Star Trek: Insurrection (United States, 1998)
In the wake of the rousingly successful Star Trek: First Contact, the movie that brought the franchise back from the moribund wasteland of entries 5, 6, and 7, comes feature film #9, Star Trek: Insurrection. The good news for Trekkers and casual movie-goers alike is that director Jonathan Frakes, returning for his second stint at the helm, has maintained the same entertainment level, although the tone is considerably more playful. Admittedly, anyone expecting a motion picture "event" from this film will be disappointed - Insurrection is little more than a very good, double-length episode of the defunct Star Trek: The Next Generation television series. This film is not designed to alter the Star Trek mythos, but to build upon it.
In its approach, Insurrection is reminiscent of 1986's Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (for non-aficionados, that's the one with the whales), which, to date, is the only Star Trek movie to gross more than $100 million. Insurrection is a lighter film than First Contact, with a greater emphasis on humor and character interplay than on action (although, to be sure, there is some of the latter). For the most part, the comedy is unforced, which allows us to laugh with the movie instead of at it. Anyone looking for an example of the difference can compare Insurrection's musical moment, a genuinely funny rendition of "A British Tar," with Star Trek V's embarrassing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
Perhaps the natural byproduct of going with a lighter, breezier style is a lack of tension. There wasn't much suspense in Star Trek IV, and, despite a couple of bracing space battles, there isn't a lot here. The action sequences are designed more to keep the plot moving than to get viewers on the edge of their seats. Insurrection offers the comfortable feeling that, no matter how things get to that point, all will be well in the end. The bad guys will be vanquished and the crew of the starship Enterprise will continue to boldly go where no one has gone before.
Insurrection begins with a puzzle. Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner), on a routine mission to study the Ba'ku, a seemingly-backward people living on an idyllic planet, turns against the other members of his team, including Federation officers and members of the alien Son'a race. Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe), the officer in charge of the mission, orders Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his crew to retrieve Data within 12 hours or destroy him. However, what starts out as a simple rescue mission causes Picard to stumble unwittingly into the midst of a conspiracy that involves Dougherty, the Son'a leader, Ru'afo (F. Murray Abraham), and the Federation High Council in a plot to violate the Prime Directive (which states that the Federation cannot meddle in the natural development of other civilizations) in the name of the "greater good." They want to forcibly remove the Ba'ku from their world so that the restorative properties of the planet can be strip-mined for distribution across the galaxy. Picard must choose whether to obey orders and head for home or risk his career, his ship, and his life by defying Dougherty and defending the Ba'ku against Federation and Son'a interference.
The message in Star Trek: Insurrection, which has to do with the immorality of displacing a populace and destroying a way of life in the name of progress (i.e., what the European settlers did to the Native Americans), is somewhat more esoteric than the one in Star Trek IV (save the whales), but no less difficult to spot. The best Star Trek stories are allegorical - in addition to telling an involving story, they're about something other than going into space and blowing up enemy ships. Insurrection continues that tradition.
The Star Trek: The Next Generation cast is intact for the third straight film (they first debuted on the big screen in 1994's cross-over movie, Generations). With the spotlight once again trained firmly on Captain Picard, Patrick Stewart continues to show why he's the most accomplished actor ever to put on a Starfleet uniform. In First Contact, Stewart was given the opportunity to imitate Captain Ahab (a role he later performed "for real" in a made-for-TV movie). In Insurrection, he's on less volatile ground (one can question his ethical stance, but not the motives behind it). He's a more gentle, humane character than when facing the Borg, and the script allows him to play the romantic leading man opposite the beautiful Anij (Donna Murphy), a Ba'ku woman.
When the focus isn't on Stewart, it's usually on Brent Spiner. If Spock had all the best lines in Star Trek IV, Data has them here. The emotion chip that made Data act like an idiot in the previous two films is gone, allowing Spiner to again plumb the Pinocchio-like depths of a character trying to understand the meaning of being human. The other regulars are all back in supporting roles -Jonathan Frakes as First Officer Will Riker, LeVar Burton as Geordi LaForge, Gates McFadden as Dr. Crusher, Michael Dorn as Worf, and Marina Sirtis as Troi. Veteran actor Anthony Zerbe is effective in portraying Dougherty as more than a cardboard figure. F. Murray Abraham, best known for his Oscar-winning turn as Salieri in Amadeus, is disappointing as Ru'afo - this character will not go down as one of Star Trek's great villains. Despite some scenery chewing, Abraham doesn't display much screen presence under all of the makeup, and we don't feel that Ru'afro is a serious threat. He's in the same mediocre league as Malcolm McDowell's Soran in Generations (as opposed to Ricardo Montalban's delightfully over-the-top Khan in Star Trek II).
From a visual standpoint, this is easily the most impressive Star Trek film to date. With location shooting done in the Sierra Nevada mountains, cinematographer Matthew Leonetti has captured a series of gorgeous vistas. The special effects, which rely more on computer generated images than anything previously attempted in a Star Trek movie, look especially crisp, and give the space sequences a polish that they never before achieved. Composer Jerry Goldsmith, back for his fourth assignment overall and his second consecutive one, lends an element of musical continuity. Meanwhile, in two outings as director, Jonathan Frakes has proven that he understands what makes Star Trek work on the big screen. Hopefully, the producers will continue to apply that knowledge so that Star Trek 10 is as successful as installments 8 and 9.
Star Trek: Insurrection (United States, 1998)
Cast: Patrick Stewart, Donna Murphy, F. Murray Abraham, Marina Sirtis, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, LeVar Burton, Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, Anthony Zerbe
Screenplay: Michael Piller based on a story by Michael Piller & Rick Berman
Cinematography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures