Patch" which sensors cannot penetrate, and seems to be totally isolated and remote. Considering Starfleet's distracting war with the Dominion, one would figure they wouldn't bother with Starfleet and do their business on their own.
  2. The Federation is always presented as an ethical and competent organizational body, sometimes excessively so. Evidently they think that either (a) kidnapping a bunch of people won't ever pose any political problems, or (b) that people won't care if they get to live a little longer. Because the clear problem in the Next Generation universe is that lifespans are too short.

    This also factors into the film's most ridiculous moment, in which F. Murray Abraham tries to buck up Admiral Zerbe's resistance by insisting that the Federation "is old" and needs what he's peddling. That Zerbe didn't burst into laughter after hearing it just shows how far gone the writers were. The Federation was fighting A FRICKIN' WAR! They need to worry about the people dying from combat duty, not from old age after 147 years.
  3. Evidently the Federation has beaucoup cloaking devices now. According to Deep Space Nine, they only had one, on board the Defiant. But it's much better to put it on a holoship than one of those ships fighting Starfleet's war (which is mentioned as the reason why the Federation is teaming up with the Son'a). It had only been a year and a half of war when the movie was set. It's not like they couldn't have used it.
  4. Why isn't it in space? For some reason, you can easily see it in the water.
  5. Again, you put the thing in space, and there's no need to guard it. The holoship plan is actually a pretty crappy one, as the damn thing never works at any point in the movie, despite the small problem that the holodecks in Star Trek never malfunction. Oh,'re trusting in the infallibility of Star Trek's least reliable technology? This begs the question of what the Federation was going to do with the holoship. After all, when they're not on the planet, they're going to realize they're aging normally. And why did it need to be cloaked? They were trying to fool the people inside of it, not outside of it. Where were they going to keep the ship? Were they going to land it in Warehouse 13?
  6. You'd almost forget that it was often established that the Federation didn't have cloaking technology and that, outside of the Defiant, was pledged not to use or develop any.
  7. Okay, so even if you don't want to tell the Ba'ku you want to use their planet, why secretly spy on them? Why not just ask their permission to conduct a survey of their planet? They are presented as being very reasonable people in the movie. Why wouldn't they have said yes? They aren't presented as xenophobic.
  8. Evidently the Son'a ships that nearly destroy the Enterprise in the movie aren't able to take down a small scout ship piloted by Data. This, of course, is forgotten by the film's climax.
  9. After a gambit using the holoship Picard knew was defective. Nobody in this movie behaves particularly intelligently.
  10. Okay, so at the end of the movie they leave the planet in the Enterprise. Everyone's happy, the planet's been saved, yadda yadda yadda. The final shot is of the Enterprise leaving orbit. I guess this was done in order to make for a cool final shot or something, but it (fittingly) ends the movie in a fit of illogic. Where are they going? They don't have warp drive, at sublight speeds it's going to take them thousands of years to get back to Earth. What are they doing? What's going on? Did George Lucas help with the script this time, instead of just the special effects, as in the previous few Trek films?
  11. Other things the Star Trek people could have made a movie about, that would have been better than fountains of youth and F. Murray Abraham bleeding from the forehead:

    • The Dominion War

    • The Mirror Universe

    • Q

    • The Preservers

    • Nagilum

    • A DS9 crossover

    • A Voyager crossover (perhaps tough to do and leave the status quo ante, and it would likely have sucked, but still)

    • Reanimating Captain Kirk (Shatner sure as shit would have been game--the guy wrote several books about this possibility!)

    • Time travel

    • Space travel

    • Airplane travel

    • Airplane food

    Okay, even a remake of Andy Warhol's movie about paint drying would have been better than this thing.