06 June 2013

THESE ARE THE VOYAGES: MY LIFE IS MEANINGLESS AS LONG AS YOU'RE STILL ALIVE

Star Trek: Nemesis was built, more or less explicitly, to be the final story to feature the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, trumpeting its overbaked finale-ness in everything from the first scene (excluding a prologue) to the climactic death of a main character which, in best mainstream sci-fi tradition, is implied near the end to maybe be not quite so permanent as all that. It is big and imposing and self-consciously epic, designed to bid farewell to these characters in a moment of unbelievable, operatic grandeur. It also feels, unmistakably, like Paramount and everybody involved was trying to get through it as fast as possible, dumping the series in an alley to let the rats gnaw at the body. One cannot do better to suggest the esteem in which it was held than to quickly analyse its December, 2002, release date, while Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Die Another Day were still fresh and vital, and just one week before The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers dropped. Because if there are any franchises with absolutely no overlap in their natural audience, it's Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings.

Anyway, all this suggests to a certain degree Paramount's disinterest in doing much with Nemesis beside sweeping it under the rug, but the really galling thing is that even in its teeny window of opportunity, it was only the #2 film at the U.S. box office in its opening weekend, behind Maid in Manhattan. Thus, instead of giving the second generation of Star Trek adventurers a beautiful send-off, Nemesis buried them under a pile of rubble, in the process killing of the franchise almost completely (the perpetually under-performing TV series Enterprise was able to hang on a couple more years), rendering the very brand name toxic until J.J. Abrams came along in 2009 and made his Star Trek broadly successful largely by transforming it into Star Wars with different terminology.

I'm no fan of the Abrams film, either as a cinephile or a former Trekkie, but by God, Nemesis really is the kind of all-encompassing, soul-despairing bad that makes the idea of junking a 43-year continuity beloved with rare ferocity by its fans and starting entirely fresh seem entirely reasonable and judicious. There's almost nothing right with the whole damn movie, which is full of lead-footed fan service executed by a director who was avowedly not a fan, and a villain who couldn't be more obviously cobbled together out of executive notes. The nicest thing I can say about it is that, in two very key ways, it's a massive improvement over Star Trek: Insurrection, from four years prior (a gap that was, in and of itself, a major part of the reason that Nemesis ended up feeling like such a trivial footnote): the computer-generated visual effects are vastly improved, with only a few scattered shots that clearly show their age, and there's a stunning action setpiece, one of the all-time best space battles in any iteration of Star Trek, right alongside Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and one of the very few truly great space action sequences in the age of readily-available CGI. Starships flail around in all three dimensions; and in the indisputably coolest moment of space combat in all Star Trek, the Enterprise rams another vessel in lovingly-rendered metallic carnage. That's nestled alongside quite a few poor action sequences, mind you, but as ill-suited as the Next Generation cast was to anything resembling the swashbuckling norm of most sci-fi action films, one top-notch battle scene (running almost to 20 minutes!) is better than nothing. And happily, we have plenty of evidence for that nothing in the form of Insurrection and Star Trek: Generations.

Oh, and Jerry Goldsmith's score is pretty fine, with an interesting motivistic orchestration for the Romulans on synthesizer, rather than a specific musical theme. Not at all his best work in the franchise, but big enough to carry the action and sonically intriguing.

I really want to stress, though: that's everything the movie has to offer. And it comes after more than an hours of storytelling so dumb and hyperactive as to very nearly give Star Trek V: The Final Frontier a run for its money as the most ludicrous of all the series' big screen adventures. The prologue is fine, though a little bit inside-baseball: if you don't know who the Romulans are, prepare to be thoroughly confused. Anyway, it's only there to set the mood of resolutely, joy-starved darkness that will occupy the next two hours of the viewer's life (with literally not one single over gag, this is easily the least funny movie of all twelve: less funny even than the po-faced Star Trek: The Motion Picture), including what remains the most disturbing death sequence in the Star Trek universe.

After that, the film face-plants, and never entirely recovers, over a scene that serves absolutely no function other than to demonstrate how definitively this is meant to be the end of the line, in a wedding between William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), crew heads of the U.S.S. Enterprise-E. It's meant to be all sorts of nice things: a moving character moment, a nice bit of closure for a storyline that the television series had largely abandoned by the middle of its seven-season run, a chance to gather together a bunch of characters we like (and also Wil Wheaton's despicable Wesley Crusher, reduced in the final cut to a non-speaking cameo) in one celebratory moment. Because given how grim the movie is going to turn, there's not going to be any better chance to celebrate.

All it really does, though, is lard the film up right at the start with a drawn-out sequence that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the narrative, and feels so pointedly insincere in its execution that any emotional attachment even the most devoted fanboy could feel to this moment must be severely strained (incidentally, it's the scene that caused this particular devoted fanboy to turn in his Trekkie card: "Wow, this is how we're starting?" I remember asking myself on that cold December night. "Fuck this"). Insincerity will remain a huge problem for the film: the script by John Logan (from a story he co-wrote with series guardian Rick Berman and co-star Brent Spiner) trades heavily on our pre-established investment in the characters (to an impressive degree, really, given Logan's complete lack of previous involvement with the franchise), while the direction by the top-notch action editor Stuart Baird - making the third and final film of rather anemic directorial career - betrays a constant, obvious confusion as to what is interesting about each character or why we like them: it's surely no accident that the film's few bright spots are when Baird can stop trying mash together people that he manifestly doesn't care about, and can instead do the same thing with starships.

When the plot actually kicks in (on the wings of a deeply frivolous cameo from Star Trek: Voyager's Kate Mulgrew), the film shifts into a mode of outright cliché from which it will never emerge. The Federation's greatest enemy has made overtures of peace, and only the great Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) can possibly carry off the mission with the necessary tact and caution. Only, it turns out that this is secretly a trap by a madman who wants to destroy Earth and free the Romulan slave-race called the Remans (there is no defensible excuse for that name), and now only the great Picard can possibly save humankind from a technobabble MacGuffin. I glossed over a lot in the middle that is pretty arbitrary and even more stupid, but since it is the core of the reason why Nemesis is neither good cinema nor good Star Trek, I shall now fill in the gap.

There's an A-plot and a B-plot, naturally enough revolving around Picard and Data (Brent Spiner), because the hard work done during the series run to flesh out five other characters had not as yet informed any of the TNG features; at least Nemesis manages to trump its three siblings by giving Riker, Troi, and Worf (Michael Dorn) anything at all to do, though Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) is downgraded from Insurrection and Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) ends up going 0-for-4. And these A- and B-plots comment on each other, in a dumbfoundingly obvious way that Logan spells out in little words near the end, in case we're too stupid to breathe. Basically, both Picard and Data have to deal with doubles: in Data's case, because of an android found on a desert planet, quaintly named B-4, who looks precisely identical to him, but is much stupider; in Picard's case, because the Romulan government has been taken over by an enslaved clone of himself named Shinzon (Tom Hardy), who looks absolutely nothing like him except in the ears, and the bald head. Because, as a photograph makes clear, Picard already had a bald head as an adolescent.

The B-4 plot is just nonsensical padding, impossible to square with the series' established Data mythology but too trivial to care much about. The whole bit about Shinzon, though, is totally deranged: a freedom-fighting leader of an arbitrarily made-up race of space vampires (don't like the light, need blood to survive, look like Max Schreck in Nosferatu; the pieces are all there, though they're assembled confusingly, and not a damn interesting thing is done with the possibility) I'll almost buy, but the clone angle is transparently mechanical bullshit, there to give the movie's big star and only truly great actor something interesting to play (and sure enough, Stewart is the only member of the cast other than an overly-emotive Hardy who expresses anything other than a palpable desire to just finish up this movie and get on with the rest of their lives), and to provide a Wrath of Khan-like obsessed villain to make the action personal. Amazingly, the one-off villain with no actual personal history with Picard, a Frankenstein monster dredged out of the tritest sci-fi tropes possible, does not provide this personal touch.

The film is handsome, I guess - the cinematography by Jeffrey L. Kimball is much the most carefully-shaped in the four Next Generation movies, and the effects look pretty good. But it is stupid and tedious, briefly exciting for one glorious burst of action, and then pandering in a nominally beautiful character death that Baird undersells brutally, and the script undercuts by building in an obvious escape route. There's so little of actual merit here, and such a strong disrespect for the fans, who are clearly seen by the filmmakers as stupid little kittens eager to pounce at anything that resembles a major shift for the characters, no matter how cheap or contrived, that even the fact that it's the lowest-grossing film in the franchise doesn't feel like punishment enough.

Reviews in this series
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise, 1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Nimoy, 1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Nimoy, 1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (Shatner, 1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Meyer, 1991)
Star Trek: Generations (Carson, 1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (Frakes, 1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (Frakes, 1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (Baird, 2002)
Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams, 2013)

6 comments:

franklinshepard said...

Kind of depressing that your great retrospective had to end with this movie.

Tim said...

That seems to happen to a lot of my retrospectives.

Damian Oakes said...

Speaking as a non-fan, I can say of Star Trek: Nemesis: "Meh. It's okay, I guess."

Fun to know, though, that Tom Hardy was hooked on cocaine during the shooting of this movie, so it could be the B-Movie to The Man Who Fell to Earth in a "coked-out British cult-performer stars in sci-fi movie" double-feature.

Thrash Til' Death said...

^Ditto. This and "Wrath of Khan" are the only non-reboot Trek movies I've seen, and I saw this one before I ever familiarised myself with the TV series. My reaction was pretty much "meh. It's OK."

KingKubrick said...

Pretty much the worse send off for Data that could have been written and just a terrible waste of the TNG crew's final film. Let us hope to God nobody gets the bright idea to reboot the TNG crew for a new generation and leave well enough alone.

Not Fenimore said...

@Tim: It's sort of the cinematic Peter Principle, I suppose; if a series keeps going until it hits a movie so bad as to kill it off, *every* retrospective on this blog is going to end with crap. D: