When Star Trek: Generations was released in late 1994, Star Trek was at the height of its popularity. The Next Generation had wrapped its television run the previous May, still very highly rated. Deep Space Nine was on the air. Voyager was in production, less than two months from premiering. Sci-fi magazines were devoting half their issues to do season retrospectives of TNG and DS9. Trek was even on the cover of Time magazine.
It was the pop-cultural apex of Star Trek, and Generations was the punctuation mark for that moment, where Captain Kirk would famously meet Captain Picard. On opening weekend, there were sellout crowds. (There were no sellout crowds — or even close — a couple years ago for a Star Trek: Nemesis premiere.)
I was more in anticipation for Generations than any movie that year — a year that, ironically, would end up releasing what would become two of my (and probably many people's) all-time favorite films (Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption). Strange what a decade can do. Even stranger that it's actually been that long.
Not even the problems with Generations really detracted from the atmosphere that the film enjoyed during its release. The film itself is actually very ordinary — a hit-and-miss affair that does some things right and some things wrong. Maybe the best way to summarize it is that it gets an A for theoretical ambition but a C for actual execution. Sounds like my freshman year of college, also starting in 1994. The C part, anyway.
One thing you're forced to face with the opening sequence aboard the Enterprise-B is that bringing back original crew members — after a perfectly satisfactory sendoff at the end of Star Trek VI — is a double-edged sword. Sure, it sounds great in concept, but does it actually work beyond what it needs to do to set up the end of the movie? It's been said that the original intention was to also bring back Spock and McCoy, but because the actors said no, the screenwriters went with the trio of Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov. Does it service anyone but Kirk to abandon these characters barely a third of the way into the first act of the film?
The opening sequence — while, again, reasonable in concept — plays like something of a compromise. I don't know what it is about the TNG era of humor, but something about it in the movies always felt a little forced (not like the unforced nature in many of the TOS films), and here the TNG humor ailment seems to carry over to the TOS characters: As Kirk and Scotty trade one-liners, something about the proceedings feels vaguely frail.
The Enterprise-B was the only one of the Enterprises we hadn't seen in a story leading up to Generations, so it seems natural to bridge that Trek-history gap in a film that, in essence, is all about bridging generation gaps. Yes, Generations is without a doubt the literal torch-passing affair that it promised to be. It's just that it's not an especially satisfying experience on the whole. It's a bit of a mishmash.
A crisis forces the Enterprise-B, commanded by Captain Cameron Frye — I'm sorry, I mean Captain Harriman (Alan Ruck) — to mount a rescue mission of some El-Aurian refugees whose ships have become trapped in an energy ribbon and are minutes away from being destroyed. There are a couple good moments here, like when Kirk, who is only on board for reasons of publicity, can barely restrain himself from offering unsolicited advice; when Harriman finally gives up the captain's chair, Kirk sits down and relishes the moment, before realizing that he should relinquish the chair back to Harriman. Alas, there's too much meaningless technobabble involving the ribbon and it's gravimetric (or whatever) forces; you can see already that this is a TNG production as opposed to a TOS production.
In the course of the rescue attempt, the Enterprise-B is damaged, and Kirk — inside one of the damaged areas — is swept out into space and presumably killed. This prologue, while necessary and functional and kind of entertaining, is not much more than that. It's a stage-setter that obviously will come up later. The fact that Guinan shows up in this prologue provides an obvious clue (to regular TNG viewers, anyway) that this is part of a master plan.
Move forward 78 years, where Worf is being promoted in the holodeck of the Enterprise-D. The setting is a sailboat at sea — named Enterprise, of course — and it's one of those sequences (albeit one that's perhaps too earnest) that lends more cinematic appeal to the proceedings by filming on location and drawing the nautical parallels that always characterized the TOS films.
Interestingly, one of the inherent drawbacks of essentially relaunching the show as a film series is that the screenwriters have to bring non-followers up to speed. Consider the scene after Worf falls into the water, where Data expresses his confusion to Geordi about what is and isn't funny. This scene would not have to be explained to us on the TV series, and here seems forced upon the characters, as if to say, "Okay, now we're going to bring all you unfamiliar audience members up to speed!"
One thing Generations gets right is the scope of its storytelling. Unlike Insurrection, for example, which felt like just another routine TNG episode, the events of Generations take on much more significance than you would see in a typical TV episode. Promoting Worf, giving Data emotions, killing Picard's brother and nephew, killing the Duras sisters, blowing up and crashing the Enterprise, wiping out entire solar systems — these are the kinds of bigger things that should happen in a movie adapted from a TV series.
