*½/**** Image A Sound A+
starring Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, F. Murray Abraham, Anthony Zerbe
screenplay by Michael Piller
directed by Johnathan Frakes
by Bill Chambers Stardate: 12/13/98 Everything about this ninth entry in Star Trek's feature-film franchise seems on the cheap, from its Roger Corman-grade special effects (the series' worst since Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) to its highly derivative and ugly ad campaign (the poster is nearly identical to that for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country). But Michael Piller's not-even-half-baked screenplay should ultimately claim responsibility for the failure of Star Trek: Insurrection. I'm about to give the same unsolicited advice to Trek producer Rick Berman that I've given to the financiers of James Bond movies: it's time to breathe life back into this workhorse by hiring solid genre writers and a real director. While we're at it, put that visor back on La Forge!
For 300 years, the Ba'ku (who look human) have lived on a ringed planet that may as well be called the Fountain of Youth. Six hundred of them occupy the Briar Patch, an area affected by "metaphasic radiation," a positive energy field that reverses the aging process in the elderly. (Or, at least, slows it to a crawl.) But the evil Ru'afo (F. Murray Abraham's last stop before reviving Salieri at a dinner theatre near you), leader of the Son'a (who somewhat resemble burn victims), wants to relocate the Ba'ku and movie his people onto the Briar Patch in their place, in order to replenish his dying breed. The Federation is all for this, but Picard feels such actions would be a violation of the Prime Directive, which, according to The Star Trek Encyclopedia, "prohibits Starfleet personnel and spacecraft from interfering in the normal development of any society, and mandates that any Starfleet vessel or crew member is expendable to prevent violation of this rule to not interfere with the development of an alien race." (Never mind that the Ba'ku didn't develop organically--they went wandering in the universe one day and stumbled on this magical world.)
Every time Jonathan Frakes grants an interview, he tops whatever ludicrous statement he previously made regarding the results of his second time at the helm. He has called Star Trek: Insurrection a comedy, a thinking man's picture, and a throwback to the old series. Most egregiously, he's likened it to a John Ford western. (I presume that's some John Ford he went to school with and not the director of The Searchers.) He also went on record as saying Paramount took the film away from him, so it's difficult to say whether his crediting so many disparate genres is a statement of intent or a comment on the aftermath of their interference.
Muddy cinematography by the spotty Matthew F. Leonetti and sitcom-worthy sets the least of its problems, Star Trek: Insurrection appears to have been beamed aboard from the planet Plotholia. Consider such curiosities: Picard's love interest, Anij (Donna Murphy), can slow things down by staring at them (such as a waterfall or falling rocks); her scientific explanation for this? "Don't ask." Worf gets a pimple (he's re-experiencing Klingon puberty thanks to the time-defying atmosphere), La Forge regains his eyesight (so much for blind role models, I guess), and Troi brags about her firm boobs, yet Picard remains bald as an android's butt.
What exactly is the problem with letting this endangered race have a little fun in the sun, anyway? The filmmakers cloud the issue with some nonsense about a Hatfields-McCoys family feud of sorts and turn Ru'afo into a completely power-mad superfreak, mostly to contrive a spectacular climax that wouldn't happen otherwise. (Frankly if you've seen Return of the Jedi, there's no reason to finish watching Star Trek: Insurrection.) Didn't Picard himself previously disobey the Prime Directive when he prevented the Borg from assimilating millions? Or does that not count?
Frakes lucked out with First Contact, and repeat viewings of that film reveal the seeds of what went wrong in his direction of Insurrection: he has no sense of comic timing, and he mines for chemistry where none exists. (Take a look at the painful "Troi gets drunk" scene in First Contact and you'll get the general idea of Insurrection's jokey and hollow tone.) Even the lesser Shatner and co. Treks, like the abovementioned Final Frontier, maintained a watchability thanks to the effortless, charming camaraderie between Kirk, Spock, and Bones. One TV series and three movies later, this cast still seem like strangers who've met because they're all on a cruise together. Maybe the problem is that the actors all like each other in real life, while the original cast all hated each other.
Neither First Contact nor Insurrection has any idea what to do with Crusher (Gates McFadden, who looks pretty great even before her metaphasic radiation makeover), Troi, or La Forge. And all three Next Generation films spend far too much time on Data, Star Trek's answer to Urkel. Need a cheap laugh? Have Data behave sexually, or start singing, or lift up a 400lb boulder as if it's the hunk of styrofoam it really is. Here's my proposed title for Star Trek 10: Data Star Data Trek: Data Data Data Data Data, in which Data will become preoccupied with learning to blow his nose while Crusher and Troi watch silently from 500 yards away and La Forge points his beady eyes at the android in doubly robotic observation.
Stardate: 05/26/99 Yesterday, I loaded Star Trek: Insurrection into my DVD player, set phasers on stun, and shot myself. What I saw (again) was a check-your-brain-at-the-door adventure pic that requires almost no frame of reference to comprehend it. In other words, Insurrection, much like Star Trek IV, is geared towards the most casual Trekkie, one who'll view it as a mere movie rather than as part of a tapestry; but do those viewers exist anymore? Maybe I'm living proof: As the recent documentary Trekkies made clear, I could take or leave the whole 'enterprise.' (Aside: I do have a fondness for the pre-Picard era, back when there was electricity generated among the cast.) The trouble is, unlike Star Trek IV, Insurrection fails to delight as a stand-alone entertainment, either. Still, I appreciated the movie a little bit more on home video. Reduced to 32", the special effects don't look as cheap (I was even impressed by the 12-year-old boy's computer-animated pet), the stagy sets are more convincing, and one can skip through the most groan-inducing moments, like the infamous bathtub scene. I don't recommend Insurrection, but if I sat through it twice without much fuss, it can't be meritless.
Insurrection is best-viewed on DVD, where the near-flawlessness of the presentation will hoodwink you, for a few minutes at least, into thinking it's a spectacular motion picture. Leonetti's cinematography continues to irritate--he never met a shot he didn't underexpose. So my complaints about this disc echo my comments regarding First Contact's image quality: too dark and smudgy photographically, but a strong transfer of difficult elements. Perhaps some tweaking of brightness was in order during the telecine process, though it's too late now. The anamorphic video (in 2.35:1 widescreen) is sharp, never appears overenhanced, and the colours are infinite and breathtaking. The blues in Ru'afo's lair are exactly as glorious I remember them looking on film.
The soundmix is the real highlight of this disc. Only a few months ago, I invested in a Dolby Digital set-up, but I haven't reviewed any discs with a 5.1 soundtrack that really knocked my socks off. Until now. Star Trek: Insurrection takes full advantage of the six-channel soundstage, with countless split-surround effects and rear-to-front pans. My favourite moment, DD-wise, is the discovery of the holodeck in chapter seven: as Data, Anij, and Picard wonder aloud why this illusory Briar Patch exists, a Son'a guard fires at them from a balcony. The laser blast starts over your right shoulder, and ends in the front speakers; after the beam makes explosive contact with the ground below, the sound startles with its suddeness, resonates with its bassy kick, and astonishes with its precise directionality. There are showier bits of foley work, but a discrete system's subtle work is generally its best work. I didn't sample the Dolby Surround track, which is the default audio, per Paramount custom.
Included are two trailers, both recorded loud and in 5.1 (a real treat for the ears, even if the previews themselves are mediocre), as well as a production featurette consisting of interviews with cast and crew. The latter is a five-minute puff-piece, although it's more bonus material than we usually see from the Mountain and perhaps a harbinger of good things to come.
103 minutes; PG; 2.35:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround; CC; DVD-5; Region One; Paramount