Friday, October 8, 2010

Star Trek: Insurrection

December 1998 fell in the middle of the final season of Deep Space Nine, the fifth of Voyager, and apparently far from much interest in a new Star Trek movie. Despite the considerable success of First Contact two years earlier, Insurrection arrived to minimal interest, and a very different tone from its predecessor, ensuring that even those who had gotten into the concept of Next Generation feature films would find this one easy to overlook.

To get this out of the way, yes there are problems with Insurrection. Even though he’s the director, Jonathan Frakes can’t seem to come up with a realistic substitute to the beard he shaves off halfway through the film, but not before he’s done shooting scenes prior to that development. Worf becomes the butt of Final Frontier humor. Okay, that’s pretty much it.

Otherwise, I’ve always really liked this one. Dismissed almost from the start as just another TV episode expanded beyond its limits, Insurrection was arguably the first victim of Star Trek overload that finally sidelined the franchise in 2005, seven years after its release. A number of sequences are truly exceptional, from the opening scenes that reveal a duck blind mission on an alien world and Data running wild all over it, to Picard and Worf’s thrilling chase to reclaim the android, to the captain’s final confrontation with the villainous Ru’afo, there’s a lot that works dramatically, and compares favorably to anything that was seen in First Contact.

The two films are very different in a lot of ways. First Contact deals with matters that carry a lot of weight with audiences, both those familiar with the Next Generation cast already and those who quickly realize how personal all of this is to Picard. Insurrection deals with matters that are entirely new to everyone involved, which realize their potential in how Picard gradually accepts their importance despite his apparent professional detachment. I think if you still don’t get it, more than a decade later, that’s your best approach.

As embodied by the most significant Starfleet admiral in franchise history, Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe, in a performance that brought him back into some significance, and no doubt led to his casting in The Matrix Reloaded five years later), the establishment is the story here, which is strange, because that’s not really what Star Trek had ever been about, even though both Kirk and Picard were positioned as the captain of the flagship. Gene Roddenberry deemphasized a lot of what seemed to be important in modern culture throughout the franchise, often without drawing any attention to it. Kirk was a prime example, because although he ostensibly represented not just Starfleet but the entire Federation, he was more typically depicted as the master of his own fate, and that he participated in almost every mission personally helped establish that he pretty much controlled his own missions, no overhead necessary. On the rare occasion, especially in the later films, where he was forced to acknowledge superiors, it was always a pretty dicey situation, where he would pretty much scoff and do his own thing anyway.

Picard was always a little different. He was always the consummate professional. Even in First Contact, he made the most tactful Kirk maneuver of his career, pretty much duplicating Kirk’s decisions in Search for Spock, with the audience being allowed to decide, as Kirk faced the hard way in The Voyage Home, that it was all obviously worth it. Insurrection was different. Admiral Dougherty was right there, dictating move for move, treating even our beloved Data as if he were just another officer, hardly worth noting at all (which of course for at least seven TV seasons the audience had been told otherwise, certainly in “The Measure of a Man”). Eventually, because Picard always does the right thing (Nemesis would finally find a situation where the right thing isn’t necessarily the right thing), he decides he can’t just sit back and let things happen, follow orders that are against his moral code.

Insurrection is in many ways a story of familiar things being turned on their head. The basic plot itself had already been the basis for at least one Next Generation episode (the filmmakers were well aware of this, just in case you were wondering), and the conclusion is the third in a series of four movie endings to see Picard basically beam in, confront the villain directly, and leave on the coattails of a massive explosion.

What seem like weaknesses are actually strengths. I can’t stress enough that just because something is familiar that it can’t work, especially if the context is actually different. In essence, what repetition actually represents is a chance to challenge the audience, to remind viewers that life presents a continuing series of challenges that we can either face or run from, basic cause and effect, really. In Generations, Picard has to prevent Soran from blowing up a sun, and the ramifications are directed at a moral question of whether or not that particular villain has the right to effect millions of live simply for his own gratification. That’s pretty much the same as what the captain does in Insurrection. Bet you never even got that. In First Contact, he prevents retribution, just as he does in Nemesis. Both if you actually watch each of these sequences, even if the setups are similar, you’ll note that the impacts are all calculated to individual yields. It’s been said that these scenes are all stolen from James Bond flicks. But in Star Wars, something always blows up, to some degree. Death Star, Luke Skywalker’s mind (I didn’t say this couldn’t be funny), Death Star, the Trade Federation blockade, interstellar war, the Republic. Always some fantastic ending, something making way for something else. Or James Bond, where the villain always gets his comeuppance.

At least with Star Trek, sometimes the villain learns something. Without Ru’afo to incite them, some of the Son’a finally reunite with the Ba’ku (though in Deep Space Nine, we later learn that some of them continue to side with the Dominion).

For existing fans, part of the disappointment was no doubt that Picard was doing any of this at all while the Dominion War was going on around him. They saw it as a huge waste of time. The film addresses this. As captain of the flagship, Picard is subject to every whim and need of the Federation, whatever it might be. Since we never saw Kirk engaged in an actual war scenario, it’s probably easy to just assume that he would have taken his Enterprise into battle and kept fighting until the war was won, probably in a single afternoon (he outwitted Khan in a matter of hours, didn’t he?), just another thing that separated him from his successors. But for Picard, who valued simple exploration (and always harbored his archeological interests), probably didn’t relish conflict (not to mention “Best of Both Worlds,” or First Contact), and probably began to wish his skills for diplomacy might be put to better use. The most effective comic scene in the movie is when he’s called to attend a ceremony to greet the latest members of the Federation, which he clearly finds to be a waste of his time, but will do what he has to, because that’s what Picard does.

