Sunday, October 10, 2010

Star Trek Nemesis

The fourth and final Next Generation film was released in 2002 and made a very tiny amount at the box office, the least of the ten entries in the Star Trek movie series to that date, relegating the franchise to a cultural afterthought, a somewhat strange fate for a cast that had once had the potential to push it to new heights.

Fifteen years after “Encounter at Farpoint” (roughly the time equivalent of the first two original cast cinematic escapades), a lot of things had changed for Star Trek. The fifth TV series, the third since 1987, was in its second season, headed toward an abbreviated-by-modern-standards four year run. Picard and crew became the victims of an undeniable burnout. Paramount’s apparently unshakable belief in the durability of the franchise could no longer be sustained, at least without a break. Nemesis had been advertised as the final appearance of this cast, something that had worked well for The Undiscovered Country, and even better for “All Good Things…” eight years earlier. But it had been a long eight years. Deep Space Nine, though a small critical success, had failed to interest fans, even with its ambitious Dominion War arc. Voyager, which had been meant to metaphorically replace Next Generation, had only succeeded in irritating long-time viewers. And so had Enterprise. One questionable Picard film, Insurrection, had torpedoed any potential for a sustained national audience outside of a weary fan base.

Nemesis itself seemed tailor-made for ridicule. The villain, a clone of Picard known as Shinzon, was portrayed by the young British actor Tom Hardy, who in appearance and speaking pattern looked more like Dr. Evil, the comical foil in Mike Myers’ Austin Powers films, which at that time were still a treasured cultural institution. Star Trek movies were also an anachronism during a period when Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations were capturing the zeitgeist, Harry Potter was invading the cinema, and even the second Star Wars trilogy conquered popular interest (despite a distinct lack of critical acclaim). There was also a surge of interest in comic book characters, whether Spider-man or the X-Men, in whose films Patrick Stewart himself co-starred. It seemed less than relevant to care about Star Trek and its tired shenanigans.

It didn’t even matter that acclaimed screenwriter John Logan, who would soon pen both The Last Samurai and The Aviator, was two years removed from his involvement in the Oscar-winning Gladiator, had attempted to inject some new life into the concept. All fans saw was same-old, same-old. Nemesis was just another tired retread of Wrath of Khan, down to an apparently ho-hum death of a main character, the android Data, whose return was patently foreshadowed in the ridiculous subplot of a newly-discovered second “brother,” who happened to be an idiot.

I’m being purposely negative in my descriptions, not because I don’t personally like the movie, but because they represent the general opinion of an irredeemable failure, at least by most accounts. In fact, as you might have noted, Nemesis ranks fourth in my list of Star Trek films, behind only First Contact, last year’s Star Trek, and (yes), The Motion Picture. I admit to having unorthodox opinions. This is the penultimate entry in a series of articles that basically has something nice to say about every incarnation in the franchise, which is not a very common reaction.

Ironically, one of the elements I’ve already brought up could help redeem the irredeemable Nemesis for modern audiences, Tom Hardy. The actor basically disappeared after the film, and its failure contributed to a tailspin in his personal life, at least for a few years, but recently he’s been rallying, and finding some new success in the movies. I don’t say that you need to see Bronson in the same manner that I say you should give Nemesis another look, because Bronson is a movie more in the manic vein of A Clockwork Orange. Hardy portrays a notorious British prisoner whose extreme narcissus is exaggerated to comically theatrical lengths in the film. But you wouldn’t care about that, either, if Hardy hadn’t turned out so memorably in Christopher Nolan’s mind-blowing Inception this summer. There’s a lot of things that threaten to steal that show, but Hardy’s cool confidence is a leading contender. It’s almost enough to give his Shinzon a reprieve, perhaps.

And it wouldn’t just be for Hardy’s performance, either, because I believe Logan succeeds in his ambition to craft an epic story out of his villain, who is so much more than appearances, but rather a truly tragic figure who has as much to say about his own character as Picard, an element of the film that builds, as the past three Next Generation films have done before it, on the possibilities of the guest actor in a formidable cast, especially one who has been called to stand toe-to-toe with Stewart, as no one else has. It’s a tall order, especially when Ian McKellen was the last actor to do that, to fan and critical acclaim (notably in X2: X-Men United), but Hardy and Shinzon really do accomplish it.

Little-explored aspects of Picard are in the spotlight here, from the mythic rebellious streak of his youth (memorably explored previously in “Tapestry”) to his fallibility, affecting a deconstruction of the character, something that had never really been attempted before, with all the more dramatic power since all this occurs while he confronts a clone of himself from a time prior to his original assumption of a ship called Enterprise, which may be the most intriguing aspect of the story. Unlike Kirk, whose entire mature career is ably represented by the breadth of his filmed adventures, Picard was already well into his Starfleet exploits by the time we saw him for the first time. All we really got to know about him before this point is that he lost his real heart in a brawl with Nausicaans, he lost his best friend but retained an association with Jack Crusher’s widow, and had first encounter with the Ferengi. But he was apparently important enough even then to have warranted a Romulan plot to replace him with a clone they could manipulate to their own ends.

