Director: Jonathan Frakes
Cast: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, F. Murray Abraham, and Donna Murphy
Runtime: 103 min.
by Brian Eggert
Original Release Date:
Present in all criticisms of Star Trek: Insurrection is the objection that it too closely resembles just a very good episode of the television show, as if that somehow makes it of lesser quality than the franchise’s other films. Wasn’t the excellence of The Next Generation exactly what inspired this later set of films in the first place? Isn’t the success of that show greatly responsible for reinvigorating interest in Gene Roddenberry’s campy 1960s invention through a modern approach? So if the film would make one helluva episode, but includes Hollywood-quality special effects and presentation, why do fans reject the product as a feature?
Expectations were understandably high after Star Trek: First Contact, enough so that no matter what Paramount released for their third TNG movie, fans would ultimately compare the outcome to its predecessor and be disappointed. Director Jonathan Frakes broke cinematic ground with that, his first feature film, so the studio brought him back for Insurrection and gave him a budget of $58 million, even more than his prior effort. Frakes’ cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti returned behind the camera, and producer Rick Berman teamed with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine writer and co-creator Michael Piller on the script, a story rooted not in action sequences but conspiracy.
The story opens when android crewmember Data (Brent Spiner) malfunctions while observing the quiet, non-industrial Ba’ku people on their home planet. The survey force led by the Federation and the Son’a, an alien race who maintains their dying bodies through skin grafts and excessive plastic surgery, hide all around the Ba’Ku. They’re exposed when Data goes haywire, breaking the Federation’s “Prime Directive” of not interfering or making their presence known to underdeveloped worlds. Meanwhile, on the Enterprise, the usual hustle and bustle of a starship keeps the crew busy, until Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe) orders Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and crew to recover their android, and then negotiate the release of scientists held prisoner by the Ba’Ku.
When the crew arrives inside a nebula-encased system dubbed the Briar Patch, they find the Ba’Ku a people of farmers and artisans, fully capable and knowledgeable of advanced technologies—they’ve simply decided to live in harmony with nature instead. The “hostages” are not prisoners at all, rather welcomed guests. Village leader Anij (Donna Murphy) tells Picard, “Where can warp drive take us, except away from here?” Their planet is surrounded by rings that make everyone on the planet subject to constant “metaphasic radiation,” which slows their aging, allowing them eternal youth and mastery of their given crafts. But by the way Admiral Dougherty and his seedy Son’a cohort Adhar Ru’afo (F. Murray Abraham) begin rushing Picard to leave after calming Data, Picard decides to stay, believing there’s a plot to forcibly relocate the Ba’Ku. Turns out he’s right.
The Enterprise crew can appreciate why the Federation wants the planet, a veritable fountain of youth, when the radiation begins to change and heal them. Cmdr. Riker (Frakes) and Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) begin chasing each other like horny teenagers; Number One even shaves his long-present beard during a couple’s bubble bath. The blind engineer LaForge (Levar Burton) gets his sight back. And moody Lt. Cmdr. Worf (Michael Dorn) goes through Klingon puberty. These character-based asides come and go as they realize Admiral Dougherty and Ru’afo will resort to violence to clear out the Ba’Ku. Picard has no choice but to rebel against his command. So he rushes the locals into nearby caves to hide them from the Federation and the Son’a, and falls for Anij in their conversations, while Riker takes over the Enterprise for some clever starship battling.
In his review, Roger Ebert suggested that the greater good should prevail in this situation: “Wouldn't it be right to sacrifice the lifestyles of 600 Ba'ku in order to save billions?” He argued that when he questioned the film’s cast and crew at the 1998 premiere, even they could see both sides of the argument, how the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. But we’re dealing with Gene Roddenberry’s idealistic world here, a place where diseases are largely nonexistent, where there are enough planets in the galaxy to give any overcrowded world more room to maneuver. Furthermore, it’s indicated in the screenplay that the Son’a are an aggressive and superficial race that once lived on the Ba’Ku planet long ago, and they were forced out because of their violent tendencies. To counter Mr. Ebert’s argument, isn’t it the Son’a’s own damn fault for leaving? Should any weaker race just automatically submit to a stronger one? Does a stronger power have the right to wipe out a weaker country or entire planet’s population just because they need something? As Picard questions, “How many people does it take before it becomes wrong?” Has history taught us nothing?
These are themes and questions frequently explored on TNG, a show that delved into idealism and corruption as an ongoing focus. Perhaps this is why Insurrection’s associations to the show remain so constant among critics and fans, because both in narrative and presentation it seems to simply augment the show’s formula. Consider Leonetti’s camerawork, how he shoots with a temperance required by the story rather than blatantly cinematic movements. Consider how the picture spends the majority of its running time on a single planet, whereas other films jump about the galaxy on their “Star Trek”. Consider how the story feels like “just another mission”, whereas the other films share a scope reaching beyond that of the show. This is not so much a criticism of the film, but an acknowledgement of how it resolves to tell its story without needing to artificially proclaim itself as cinema.
While recognizing that these similarities to the show’s structure exist, it must also be stated how entertaining and well-crafted this film proves to be. Scenes such as when Picard sings Data down from his malfunctioned state by reciting a segment of Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, or Data’s simplistic conversations about a child’s play with the Ba’Ku boy, capture the essence of their respective characters. Here the story challenges viewers with a question of morals and logic, resolving that in an ideal world, specifically the one Roddenberry created, the circumstances do not warrant genocide of one group to save another. So why would we concede to such a position in our imperfect world, if not only to maintain its imperfection?
Earning a small profit from its $70 million box-office take, Insurrection may be the most undervalued of all Star Trek films, for what seems an unjust criticism that the film’s story feels like an episode of the show. Any one of TNG’s many two-part episodes, if aired on the big screen, would make a fine motion picture. These criticisms ultimately point out how well the show proved to achieve a filmic scope and blur the lines between the two mediums. Star Trek films will always seem episodic in nature; after all, the trekking continues despite the events in any single film, with ongoing sequels comparable to next week’s episode. What remains significant is how well Insurrection’s story is told, how it touches on all these beloved characters, and how its tackles the series’ archetypal themes.
More from this series:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Star Trek: Generations (1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)