It isn’t until he learns any number of dirty secrets surrounding the Ba’ku and the Son’a, and Starfleet’s interests in their world, that Picard begins to have second thoughts. It doesn’t hurt that he meets a Ba’ku named Anij (Donna Murphy, who would, six years later, establish better footing in genre film history with Spider-man 2 as the wife of Doctor Octopus), who allows him to embrace what he has long denied himself, a less cluttered acceptance of life’s challenges. He begins to confront Dougherty about all the inconsistencies surrounding this mission, about an emerging and contradictory perspective that the admiral has long been denying, simply because it’s inconvenient.

To have the captain star in a story like this is pretty remarkable, since the captain is supposed to be the hero, not the reactionary. This is the second time in three films that Picard has been the reactionary, and so it’s no surprise that once again, audiences don’t particularly like watching him this way. He once again tackles the action role, a bit more directly, but far more late into the game, than in First Contact. It isn’t until he volunteers to thwart Ru’afo personally that he truly gets into the spirit of it, and that’s why the ending works for me, how it isn’t just another variation of something we’ve seen, but something that feels necessary and right, a rousing conclusion.

Zerbe and Murphy are worthy successors to James Cromwell and Alfre Woodard in themselves, but where the casting really became interesting was F. Murray Abraham as Ru’afo. Like Malcolm McDowell and Alice Krige before him, Abraham embraces his role, but gets a lot more chances to, well, flesh it out. This is where the film really demonstrates that it’s the third in a series, since it seems to relish its take on the best parts of its predecessors. Like McDowell’s Soran, Ru’afo has a personal mission that drives him to distraction. Like Krige’s Borg Queen, he drips with creepy visuals. With Abraham’s considerable presence, he steals every scene he’s in. The story is only allowed to unfold the way it does because with Ru’afo, you don’t need to know the backstory until it becomes important. Once you learn that the Son’a are actually members of the Ba’ku race, you realize that Ru’afo’s obsession is far beyond any idea of revenge, and so the story becomes something else entirely. You almost wish you could see another film right after, the Year One where Ru’afo first realizes his ambitions are never going to be satisfied with these smug settlers with all the time in the world, and nothing much to show for it.

Yes, you could actually begin rooting for the villain. But the Ba’ku themselves are pretty interesting, too. The opening credits, the first extreme contrast from First Contact, take their time, quietly exploring a rural village and its flourishing culture. We learn later that technology exists here, but only as a means to an end. These people are busy with what interests them most, not with getting hurriedly to the next big thing. When Picard arrives and doesn’t understand, because that’s sort of what he’s all about, hurriedly jutting off to the next big thing, you want Anij to sit his butt down and explain to him that he doesn’t understand how much he actually has in common with them. He yearns for simplicity more than anything else. Insurrection, which by fan estimations, should have been about the Dominion War, tries to make the case that we just need to get out of the way of ourselves.

Maybe not the best message, especially for a franchise audience finding little to spark some renewed interest. Star Trek is probably fairly unique in being a phenomenon that people fought to save, but then started taking for granted, ultimately deciding to reject it because those darn creators kept trying to stick to the message. Wiz! Bang! Where are all the explosions!?

Riker and Troi, meanwhile, finally get back to the message themselves, that they had undeniable chemistry, that they tried hard to ignore, and finally avoided as best they could. When someone asks, Well, whatever happened to Troi’s relationship with Worf? I would say, that whole thing was what Worf needed at the time, a new family to replace all the turmoil he’d experienced, losing a mate and gaining a son, and struggling to feel comfortable in Starfleet while maintaining his Klingon ideals…Anyway, Worf didn’t need that anymore. Perhaps the fact that he was hardly ever integral to the story in the Next Generation films says more about his character, that all the problems he had in TV episodes didn’t really represent what he, essentially, was always looking for, and ultimately found. Each time he had an excuse to find his Next Generation friends again, it was always at a point where he needed it. Watch Deep Space Nine and see where he was each time a new movie was released. 1996, he was still settling in. 1998, he was still recovering. 2002, c’mon, do you think he was going to be an ambassador forever?

Plus he has that great Gilbert & Sullivan duet with Picard. Which brings us back to Data. It might seem trite to pair him with a kid (even Michael Welch, whose pedigree would only increase after his debut here, whether as a de-aged Jack O’Neill in Stargate SG1, or co-starring in Joan of Arcadia and the Twilight films), backward development for a character who had come so far, just in the last two films alone. No matter that Insurrection puts all sorts of new context to him. Bringing his quest to be more human back into the picture by having him hang out with a kid was something he rarely did even around Wesley Crusher, and only when some child was traumatized enough to think he himself was an android. As strange as it seems to say so out loud, Data rarely socialized. He had a certain circle of friends, but he pretty much kept to himself when he wasn’t on-duty. You don’t realize while you’re watching Insurrection, but it’s pretty remarkable to see him making a concerted effort like that, with someone else. He didn’t exactly ask Dr. Crusher in Generations to help him understand humor. He just pushed her out of the boat.

Suffice it to say, but I found a great deal to admire about the film. It’s not the strongest entry, but that’s sort of the point. It’s a strange way to make a motion picture, but at that time, Paramount had a film franchise to continue, and it thought something like Insurrection made sense. Well, it does, actually. Maybe you’ll think so, too, with another viewing.

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