Which is exactly the fate Shinzon could have enjoyed, if those Romulans could ever formulate a coherent plan everyone could agree on, but there’s a reason why Romulans never managed to sustain a lot of galactic attention, and it had nothing to do with their latent Vulcan reserve. They simply weren’t good at staying on point (the exact opposite, as it happens, of Paramount and Rick Berman). So Shinzon becomes the victim of a government overturn, and is remanded to the custody of the lowly Remans, represented in the film by Ron Perlman, who would shortly return to cultural awareness as the star of the Hellboy movies. What’s ironic is that Shinzon’s story continues to diverge from Picard’s, since he becomes personally involved in the Dominion War (as fans had wished during Insurrection for their one-time favorite captain), the root of his later return to prominence, amassing military clout if little respect from his Romulan peers.

As Nemesis opens, Shinzon affects a coup in the Romulan Senate (the first visual cue for viewers looking for grandeur and finding the product lacking; contrast this scene with the Galactic Senate sequences in the otherwise maligned Phantom Menace), hoping to win by force respect and power for his adopted Reman brethren, a Napoleon overcompensating for his shortcomings. Hardy is surrounded not just by Perlman in most of his scenes, but by Dina Meyer (as Donatra, another formidable presence in the film, especially in contrast to Shinzon), Jude Ciccolelle, and briefly, Alan Dale, who in a few years would make a considerable presence on Lost. He and Jude had already made memorable impressions in the early run of 24.

Picard, meanwhile, is giving a toast to the newlyweds Riker and Troi (the big payoff to the unexpected chemistry Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis enjoyed during First Contact, with seeds planted for this occasion by Insurrection), the big sign of progress for the film, a bookend to Data finally receiving emotions in Generations. From there, it’s a collision course between the captain and his clone, which Shinzon is exceedingly eager to make, since he needs Picard’s blood to correct genetic issues from the cloning process and the subsequent, premature abandonment by those disappointing Romulans.

At this point, I’d probably like to emphasize that this is, in fact, a Romulan story, the first for a Star Trek film, even though Romulans had been a prominent fixture of the franchise from the very beginning. After a dominating run by Klingons through most of the preceding entries, and despite the failure of Nemesis to leave a favorable impression on audiences, it’s notable that Star Trek more or less continues the trend. In fact, if you didn’t know that Nemesis was a box office bomb, you might look at last year’s reboot as something of a sequel. Only J.J. Abrams and his brood, it seems, paid any attention to this lowly flick.

Anyway, as Picard gradually becomes aware of Shinzon’s implications, he’s given the challenge of matching wits with him. Shinzon seems to go out of his to appear untrustworthy, but what he really wants is to win Picard’s respect and trust, which is what their first true discussion together is all about. It’s here where our captain truly stumbles morally for the first time, failing to understand his clone’s sincerity, believing that all he has to do is convince Shinzon that he’ll give him what he wants, if only he’ll legitimately earn it. He fails to grasp Shinzon’s desperation, and fatally, clearly doesn’t do anymore than humor him. Everything else, every tragedy, is the direct result of this conversation.

Data, meanwhile, stumbles across B-4, an imperfect predecessor to himself, discovered by Shinzon and intended as bait to lure the noble Starfleet officers into a trap. Unlike the treacherous Lore (never actually referenced in the film, but doubtlessly intended to lurk in the back of the fan’s mind), B-4 is an obvious innocent, even moreso than Data himself, perhaps an allusion to the fact that Data himself, except for a subplot in Insurrection, hasn’t really been one for about fifteen years now (when he initially emerges in the holodeck, attempting to perfect “Pop Goes the Weasel”). B-4’s deficiencies seem like unnecessary attempts at humor to the cynical viewer, but they’re shorthand and contrast to Picard’s problem, how to confront a past that threatens to disrupt the present. It’s actually Data’s most fully-rounded arc in four films, one with a clear direction, much like Picard himself, and like the captain, a story with real dramatic consequence has tragic results that are, rather than undermined by an apparent escape hatch in his replacement by B-4, actually serves to complete the thought Shinzon couldn’t, that the path to the future is filled with purposeful struggle. When B-4 first manifests a connection to the memories that had been downloaded by his departed brother, it isn’t to suggest that he will become him, but that he now has the same potential his brother had been exploring all his life. What Shinzon wanted was the same kind of possibility Picard’s life embodied, the quintessential Star Trek quest for the next horizon.

You can see it on Picard’s face, both when he sees Shinzon dies in front of him, or when he watches Data sacrifice himself, that life isn’t easy, even when you seem to have everything going for you. Nemesis is an incredibly nuanced and powerful exploration of the things this cast had been attempting to do from the very start. It does feel a tad derivative at times, trying too hard to feel like a typical action movie, and while it probably succeeds better than any other Star Trek film until the one that follows it, that still doesn’t make it feel entirely natural. Director Stuart Baird undermines a lot of the film’s impact by displaying a consistent lack of connection with the material. For the final appearance of the Next Generation cast, the experience is helmed by someone who doesn’t understand the significance of characters like Guinan, putting in an insignificant appearance, or even Wesley Crusher, who is virtually cut from the movie entirely (you can still glimpse him at the wedding reception). Still, he does have the good sense to recognize the dramatic appeal of a cameo for Kate Mulgrew as Janeway, one of my favorite parts of the film.

Of all the Star Trek films, Nemesis most deserves a second look.

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