Saturday, October 26, 2013

#620. A critical reappraisal of Star Trek: Insurrection

Sometimes I love to be a contrarian.  Although I don't necessarily try to be one, I tend to develop interests that run counter to popular belief.  For instance, since its 1998 theatrical release, I've always been a fan of Star Trek: Insurrection.

Of course, for most people to say Insurrection is one of the lesser films in the franchise would be an understatement.  To say that it probably helped facilitate the end of that part of Star Trek history would be another understatement, especially as it was the opposite of predecessor First Contact in almost every way.

And yet I've always liked it, if not outright loved it.  But the truth is, and this is something even I've struggled with, I've always been on the bubble.  I'm this close to loving it.  And last night I was thinking about it again, and maybe I'm closer than ever.  This post is my bid to maybe convince others to have a reconsideration of their own.  Maybe you won't end up loving it, but you may think about nudging it out of the Star Trek dregs, where it currently sits nestled tightly with The Final Frontier (I refuse to consider Into Darkness as anywhere near this level despite the results of polling earlier this year).

In some ways, Insurrection is really quite brilliant, and years ahead of its time.  Just as Into Darkness was a commentary on the era of the War on Terror, Insurrection is a movie about the unfortunate relationships that helped make it possible, and some of the relationships we're still struggling with today.

Or as Admiral Dougherty puts it, "They have technology we can't duplicate.  You know what that makes us?  Partners."

"Partners" being an obviously loaded word.  And here you can sure bet that I'm thinking of all the relationships involving the transportation of that most precious of modern resources, oil.  But this is not about politics.  This is about a Star Trek movie that was all about this thorny conundrum years before anyone was even prepared to broach the subject.  

Insurrection's basic plot is modest enough: Captain Picard and his crew stumble upon a Starfleet mission to relocate a planet's population in order to exploit the natural resources.  (Sure, there's even some Avatar in there, about ten years ahead of time.  There's even plenty of good old fashioned environmentalism in there, a sort of updated saves-the-whales Voyage Home, minus nuclear wessels).

At the time, the biggest knock against the movie was that it was basically an extended TV episode.  That's another thorny issue right there.  I never saw it that way.  There were certainly episodes of Next Generation that featured a similar situation, but then there was a whole episode that featured Khan in the original series, and no one (or at least loudly) ever said Wrath of Khan was basically just an extended TV episode.

And that point, as I finally understood, never even got the series right.  If this was basically a TV episode, it was from Deep Space Nine and not Next Generation.  I hate to be pedantic about this, but that's the crux of it.  Insurrection doesn't make too fine a point about this, but the whole reason the events of the movie occur is because of something called the Dominion War.  

What's that, you ask?  The Dominion War was a seasons-long arc in Deep Space Nine.  The Dominion was basically the evil version of the more familiar Federation, from the other side of a wormhole.  Not only did Deep Space Nine basically spend its entire run gearing up for the Dominion, but the final two seasons were hotly embedded in the resulting war.

And the whole point of Admiral Dougherty's dirty dealings in Insurrection is because of this war, a relationship Starfleet feels compelled to have because of something so basic as resources.  But these relationships are not always as good for everyone as they can sometimes seem.  

Surprisingly, out of every other conceivable angle covered in the series, Deep Space Nine itself never really got around to this particular aspect of war, how it can drive unexpected new conflicts.  So if anything, Insurrection is that TV episode that never happened, that two-parter or omitted season cliffhanger.

What's more embarrassing than anything is that Star Trek fans were already so splintered in 1998 (the driving force of the coma that began in 2005) that they never even considered that.  Even Deep Space Nine fans didn't realize this.  The first time anyone said that Insurrection was basically an extended episode, everyone just assumed that meant Next Generation, because naturally that was the series that featured Picard.  

And the downright criminal thing of it is that even now there are many Star Trek fans who never even took Deep Space Nine seriously.  And Deep Space Nine remains the most perfect Star Trek.

The problem of it really was that almost every Star Trek movie, probably until the 2009 reboot, was basically geared toward existing fans (and this one was very nearly subtitled Prime Directive, and that should tell you everything you need to know about it).  And fans themselves never really seem to realize that.  Most other fan communities would be thrilled to have a movie, let alone ten of them.  Star Trek fans?  They're notoriously fickle.  Don't believe for a moment that the majority of them actually share Gene Roddenberry's optimism.  

And how to better represent that than the pettiness of how they subconsciously greeted perhaps one of the best elements of Insurrection, Data's opening arc?  Most fans considered the beginning and end of questioning whether or not Data should be considered ethically and morally equal to a flesh-and-blood individual to be the seminal Next Generation second season episode "The Measure of a Man."  And I agree, "Measure" is brilliant.  But that should never have been considered the be-all-and-end-all of the exploration of the rights of the signature android in Star Trek.

How do I know fans were so conflicted?  Because they greeted Voyager's Emergency Medical Hologram, or "Doc," the same way, for seven seasons.  Sure, he was a fan favorite, but not a single one of his many similar, "Measure of a Man" episodes were ever considered classics, even though at least one of them ("Latent Image") unquestionably is.

In  the movie, Data begins on a separate mission and must be retrieved by Picard.  This whole sequence has always been the brunt of my justification for considering Insurrection positively.  And it completely changes the perception of how Starfleet really perceives Data, "Measure" and its court settlement considered.  Dougherty doesn't seem to find him quite so special as Picard's crew and Next Generation fans always have.  (Then again, proof positive that Data never reached Spock levels of Star Trek icon-hood can be found in the reception for Nemesis.)

And that's another reason to view Insurrection differently, because it dares to challenge one of the basic tenets of Star Trek.  That no matter how much a pain in the butt these captains can sometimes be, they're always considered to be legends in their own time.  But that's not how Dougherty treats Picard at all.

Picard, mind you, is captain of the flagship.  It should be assumed that if he's active at all during the Dominion War, that he's at the front lines.  And yet even in Next Generation he was always seen as diplomat first.  He was even recognized as such by the finicky Klingons!  In Insurrection, there are any number of reasons to believe he's not as beholden by the Starfleet brass as seems befitting.  And on a subconscious level, that's just not right.  

And yet, what's Picard's defining characteristic?  What any Star Trek lead character's defining characteristic?  The moral compass.  (Which makes Sisko's experiences in "In the Pale Moonlight" so endlessly intriguing.  And consequently why some fans will never forgive Janeway, because she seemed to have a "Moonlight" every other episode.)

And Insurrection is ultimately all about the moral compass.  And that's also the reason why Deep Space Nine couldn't have done this story, because it could never have done Admiral Dougherty.  It had done similar figures before the war, but during?  Just wouldn't have happened.  Would have been too depressing.  Admirals in Star Trek are usually just this side of villainous.  In fact, the first unabashedly good admiral was featured in the Dominion War arc.  Just goes to show.

And Admiral Dougherty has always been my second favorite part of Insurrection.  And a large portion of that is because of Anthony Zerbe.  It only figures that the lone reflection I found of someone else seeing this was from the Matrix sequels, when he shows up in Zion as Neo's confidant.  What Christopher Lee accomplished in the Lord of the Rings films and the Star Wars prequels (to my mind, greater effect), that's what Zerbe did, years earlier.  Not a hugely written part, but Zerbe nails it in scene after scene.  Insurrection would be worth viewing again, I'd suggest, just to prove this out.

And he does this opposite Patrick Stewart.  For some critics, their favorite knock against the Picard films is that Stewart is rarely given material worthy of his acting caliber.  But the funny thing is, Hollywood in general has never given him material worthy of his acting caliber.  Until Star Trek, he was barely a blip on the radar, despite making efforts for years.  And even after Star Trek, he barely made a dent.  So much for material worth his acting caliber.  If anything, his Star Trek film appearances were as close as he ever got to Hollywood material worth his acting caliber.  And Insurrection is no slouch in that department.

And he gets to sing in this one.  Star Trek has always been at its geekiest when it indulges its inner Family Guy.  Here there's a wonderful interlude where Picard, Data, and Worf all sing "A British Tar" from Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore.  It's part of the whole sequence featuring Data's early arc in the film, and it's one of the best parts.

And that particular sequence also features some of the CGI work that definitely would never have been in a TV episode.  Even if it's modest compared to what other films were doing even in 1998, that shuttle chase has always been a highlight for me.

There are things Insurrection doesn't quite nail, and there's humor wrongly intended to indulge Star Trek fans, but on the whole, there's a lot to recommend, and recommend quite enthusiastically, about it.  It may not have been the epic it could have been, but that was still a few years off from happening in any genre film successfully (Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films), but then, at least it wasn't insufferably melodramatic about wanting to be epic (Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films).  

