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Non-Review Review: Star Trek – Nemesis

I’m a Star Trek fan, I’ll concede that. And I grew up with the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation, with the ensemble headed by Patrick Stewart as the decidedly British-sounding French Captain Jean-Luc Picard. While I’d argue that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the best of the shows, I hold a special place in my heart for the one that I came of age with. So it pains me to admit their swansong is a disappointing one. Of course, with the show’s preference for philosophical discourse and carefully-considered discussion, you could make the argument that they were never as perfectly suited to the big screen as Kirk’s crew. Still, Star Trek: Nemesiscan’t help but feel like a wasted opportunity, a film incredibly lacking in soul, that doesn’t bid a fond farewell as much as suggest mandatory requirement.

Looks like they'd hire any Tom, Dick or Hardy to play a young Picard...

Stuart Baird is an editor. I think that’s the problem with the movie. I’ve never made the argument that those involved in a film franchise need to be fans – in fact, I think that sort of passion can easily cloud one’s objectivity – but they do need to respect and care for the property they work on. I’m not accusing Baird of cashing a quick paycheck, but it seems like he’s more preoccupied with the idea of constructing a thrilling action movie than he is with making a good Star Trek movie. This isn’t necessarily a problem – a good movie is a good movie – but it seems counterintuitive to ignore the first two words in your movie title, as Baird does. He constructs a movie built more around set-pieces than plot or characters.

This is a risky gambit in any case – it’s hard to care a film when the director doesn’t care for the plot or characters – but it seems that Baird’s directing is at odds with John Logan’s script. While Baird treats his characters and their fictional world as a vehicle for big explosions and CGI, Logan treats the impressive spectacle as a gateway to the cast and characters. Logan’s script screams that it was written by a “true fan”, existing as a love letter to the characters of Picard and Data, referencing events as far back as the crew’s very first adventure together and revelling in the continuity and the gigantic fictional universe.

A Data with destiny...

Perhaps it is too focused on such things. The first time we meet the crew this time around, we are at the long-overdue wedding between Troi and Riker, who have a long romantic history. In his Best Man Speech, which seems to exist mostly to allow Patrick Stewart to  tell bad jokes and dump exposition on the audience, Picard repeatedly stresses that the group have been together for “fifteen years.” It’s shoe-horned in there, lending the awkward scene an uncomfortable self-congratulatory air. Don’t get me wrong, I love the ensemble, and the wonderful group dynamic is the only thing preventing the sequence from collapsing under its own weight, but I think the best tribute to the group’s time together is to celebrate it through continuing. I’m not sticking in a two-hour movie to remind me of Guinan or Wesley – I can watch the old episodes for that.

There’s something that feels decidedly relaxed and self-indulgent about all this, as if it’s more an excuse for a bunch of people who like to spend time together to get paid for doing so. Brent Spiner, who released his own album, gets to sing as Data. Patrick Stewart, an actor with a passion for off-road driving, gets involved in a completely pointless car chase. “I’ve been itching to try the Argo,” the character remarks, with genuine passion – Stewart seemingly eager to portray the character as an action hero (the Captain even gets to dual-wield phasers at one point).

The Romulan Empire, fading to dust...

Picard seems to have mellowed quite a bit as he got older, and it seems that Patrick Stewart is really channelling himself through the character – Picard spends most of the first half of the movie making wise-cracks and grinning from ear-to-ear, which feels just a bit too casual for a man so used to huge amounts of responsibility on his shoulders. It’s telling that most of the action sequences here (and most of everything) involved Picard and Data, with the rest of the ensemble reduce to relative stand-ins (though Troi and Riker get about one memorable sequence each). It genuinely feels like the whole film was produced for no other reason than to let Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner have a bit of fun.

While that seems a tad excessive, there’s no denying that the movie would be a whole lot weaker if the cast and crew didn’t have that old familiar chemistry to anchor it. I suspect that Baird is at least a little responsible for the mess the film became, based on the deleted scenes, but Logan’s script suffers from trying to be far too much. It’s a veritable “greatest hits” of the franchise, evoking Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in its personal vendetta and “big” death and space battles, making any number of continuity references, an “end of the world” plot and even allowing its bad guy to steal an iconic catchphrase, “resistance is futile.”

A Hardy leader...

It’s only appropriate to make my own little continuity reference here, and mirror the advice of a supporting character from this very show (albeit made on another), “My mother always said, ‘If you try to combine talking and eating, you’ll end up doing neither very well.'” This movie might not try to combine talking and eating, but it tries to combine absolutely everything else, ending up with one huge confused collection of scenes with little tying them together.

What the hell was the point of Shinzon, the villain of the piece? Shinzon is a clone of Picard. Ignoring the fact that evil villain clones are a rather hackneyed idea, the film does nothing with it. After all, the effect is kind of ruined by the fact that Tom Hardy – for all his talents – looks almost nothing like Patrick Stewart, aside from the fact that he’s British and bald. It really seems like nobody on the production crew cared, which might explain why a young Picard glimpsed in a photo suddenly has no hair, when the character previous used to. Not withstanding that the “bold plan” to replace Picard with Shinzon is actually a fascinating idea, more worth exploring than anything else on display here, the story is riddled with all sorts of holes. Why is he named Shinzon? Why, when they aborted the project, did they send him to Remus? “They sent me there to die,” he suggests, but surely there are more direct ways of doing that.

I always suspected Data was "plug and play"...

I’m not even sure what the character’s motivations are. Does he want to kill Picard to assert his own identity? That’s one idea proposed, but never developed. Shinzon’s character seems incredibly prone to change, which is in marked contrast to the very core of Picard’s character. He claims to love the Remans as brothers, seeking their freedom from Romulan slavery, while he falls into the old cliché of executing those henchmen who failed him. Why does he want to destroy the Federation? There are any number of possibilities that come to mind – does he need to galvinise Romulan support for his rule with a successful war? does he want to hurt Picard? does it a dark reflection of Picard’s arrogance? does it contrast with Picard’s quest to discover new life outside Earth, Shinzon’s plot to destroy all life on Earth? – but no consistent ones are suggested or hinted at.

Instead, Shinzon seems like a cookie-cutter psychotic world-conquering villain. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it removes a lot of the appeal of having Picard square off against a younger version of himself, “very much in need of seasoning.” This isn’t a man with Picard’s occasional obsessive tendencies or moral superiority left unchecked, this is a man who uses (telepathic) rape as a weapon of war and who contemplates genocide with no provocation whatsoever. Shinzon insists that he is a dark mirror to Picard, but the older of the two protests, “I am incapable of such an act.” And we believe him – it means there’s no emotional torque between Picard and Shinzon, because they look and act completely different.

Generation NeXt...

That’s a shame, because Tom Hardy and Patrick Stewart are actually quite good. Hardy in particular seems to be genuinely trying his hardest to make sense of the character. That his career survived a misfire like this (even taking so many years) is a minor miracle and a testament to the actor’s skill. He is wasted here, like most of the great supporting cast of Star Trek: Insurrection were wasted there. I’ve always found it funny how the franchise tends to waste talent by applying it in the most pointless of places (although it does allow unconventional actors to shine).

Once you get past Shinzon, there are still a whole host of problems. Some of these are minor, while some are not. I couldn’t help but wonder why the Romulan Senate has the border with the Federation sketched out on the chamber floor. What of the Klingons? Or, to be honest, why isn’t there a Romulan-centric view of the universe on that tile floor? And the opening sequence is ruined by a truly terrible performance from the Praetor. When a green mist explodes in the most important building in the Romulan Empire, the character issues orders like they’re a casual after thought, “Would somebody alert security?”  (He might as well have added, “And get me a coffee! It’s nine a.m. here!”)

Data knows how to get ahead...

However, there are more fundamental faults to be found with the plotting and pacing. The whole subplot involving “B4”, the Data duplicate android, exists as a collection of scenes that sap the emotion from a pivotal sequence later in the film – one that would have had a lot more emotional impact if the audience didn’t know exactly how the movie was going to work around it. Similarly, the palace politics involving the Romulan Empire worked much better on television, where the stories had room to breath, and didn’t exist merely to provide exposition for footage of lots of stuff getting blown up.

All of this is a shame, because the movie ends with a wonderful space battle, one that might have carried a lot more weight if we cared about any of the characters involved, or if the contrivances used to get us there hadn’t been so obvious or forced. There are some wonderfully clever ideas there, to be honest. The ship-to-ship combat sequences, for example, see the Enterprise maneuvering in three dimensions as opposed to the usual two – the ship rotates on its axis to compensate for damage. Picard’s final gambit against his clone is genuinely impressive and Data improvises a rather wonderful method of ship-to-ship transport.

Does it suck or blow?

These things work very well, and would have helped elevate a purely functional film. However, by the time we reach this point in the adventure, the audience has pretty much given up on the movie – it’s literally just a collection of highly-detailed explosions with no depth to it. The interactions between Picard and Shinzon carry no weight, and there’s not even enough dramatic heft to make us care about the necessary sacrifices. Instead, I’m wondering why there’s a bottomless pit in the middle of Deck 8 for Riker and an alien to wrestle over.

Hell, even with my geek hat on there are several elements I’m left scratching my head over. How the hell did Janeway – who, according to her actress, was at least bipolar and the least competent commanding officer in the franchise’s history – end up with a cushy desk job? I choose to believe that’s the Dilbert Principlein effect, in that she was less likely to murder and torture fellow officers from the safety of her own desk. And why exactly is Worf just hanging around with the crew again? Worf had moved on as a character, and it feels strange that no attempt at an explanation is offered. Maybe he was just there for the wedding, but surely the Enterprise has its own tactical officer who wouldn’t take too well to just being replaced? These aren’t questions that matter, but they are some of the thoughts that popped into my head while watching the film – perhaps an indication of how the movie had so thoroughly failed to engage me.

Didn't know off-road driving was in Picard's wheelhouse...

Star Trek: Nemesis was the last film to feature this particular cast. I wish I could say that it served as a sentimental and affectionate farewell, but it instead worked better as an illustration of why the franchise needed a serious retooling.

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