Nutshell: Entertaining but thin.
Two years ago, First Contact set a very respectable new standard for the Star Trek film franchise. It maintained the perfect balance of everything Trek cinema should, in my view, have: action, humor, neat sci-fi technical aspects, a story with imagination and wonder, and an overall sense of insight regarding what Star Trek is about. At the same time, it was approachable as good science fiction, so even a non-Trekker would probably find it well worth the time.
Insurrection, on the other hand, is more of a Hollywood comfort film. Omnipresent in the movie is the sense that everyone involved was so intent on having fun while making it that they could barely extend themselves far enough to tell a story bearing any consequence.
Don't get me wrong; there's a lot that works in Insurrection. But overall I couldn't escape the feeling that I was watching actors who were trying very hard to deliver lighthearted lines with the underlying attitude of, "Oh, but this is all just fluff and fun—feel good about it!" than a genuine attempt to say much new about their characters or the state of the Federation or Star Trek universe.
The plot involves a science-fiction device that's older than science fiction itself: A Search for the Fountain of Youth. The fountain might lie within the planet of the Ba'ku, a peaceful non-technological people who, as the movie opens, are being watched by Starfleet. Is it a prelude to first contact, or something more insidious? Starfleet high-ups talk ominously.
The plot thickens: Suddenly, Data comes bursting onto the scene wearing a suit that makes him invisible to the naked eye. (Pretty neat.) Having been damaged, he's malfunctioning and out of control. He turns his phaser on the hidden Starfleet watching post, making it visible to the nearby Ba'ku. The issue involving the Ba'ku is forced when Picard is brought to the planet to disable and retrieve Data, who is operating on "conscience" alone: Data knows there's something morally wrong with the Starfleet plan for the Ba'ku, but he has no mental process for addressing it. What's Starfleet's unusual interest in this planet—located in a turbulent and unstable area of space known as the "Briar Patch"—and what is the motivation behind the Son'a, the race with which Starfleet has allied itself while investigating this world?
Who are the Son'a? Well, for one, they scream "BAD GUYS" in capital letters. They speak in gruff, stern voices and wear ominous-looking hoods. (How does a hood look ominous? I dunno; it just does.) And they look as if they've had skin grafts on their faces just a few hours ago—probably because they have; on more than one occasion in the movie, we see them receiving grafts while lying down under a device that literally stretches their faces to make the new skin fit better.
Once the Enterprise arrives on the scene, Picard, along with Worf (whose presence on the Enterprise is so contrived this time around that we aren't even allowed to hear most of the throwaway lines explaining it), retrieve Data in an action scene combining music, singing, special effects, and goofy comedy in a somewhat unlikely yet effective way that sets the tone for the film: light, funny, relatively inconsequential, fairly diverting.
With Data's memory restored, a quiet investigation of the Ba'ku village leads Picard to uncover the planet's mystery. A Ba'ku woman named Anij (Donna Murphy) gives Picard the brief tour and history of their people. As it happens, the Ba'ku are not as technologically primitive as they appear; they were warp-capable space travelers at one point, but a small subset of their civilization abandoned the problems of technology in favor of a simpler life in this village. Picard becomes more suspicious of the situation when he and Data discover a cloaked ship resting in a lake not far from the Ba'ku village. The ship is equipped with a massive holographic grid, purpose unknown. Eventually, Anij levels with Picard: The Ba'ku do not age on this planet. No one does.
It's not long before the brass have to come clean with Picard: Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe), on orders from the Federation Council, has made a deal with the Son'a to relocate the Ba'ku to another planet, using a holographic simulation on the specially designed ship as a way of transporting them without their knowledge and therefore, as what would be the cause for objection, without their consent. The Federation wants to study the world because of its properties that slow or halt aging, and they've made a deal with the Son'a because only they have the technology that will allow Starfleet to harvest any permanent scientific advances from the planet's mysterious properties. Unfortunately, this will leave the planet uninhabitable. Starfleet has looked at other alternatives, Dougherty tells Picard, but this is the only option.
Picard calls the action an outright theft of a world. He will have nothing to do with it and intends to argue the matter with the council. Problem is, doing so would render the issue moot; by the time the council hears what he has to say the Ba'ku will be relocated (which could potentially have serious consequences to their survival) and the planet will be all but destroyed.
The morality question is the film's most interesting element: At what point do the ends justify the means? Is research of a phenomenon that could literally be a fountain of youth benefiting billions of people worth sacrificing one's principles? After all, Dougherty argues, it's only 600 people. But how many people, Picard responds, does it take before it becomes wrong?
As interesting as the moral question is, the film doesn't develop it nearly as far as it could've and should've. The film's titular "insurrection" comes when Picard and crew decide to take up arms ("Lock and load," Data says, obviously unaware he's been reprogrammed as a sound bite for Paramount Studios) and defend the Ba'ku from being forcefully removed from the planet. Being inside the Briar Patch, with complications arising from the intervention of the Son'a and a host of other mitigating factors, the Enterprise crew's actions comprise not so much an insurrection as a minor resistance against an adversary that becomes completely severed from the rest of the Federation's knowledge and control (though I must admit that Star Trek: Isolated Skirmish probably wouldn't have been a very good movie title). Picard isn't taking a stand against the Federation; he's taking a stand against Dougherty, whose judgment and actions clearly become suspect as the film progresses, thanks to the presence of Son'a leader Ru'afo (F. Murray Abraham) whose personal interest in the matter is neither selfless nor subtle.
Particularly since Ru'afo changes the master plan whenever he damn well pleases—deciding to remove the Ba'ku from the planet by force once Picard intervenes—the moral ambiguity dissipates rather quickly, turning the conflict into an entertaining but routine example of the Enterprise crew versus the bad guys. Admiral Dougherty just gets stuck on the wrong team.
That's a shame, because a real "insurrection" could've been very interesting—something that might've actually challenged the moral compass of the Federation. I liked the idea of Picard putting his career on the line to defend these people, but if two-thirds into the film it becomes clear that Picard's actions will ultimately be unquestionably heralded as the Right Thing by the Federation Council, it seems a little too much like the Easy Way Out. The risk to Picard's career isn't real because he was never in any real danger of facing any consequences.
The "battle for paradise," as the taglines put it, works through a familiar two-tiered plot structure. On one level is Picard's planet-bound defiance, as he leads the Ba'ku from their village into the rocky area terrain where they can hide from flying Son'a "tagging" devices, which tag people with small transmitters that beam them into a Son'a ship's holding cell.
On the other level is Riker in command of the Enterprise, which is pursued by Son'a ships, leading to the entertaining requisite battle sequences involving technobabble and gas particles that ignite and explode, thanks to the volatile properties of the Briar Patch. The space battles between the Enterprise and the Son'a ships (which look really cool, by the way) are fun in their cavalier sense, including a line where Riker actually says, "We aren't running from these bastards anymore!" and then uses a joystick to manually take control of the helm. Meanwhile, Geordi is ejecting the warp core as a necessary defensive measure, and when the Son'a regroup for another assault, Geordi gets the priceless opportunity to say, "We're fresh out of warp cores!" I liked the departure from the TNG battle standard (this turns back the clock to Star Trek II battle attitudes), although the cavalier sense also supports my argument that the film panders to a mass-market audience.
Of course, if you want mass-market pandering attitudes, you don't have to look much further than the humor undercurrent. The tone of Insurrection is very different from First Contact (and very different from its own advertising campaign), and I have no problem whatsoever with that. Star Trek has always been diverse in story theme and approach. The problem with this approach, however, is that Insurrection has a tendency at times to beat the audience over the head with the sentiment.
Natural humor is one thing; obligatory forays into humor are another. Insurrection has both, but it seems there's more of the latter than the former.
Example: "Have you noticed your boobs starting to firm up?" Beverly asks Deanna in one scene, obviously amazed at the wonderful benefits of a Fountain of Youth. Data overhears. Then he walks a few feet away and repeats what he has overheard to an innocent bystander. Funny? Somewhat so, if for the wrong reason—the I'm-surprised-they-stooped-to-such-silliness reason. There's plenty of that sort of thing in Insurrection. Worf is detoured into the film mostly so he can be on the receiving end of jokes involving pimples and the nature of Klingon puberty. (I suppose that's better than Gates McFadden's character, though; for the third movie in a row, Crusher is reduced to a cog in the wheel of the plot and given little to do.)
I have nothing against Trek humor, but I enjoy it more when it comes naturally. Star Trek IV's humor was somewhat understated, and grew naturally from the characters as we knew them. Insurrection, however, goes on fairly large detours of circumstance to arrive at goofy situational humor, and comes off as more forced as a result. But some of it is fun.
And concerning matters of romance ... it's something of a mixed bag, too. The Riker/Troi thing is something that's obviously been in the character histories for a long time, and I particularly liked the amusing issue concerning Riker's beard. But this is the sort of thing that worked better in television series format, where one could get an update every few weeks. Coming in the third TNG film, it seems out of the blue, and I have to ask if it's worth the time given how rarely we see the cast these days. It's exactly the sort of thing that makes Insurrection more difficult for the non-Trekker to understand; they aren't in on the joke. In film format, I'd rather see a solid story than a bunch of detours into past elements left unresolved.
Picard's gradual affections for Anij make more sense in story terms, and the chemistry between Patrick Stewart and Donna Murphy is always right there on the edge of being powerful ... yet it doesn't quite get there. Anij has an ability to slow down time, and she shares this experience with Picard, but in the flurry of the plot the romance almost feels like an afterthought.
The other subplot involves Data's friendship with the young Ba'ku boy, Artim (Michael Welch). Artim initially fears Data as an artificial being, as he was raised without an understanding of technology, but a friendship begins to develop, especially after the boy's father, Sojef (Daniel Hugh-Kelly), is tagged and beamed away to the Son'a ship. This subplot is amiable, but not very useful in terms of Data's quest for humanity. We've been here, and done this, haven't we? There's also the whole issue of Data's emotion chip, which now apparently can be removed on a whim. My question to the producers of the TNG film series: Do you want Data to have emotions or not? Whatever the case, it's a waste to simply have Data in a state of non-growth. The dialog here between the android and the kid at times seems to regress Data back to mid-run of the television series—at the very least pre-Generations. There are only so many opportunities for Data these days; wasting him like this is a shame.
Overall, the guest cast is entertaining, but, again, thin. They certainly cast these roles perfectly, and the guest actors did a great job with what they were given. Unfortunately, they simply weren't supplied with much substance.
Anthony Zerbe is perfect as Admiral Dougherty, a figure of bureaucracy that finds himself on the wrong side, comes to his senses too late, and pays the price for it. He gets the movie's best death scene when Ru'afo knocks him around and then shoves him into one of the face-stretching machines and face-stretches him to death. Fine and good, but there isn't much subtlety or depth to Dougherty concerning his motives and actions. His about-face once the situation runs out of control is nothing short of obvious, and the second he went into a room alone to confront Ru'afo, I said to myself, "Welp, he's gonna die."
As a villain, Ru'afo is essentially a thug. He isn't coolly bitter like Malcolm McDowell in Generations, and he isn't manipulative or mysterious like the Borg Queen in First Contact. He's an intimidating brute short on patience and high on repressed rage, and he doesn't hesitate to throw an admiral around a room when he gets ticked off.
It's almost as if a conscious decision were made in the pre-production stage that Ru'afo would be a return to the scenery-chewing comic-book villains like Khan or Kruge (which is not to slight Khan at all, because his style and dialog as such was unforgettable). The problem is, Michael Piller's script doesn't give Ru'afo much in terms of good dialog to flesh out the character. Lines like "If Picard or any of his people interfere, eliminate them" seem to emanate from the comic-book realm.
But even if Ru'afo is a one-note thug, he's a good one-note thug. F. Murray Abraham, not surprisingly, brings a lot to a relatively underwritten villain, with an explosive anger and a directness that sells the intimidation well. Abraham has an urgency that transcends the part, making Ru'afo teeter on the edge of obsession and bitter fury. When Abraham says something like "eliminate them," it's still enjoyable on a sort of cheesy theatrical level.
Ru'afo's motives aren't very nice. Perhaps that's an understatement. Turns out the Son'a and Ba'ku are really the same race. The Son'a had long ago been expelled from the planet following an attempt to revolt against the Ba'ku's non-technological ideology. Now the Son'a want the planet back (so they can harvest its life-rejuvenating properties), and Ru'afo will do whatever it takes to get what he wants. The Federation's interest in the Ba'ku planet had unwittingly found its way into the middle of a blood feud.
I did appreciate that there's subtlety to be found in Ru'afo's number two, Gallatin (Gregg Henry). He was also part of the original revolt against the Ba'ku, but it becomes clear that all the killings Ru'afo is about to commit to take the planet back is something eating away at Gallatin's conscience. With time ticking down, Picard clues in on this, and, in a scene of extreme swiftness yet surprising urgency (a Patrick Stewart performance can bring urgency to about any situation) Picard talks Gallatin into listening to his conscience and doing the right thing.
This leads to a series of events that nearly defies synopsis, as Picard somehow beams Ru'afo and his crew onto the holographic-illusion ship to trick Ru'afo into thinking he is on board his own ship. Thus, when he thinks he's activating the "metaphasic injector" (the device that will harvest the fountain of youth and poison the planet), he is actually only flipping a dummy switch, thereby buying Picard and his crew time to foil the plan. Jonathan Frakes, who brought great clarity to First Contact, does his best in directing this confusion, but it somewhat strains credibility. It makes more sense than it probably should, but I still felt the symptoms of several double-takes.
Ru'afo figures out what's going on and beams himself onto the injector to manually start it, leading Picard to beam over to stop him in The Final Showdown™.
Like most everything else in the movie, the special effects are entertaining and move the story along. But they're not breathtaking—certainly nothing that connects the visual with the visceral like, say, the opening shot of First Contact. The invisible suits comprised a reasonably interesting action scene. And there's the "palm pet," which was cute but hardly essential. Then there are plenty of flying tag robots, which provide a series of watchable though not exactly riveting action scenes. And the decent holographic deceptions. Oh, yes, and Anij's ability to slow down time until we can see the wing flapping on a hummingbird—one of few visual effects that exists for its emotional content rather than spectacle.
But most of the big special effects are about blowing things up. Case in point: this final showdown, which comes complete with a Movie Bomb, which naturally comes equipped with a digital readout that counts down while beeping, while Picard and Ru'afo shoot at each other inside the metaphasic injector—a huge device with awesome-looking space sails on the outside and plenty of open space (conducive for a shooting gallery) on the inside.
Original villain death scenes are hard to come by these days, but Ru'afo's death is another one of those instances where we're supposed to cheer when Picard is beamed out of the exploding injector at the Last Possible Moment, while Ru'afo gets blowed up real good. This is Hollywood moviemaking all the way, lacking imagination and instead going with the safe bet.
In a way, Ru'afo's explosive demise perfectly sums up my feelings of Insurrection. Did I enjoy watching him blow up? Sure. Was there much thought or ironic insight required to come to the conclusion that Ru'afo must be blown up? Not a chance. Did I want something more? Yep.
The movie is entertaining in a superficial way. I sort of liked Insurrection. But I also felt kind of disappointed afterward. Considering TNG movies only happen once every two (or more, in the future) years, it seems to me that more should be done with a film than to make it a glorified episode where the ship glides in, solves the problem, and glides out—end of story. What's lacking are the lingering questions. A fountain of youth is something that would change the perception of the entire Federation. Isn't that worth examining? Having one admiral (who dies) as the sole Federation representative for eternal youth is simply not enough, and watching the Enterprise fly away from what could be the Greatest Discovery Ever seems a little simplistic.
The bottom line is simple: The film is a good diversion. But you might want to be sure your brain is in the "off" position before, during, and after viewing.
Upcoming: Assuming there will be another TNG feature, I'm of the opinion they should wait more than two years for the next one. As much as I like a Trek movie, I'd much rather see them as "event" movies, rather than getting in the habit of releasing them so frequently that the receiving attitude is one of "Another Trek movie ... ALREADY?"