Anyway, let's start with Data. In a character development that took a certain amount of guts, the producers finally decide to let him install the emotion chip that had been sitting on his shelf for the past year. (Never mind that the emotion chip would be negated two films later; in this movie it was a good idea.) It's a milestone for the character, and filled with promise. Unfortunately, the writers don't do very much with it, especially early on, in scenes where Data laughs incessantly until everyone else (including the audience) starts to get annoyed. I'll admit that I laughed at some of this goofiness (to this day I still quote, "I cannot help myself!" in situations that warrant that punch line), but there just isn't much depth to the overall arc. As I said before, A for effort, C for execution.
Picard's arc is also a good one in theory, touching on the whole aging/mortality theme that was made so memorable in Star Trek II. In practice, however, it's not all that great. I wasn't much moved by the deaths of Picard's brother Robert and nephew Rene, and while Picard has every reason to grieve, I've never been a fan of the crying scene where Picard breaks down. (Indeed, it's a scene that I have mocked in the past.) Patrick Stewart is a fine actor, no doubt, but there's something about this scene that just doesn't work. I think, in a way, we simply don't want to see the captain of the Enterprise sitting in the dark, crying.
Having the main storylines follow mainly Picard and Data would become the template for the rest of the film series. The remaining characters are supporting players in the tradition of TNG as a TV series. That's fine; it's a big cast and we need a clear focus on a couple storylines.
The movie's villain, Dr. Tolian Soran (Malcolm McDowell), a 300-year-old El-Aurian, is set up in the movie's prologue on the Enterprise-B and is then found by the Enterprise-D crew in the wreckage of the Amargosa observatory, which was attacked by Romulans. Here the movie throws up a smokescreen to give the plot more "plot"; the Romulans are in fact irrelevant to the movie.
Soran is not one of the Trek films' best villains, but he's also not one of the worst. He's not evil so much as obsessed and unbending in his goals (even if it means destroying entire planets and their populations as a side effect, which I guess qualifies as an evil byproduct). McDowell is good at dispensing ominous lines as personal philosophies, such as, "They say time is the fire in which we burn," which points toward his quest against his mortality. Later, on the planet surface, Picard and Soran will share some worthwhile dialog about mortality. "If there's one constant in the universe," Soran says, "it's death."
The central plot device revolves around Soran's obsession with the Nexus, the aforementioned energy ribbon, in which "time has no meaning." Soran has allied himself with Lursa (Barbara March) and B'Etor (Gwynyth Walsh) in a scheme that would give the two Duras sisters a powerful weapon and give Soran the opportunity to get back into the Nexus, which Guinan describes as a place of eternal bliss. As a sci-fi concept, the Nexus provides both the film's biggest success and worst failure. I'll explain.
It's a success in that I really liked the idea of an energy ribbon traveling through space (which looks cool) and Soran trying to alter its course using the shock waves from imploded stars. This is something that is portrayed plausibly, is interesting, and fairly original.
The best scene in the movie is the Data/Picard scene in stellar cartography, which works as plot advancement, character development, and convincing science. The analysis of all the data and evidence is intriguing and believable, demonstrated both visually and with dialog. The cartography graphics are impressive and yet straightforward. They convey what's going on clearly and with visual flair; this looks like what a futuristic stellar cartography room might actually look like. Meanwhile in this scene, Data's struggle with his emotions — and Picard's tough-love approach to the situation — is good dramatically. The balance of all these plot and character elements is right on, acted and directed with precision.
Of course, in terms of scale and perspective, the movement of the Nexus is ludicrous. It must be traveling much faster than light in order to get from one solar system to the next in such a short amount of time, and yet when it gets to the planet, it slows waaaaaaay down to subsonic atmospheric speeds. Obviously, this is necessary for logistic and dramatic reasons for scenes involving the Nexus' approach. But I never understood the rules for how you can or can't get inside the thing. (It destroys ships and yet doesn't crumble a mountaintop or rip your body apart?)
Soran's plan is to implode the Veridian star so that the Nexus will shift course to the surface of the planet Veridian III, where he will be waiting. The resulting shock wave, unfortunately, will also destroy all the Veridian planets, including Veridian IV, which has a population of 230 million. Soran isn't much concerned about that. The Enterprise, obviously, must stop him. This leads to the requisite battle sequence with the Klingons, in which Lursa and B'Etor die in a scene that wants to be as satisfying as when Chang got blown up at the end of Star Trek VI, but no such luck.
From an action standpoint, the film tops out with the Enterprise's evacuation to the saucer section and the separation of the ship — half of which explodes, and the other half crashing on the planet's surface. During the evacuation, I always laugh and shake my head at the shot of the girl who loses her teddy bear; oh, come on. (It's further evidence that TNG's concept of civilians on starships that routinely go into battle is slightly silly.) But the crash sequence is long, loud, intense, and exciting. If you're going to blow up and crash a starship, this is the way to do it. On top of that is the destruction of the planet itself, which is a chilling image. This is some pretty good stuff, and signifies the film's visceral high point.
But then things start to misfire. Picard is pulled into the Nexus, leading to the film's most tedious sequence, in which everything about the plot is explained to us — often in ways we're unwilling to believe.
For starters, I just didn't much care for the overly idyllic Christmas setting with all those cloying kids. I see what they were going for here, but on an entertainment level, this is the sort of scene that the chapter skip on a DVD player was invented for.
Then there's the whole business with Guinan's "echo" in the Nexus, who explains to Picard (and us) how the Nexus works. How you can go anywhere, any time. In this case, Picard can go back and save 230 million lives if that's where/when he wants to go. (Apparently, the Nexus doesn't have the same effect on humans as El-Aurians; Guinan — the real one, that is — earlier told Picard that once he was in the Nexus he absolutely wouldn't want to leave, but that's not at all the way it ends up working here.)
The problem with the Nexus is that it can do whatever the plot requires and therefore is nothing more than a fantasy device that is too consciously driving the plot where it must go. Then we find ourselves asking: Why, if Picard can go anywhere, does he choose to go back in time only a few minutes instead of going back further and simply throwing Soran in a cell until the Nexus has passed?
There are contrivances in most movies. A good contrivance is one you aren't aware of or thinking about; a bad contrivance is one whose rules and loopholes clang loudly to the floor and provide a distraction from the story. This is of the latter variety.
So, Picard decides to recruit Kirk, who was sucked into the Nexus at the beginning of the movie. The resulting scenes are reasonable but somewhat anticlimactic. Picard must convince Kirk to leave the Nexus, there's some dialog about duty and making a difference, the performances are relaxed and pleasant, and there are scenes of horseback riding (which frankly strikes me more as a benefit for William Shatner than the movie).
The final act, in which Kirk and Picard go back to stop Soran, is workable but probably not what most people had in mind when they heard that Kirk was going to meet Picard in a Star Trek movie. There's plenty of action and cliché going on here, and it's always odd to see the conflict of a Star Trek film whittled down to three guys in a fight on a steel bridge in a desert. Personally, I prefer space battles. Kirk's death in this process is merely adequate (some would argue that it's less than adequate). If the movie is asking me to be moved by the passing of a legend and the passing of the torch — well let's just say that I'm glad they filmed it happening, and it was pleasant enough to watch, but I wasn't all that riveted by it.
As a production, the film is solid, but finds itself in an odd transitional phase. It was shot on all the original TV sets with only minor modifications (reportedly there were only 10 days between the last day of shooting on series finale "All Good Things" and the first day of shooting on Generations). The film employed one of its TV directors, David Carson, in his first direction of a feature film. New uniforms, originally redesigned specifically for the film, were scrapped, and instead the cast switched back and forth between the TNG uniforms and the DS9-style uniforms, something some viewers found confusing.
The most dramatic changes were in the special effects (which were naturally amped up to suit the story and the big screen) and the improvements in the lighting of the existing sets (the bridge of the Enterprise-D never looked better).
Not so dramatic is Dennis McCarthy's adequate but underwhelming score, which sometimes feels too restrained, like a TV score. In particular, the main theme lacks oomph (and features too many similarities to the DS9 theme) and feels like a major step backward after Cliff Eidelman's memorable Star Trek VI theme.
The special edition DVD contains a commentary track by screenwriters Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga. It must be one the best commentary tracks yet recorded on a Star Trek DVD. Moore and Braga's comments lend great insight to the strengths and weaknesses of the storyline, in detail and with surprising forthrightness. I was nodding in agreement with their assessment of many aspects of the film. It's the sort of incisive look that has especially benefited from a decade of distance. They can critique the movie objectively.
I don't dislike Generations (it has several good scenes and generally the right feel for what TNG was all about), but it doesn't completely satisfy me, either. It serves its purpose in fulfilling all the franchise requirements that were expected of a passing-the-torch story. It's just that it doesn't fulfill all those requirements particularly well.
Picard says at the end, "What we leave behind is not as important as how we've lived." Honestly, I'm not sure what that's really supposed to mean; it's one of those vague philosophical lines that would be more enlightening if the thematic content of the movie were stronger overall. But the film itself doesn't have much to say; it's more about itself and what happens. On those terms, it's a pretty okay movie.