Months before Star Trek: Nemesis was released in theaters, I kept telling people that its box-office performance would be the true barometer to indicate the public's actual current interest — or disinterest — in the Star Trek franchise. With the sophomore season of Enterprise facing difficult times in the ratings and the holders of the franchise at an apparent loss in regard to the eroding viewer base, Nemesis represented the real test. It was a Next Generation film for a franchise whose second-generation resurgence was centered on the TNG cast's success. Would this release show that the interest was still there?
And then Nemesis bombed at the box office. The verdict, it would seem, was in.
Let's face it, folks: Star Trek has seen better days, and the glory days of its success may very well be in the past, never again to be recaptured. Furthermore, the film franchise may be over. In all certainty, the TNG franchise is finished; Patrick Stewart has gone on record saying he is done playing Captain Picard. Franchise head Rick Berman says he envisions another film of some kind someday, but I can't imagine a scenario where Paramount would want to make another TNG film, based on the dismal performance of this one.
Why was Nemesis a box-office failure? I can't say for sure, but it could be that Star Trek simply seems obsolete in the world of cinema today, where we have hugely successful, younger franchises like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and The Matrix. Releasing Nemesis in between the second Harry Potter release and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was putting it up against some serious competition. It did not survive.
Box-office numbers aside, Nemesis is a decidedly mixed bag, with some elements that work well and others that do not. I can see what they were going for here. Emotionally, they don't quite pull it off down the stretch, particularly with the lackluster ending. Technically, as an effects-driven hardware-and-battle movie, it's one of the better installments. Overall, I found it entertaining, but somehow lacking. Still, what I never understood was what seemed to me such an exceptionally negative critical and fan reception. This movie is no masterpiece, but it's not the train wreck some have made it out to be, and it's certainly better and more probing than the marshmallow-like Insurrection from four years ago. Perhaps the newer film franchises are simply raising the bar of our expectations. (Just look at The Matrix Reloaded; that's a franchise that makes Trek look seriously outmoded. But then, it's also a franchise whose latter two installments cost $300 million to make.)
It is perhaps a telling sign of the age of the Star Trek franchise that I went into the film more or less knowing what to expect and pretty confident that few, if any, of those expectations would be shattered. Star Trek these days, especially The Next Generation, is — let's face it — safe. We know what they're selling. The question is whether we're buying.
But I'm rambling, so I'll get on with it. Nemesis begins with a prologue coup d'etat on the Romulan Senate, in which most of the planet's leaders are wiped out with a lethal dose of something that turns them all to stone. Cut to the wedding of Riker and Troi, one of the film's genuine attempts at character development after the previous two TNG films were content to play like stand-alone episodes. It's these sort of scenes that should have emotional resonance. Alas, this one is too self-conscious, which made me feel self-conscious: It's hard to laugh at or be moved by forced material that comes across as vaguely unnatural. Picard's would-be snappy one-liners ("Mr. Data — shut up"), which show up occasionally throughout the movie, do not seem particularly in character. If there's one thing Nemesis reinforces, it's that the TNG cast never had the natural chemistry the TOS cast had. Humor is still a point of labor.
With the wedding out of the way, we move on to more sci-fi oriented concepts, as the Enterprise detects a positronic signature originating from the planet Kolaris III, which resides very near the Romulan Neutral Zone. On the planet surface they retrieve parts of a disassembled android that looks exactly like Data, buried in the desert sand. There's a chase sequence here involving a Starfleet-issued ground vehicle called the Argo — a futuristic dune buggy — and the desert's inhabitants. It's reasonably well executed as action, I suppose, but not all that inventive when you consider how Trinity can ride a motorcycle head-on into freeway traffic in The Matrix Reloaded.
Trying to make Trek look more cinematically contemporary, director Stuart Baird films the desert scene with that bleached washout look (plus filters of reddish brown); you'd think you were watching the desert footage of Three Kings (except that Three Kings was a great movie, whereas this is not — yes, I know; cheap shot).
The android turns out to be a precursor to Data named B-4, who is a ... shall we say, slower and less advanced version of Data. You'd think the Enterprise crew might've learned their lesson from Lore when it comes to assembling Data's mysterious siblings, but I guess not.
Around this time, Picard is contacted by Admiral Janeway at Starfleet Command, which dispatches the Enterprise to Romulus to open a dialog with their new leader, Praetor Shinzon (Tom Hardy), who has extended an invitation in the interests of a new peace. "We're sending you all the intelligence we have, but it's not much," Janeway says. You can say that again. Starfleet Intelligence apparently has no clue that the Romulan Senate was just recently murdered en masse; I can't imagine they'd enter a situation like that expecting a peaceful outcome.
Considering that sweeping Alpha Quadrant politics and a huge war were major elements of DS9's later seasons, Nemesis seems curiously out of touch (though no surprise here, since DS9 is the much-ignored Trek). After having been allies in that war a few years ago, the Romulans have once again become the Federation's major Cold War-like foe upon which galactic peace apparently hinges. I'm not suggesting this isn't possible, but the story doesn't even attempt to explain it. Not that I expected it to; the masses don't likely come to Star Trek movies to learn about its universe's political makeup. (One hopes they don't go to Star Wars movies for politics, either, considering the extreme banality of those last two movies' political material.) Also, following in the footsteps of the last movie, and also not at all a surprise here (though I still feel obligated to comment), Nemesis pretends Data's emotion chip never existed, and doesn't account for how Worf rejoined the crew of the Enterprise after DS9 had him packing his bags for the Klingon homeworld.
The new players in this interstellar game are the Remans, a race of laborers and cannon fodder in the Romulan Empire that live on the dark slave world of Remus. Shinzon grew up on Remus, and his mission in life became to free his people from their enslavement within the empire. Of course, no villain would stop with merely freeing his enslaved people, so after orchestrating the power play, Shinzon of course plans to take matters much further...
Shinzon commands the Extreme Warship Scimitar, a super-mean-looking predator that makes the Enterprise look like a toy. Shinzon also comes with a twist: He is not Reman but human, and furthermore, he's a clone of Picard who was engineered by a former Romulan government to replace Picard as a spy. When those plans were abandoned, Shinzon was banished to Remus. Still a child, he spent his life in the mines, growing up into a bitter megalomaniac, bent on staging an uprising. The invitation he has extended to the Enterprise is actually a trap, of course, not a peace offering.
There is a promising concept here, centering on the nature of Shinzon and Picard. Loyal readers will know I'm a sucker for tortured characters and the self-identity question, and that's what is at the philosophical center of Nemesis. The main question posed here is whether we truly have the power to make our choices, or whether our choices arise directly from our past experiences combined with some unknown predisposition. Shinzon has spent his life as a human among Remans, and he doesn't see himself as either Reman or quite human. He is the product of a hard and joyless life that has left him with the sole goal of escaping the confines of that life. But once he has escaped, then what? Can he go on to better things, and a life of peace? And the question posed on top of that is, would Picard, given the same set of circumstances as Shinzon, make the same series of choices?
It's an intriguing question that gives Picard pause. He sees a lot of his younger self in the young and tortured Shinzon, and he begins to wonder how he might have turned out had his own life been different. I think this is a relevant and interesting question. I've wondered myself how I might've turned out had my formative years been harder, or, for that matter, easier. Would I have been driven to work harder, or allowed myself to be lazier? Could I have gotten as far along in life, or would I have gone farther? Would a tougher life have created in me more ambition, or less? How about an easier life? What scars or experiences do we carry with us that allow or prohibit or compel us to act?
I guess the point here is that we all have a certain level of responsibility in controlling our destinies, regardless of our pasts. When Picard despairs over Shinzon's escalating brutality, Data reminds him that they are not the same person — although this becomes a bit too obvious after awhile: Obviously, Picard would not plunge the entire quadrant into war simply to "satisfy [his] personal demons." By making Shinzon into such an unyielding megalomaniac, the bigger point is somewhat lost among his standard-issue mega-villain excesses. (His first instinct is to follow the tired "go destroy Earth" sci-fi idea, which is too obvious and ups the threat into the land of foregone conclusions. Why does he automatically have to assume his best interests mean the Federation must be destroyed? Because he's the bad guy, naturally.)
Tom Hardy creates a reasonable villain who brings a respectable level of menace to the character — which is important when he's standing up against Patrick Stewart, who as an actor always has your attention. Shinzon has some memorable lines, as when he refers to himself as an echo of Picard, and promises that the onset of war will represent the "triumph of the echo over the voice." He also gets some of those obligatory attitude-heavy lines necessary for all movie villains. My favorite funny exchange, a somewhat low-key one, has to be this one:
Shinzon: "You may go."
Data as B-4: "Where?"
Shinzon: "Out of my sight."
(I guess the humor is in the delivery. For me, it was the biggest laugh in the movie.)
The good news is that the movie's philosophical center, the themes centering on Picard and Shinzon, mostly work. The bad news is that there are some other things in here that do not work, particularly within the flow of the plot.
Take, for example, the almost ridiculously convenient plot device that B-4 represents. There's a point, as the away team is finding pieces of B-4 in the Kolaris III desert, where Picard says, "This doesn't feel right." But that feeling is apparently dismissed immediately; it's as if finding a disassembled android in the middle of an alien desert is just business as usual. Kolaris III is within a stone's throw of Romulan space, and within literally moments of recovering B-4 comes the news that the Romulans want to open diplomatic talks. Suspicious? Hello? B-4 has been programmed, you see, by Shinzon to steal intelligence data from the Enterprise and report back to the Scimitar. It comes as a relief that the Enterprise crew figures this out and turns it against Shinzon, but the use of B-4 here by all parties is so full of fortuitous timing that everyone involved comes off looking silly before they can look clever.
Then there's the use of the Reman Viceroy (Ron Perlman in a wasted role), Shinzon's trusted right-hand man, who unfortunately never emerges as anything but a nebulous plot device. Remans, it would seem, have telepathic abilities, which allows Shinzon to invade Troi's mind while she and Riker are having sex. The point of this — beyond a cheap shock — is beyond me. We never learn what Shinzon hopes to gain by invading Troi's mind, short of, I guess, mental rape because he's a Bad Guy. This device "pays off" in a later scene (pulled from thin air) where Troi turns the tables to invade the Viceroy's mind as a desperate attempt for the Enterprise to track the cloaked Scimitar. This scene is laughable; director Stuart Baird shines a light directly on Troi's eyes — a hopelessly silly technique that drives the point so far over the top that it's impossible to take seriously.
Nemesis is more action-oriented than many previous Trek films, though the action isn't particularly fresh. The pacing and editing is fine, but the concepts are worn out. There are phaser shootouts in the corridors that might've seemed exciting ... had this been 1977. Having hordes of shooting Remans stand in for Imperial Storm Troopers is not much of a take on cinematic action in the year 2002. Similarly, the space battles rely a bit too much on the Trekkian staple that Voyager made officially unwatchable: scenes where sparks explode on the bridge and tactical officers urgently inform the captain that shields are down to X percent. I'm thinking "Shields down to X percent" is the line most in need of being banned from all future Trek-related scripts. Make it so.
The action I did enjoy mostly involves big ships shooting at each other and impressively flying past the camera in the vastness of space. Big starships and rumbling bass are still effective today, and the space battles — taking place in an area of space that has eye-pleasing wisps of green clouds — look great, and benefit from the latest in CGI and motion-control visuals. There's one jarring scene where the Enterprise is shot and a hole is punched right through the front of the bridge, and people get sucked into space and stuff. Neat. Maybe Starfleet should rethink putting the bridge right up there on top for all to see and shoot at.
And, of course, there's the movie's Centerpiece FX Sequence where the Enterprise rams the Scimitar in order to fulfill the movie's Mass Destruction Quotient. Such sequences are fun for those of us who need to satiate our appetite for imaginary visual chaos and Dolby Digital assaults (myself included). This collision happens at the same time as a scene where Riker fights the Viceroy below decks in hand-to-hand combat — a scene that seems to exist out of a desperate need to give both Riker and the Viceroy a reason for still being in the movie.
Nemesis, under Baird's direction, is one of the darker Trek films on record, in both tone and visual style. The lighting and art direction for the film paints deep shadows, particularly on the Scimitar, which has a huge, darkened bridge that looks like it could double as a concert hall. I liked the darkened tone, which is a nice change of pace after the overt brightness of Insurrection (the Trek movie with the most overstated title). Baird's visual style is one aspect of the movie that works. Meanwhile, Jerry Goldsmith turns in a memorable score that heightens the tension.
Unfortunately, knowing that Nemesis is almost certainly the end for TNG, I don't feel the film ends in success. It's often efficient on an action level and has some themes I appreciate, but the movie is ultimately unable to generate the emotions it needs to cap off this series. The ending tries to be ambiguous, and there are too many places where it looks like the writers were hedging their bets — as if wanting to say goodbye while at the same time hoping they wouldn't have to.
Watching the deleted scenes on the DVD and listening to the commentary track, I wonder if maybe too much was cut out. Some of the unused material might've helped this movie reach the destination it was looking for — though I can't be sure. The DVD materials indicate that earlier cuts of the film played up on the theme of the Enterprise crew breaking up and moving on — hammering home the fact that things were definitely going to be different. This sense is de-emphasized in the final cut in order to get the story moving along faster. For example, the information that Dr. Crusher is leaving the Enterprise is no longer in the movie at all. A scene where Picard and Data discuss issues of family is gone. These little bits and pieces might've signified the ending of an era, but without them, the era seems like it's on the fence as to whether or not it actually intended to end. Riker has been promoted to captain (at long last), and he and Troi are leaving the ship for the USS Titan, but that doesn't seem to say quite what needs to be said.
Instead, the movie puts all its eggs in the basket of Data's grand sacrifice at the end, which is a good idea in theory but — I'm sorry — in practice is simply not Star Trek II by any stretch of the imagination. Watching the end of Star Trek II, even though I've seen it at least half a dozen times, can still evoke an emotional response in me. Spock's sacrifice really had a dramatic impact that resonated from one end of the film to the other, in thematic and emotional terms. I can't say the same for Data's end here. It's heroic and selfless, but it is not particularly emotional nor ingrained in the fabric of the movie. The crew's small, intimate memorial scene is so muted that it comes across as emotionally vacant. This provides one of those rare occasions where I will argue that less is not more. Less here is actually less.
I also find it a bit of a cheat to give B-4 all of Data's memories, and imply that he may one day reclaim them. You can almost sense the calculation here: Kill off a beloved character, but leave the door very obviously open to bring him back, one way or another. It feels like using sci-fi loopholes to toy with the audience, rather than playing the emotions that have been dealt. Yes, Trek II left a similar door open, but it wasn't nearly as blatant about it; we could accept the emotions on their given terms, which made so much sense in the context of the movie.
It's sort of too bad, because Nemesis is not a bad film and in some ways is a passable one. The movie takes a while to get going, but benefits from the sort of talkiness that one has come to expect from TNG. Once it gets going, it moves along at a steady clip. The Picard/Shinzon conflict reveals some interesting nuances. But in the final analysis, this is an uneven picture, with some pieces of the plot that tend to clang to the floor, and an ending that falls short of the mark. The TNG cast is now probably officially retired, but it looks like they didn't quite get the curtain call one might've hoped.