And to think most of what you've ever heard about Insurrection was that it was one of the minor efforts, if even that.  Even if it is minor, it's still got a lot going for it.


Pat Dilloway said...

It's not a terrible movie but it suffers from a lack of memorable moments. The hummingbird thing was neat. The thing is even the "worst" Trek movies are still better than a lot of garbage pumped out there.

I think mostly people like Wrath of Khan because Khan was such a great villain, like Bane he's smart and strong, which makes him a tough match-up.

"First Contact" I think people like because it's the Star Trek equivalent of a zombie movie. Technically the Borg might not be undead but really they're shuffling, largely voiceless creatures, who can convert you into one of them if they touch you.

I'm not sure why there's so much love for "Voyage Home" except people probably watched it in a while to note how dated it is.

Spacerguy said...

Classic TNG movie. Full of heroics and wacky humor. Lock and load! Hehe.


I didn't have a problem with it.
The characters are what make it for me. You already have the connection so as it goes you might think this is a extended tv show, but like you stated it has more going for it.

Tony Laplume said...

Pat, First Contact is as much Alien as it is a zombie movie. But it does everything right. It's still, to my mind, the perfect Star Trek, or at least Next Generation, movie.

Spacerguy, the "lock and load" comment was something my brother commented as a part of the movie he'd only really "got" years later. It's pretty great.

David, good to hear!

The Armchair Squid said...

I've only seen it once, in the theater. I don't remember it too well but enjoyed it enough. As you said, it was perceived as a long-form TV episode but I don't even see anything wrong with that. Trek is, after all, a TV show. I realize people expect a bit more from a movie but more isn't always better.

Tony Laplume said...

Squid, it was always the easiest, and dumbest, criticism to level against Insurrection.

Nigel G. Mitchell said...

I admire the passion and agree there's a lot to like about the movie, but can't agree with the overall conclusion. "Insurrection" had bold ideas but suffered from poor execution. I liked Roger Ebert's point that the villains made a good point. Why not move a few million people when the end result could be saving billions or even trillions of lives? We're talking eternal life, here. I also thought some of the scenes were clumsy like having them chased by teleporter drones. "Oh, no, they're trying to transport us somewhere else!" You know what would have been more tense? Drones that shot and killed them. Plus, the aliens with the "Brazil" style stretched faces was just silly. But there were a lot of things to like. And certainly "Star Trek Into Darkness" was better than "Insurrection," no matter what the Trekkers say.

Tony Laplume said...

Nigel, I didn't mention the fountain of youth element because that's a whole different can of worms. But here we go. Some fans were freaking out about Into Darkness's "death cure" being as simple as an injection of Khan's blood.

But what I'd like to argue is, not everyone wants to live forever. In fact, probably no one wants to live forever when you really think about the mechanics.

And the whole business of extending lifespans is part of that. It'll happen anyway. It's always been happening. (Unless you count biblical lifespans. We're amateurs compared to those, and always will be.) When you start to consider anything like artificial enhancements, that only make it look like you're younger longer, that's discussing something else entirely.

The people who love plastic surgery may not believe so, but not everyone thinks plastic surgery is a good thing.

And the whole idea behind the villains in Insurrection wasn't to have the Brazil treatment, but because they are angry and jealous about the good people who had the sense to get rid of a few bad apples. Because the villains proved all over again that they were still bad apples, or at least their leader was.

How do you support that again?

And that's all the case really is for supporting the villains, that you're perfectly willing to set logic aside and support the bad apples.

The people who were going to be dispossessed were a small population, sure, and the potential benefits would have helped a far greater population, but that was never the point, and that was Picard's whole point. He was revisiting something he'd experienced in the TV series, which was a revisiting of the whole nasty business the States still haven't properly acknowledged, that our whole history only exists because we were incredible assholes to the natives. We thought we could use the land better.

Highly subjective, and highly suspect reasoning, at best.

You are never quite as good as you assume yourself to be. Even sufficiently evolved civilizations that appear to operate by magic are still barbarians in the most embarrassing ways.

Denise Covey said...

A lot of this discussion is right over my head Tony, having only a nodding aquaintance with Star Wars, Star Trek...but it was quite a revelation which the comments continued. D

Tony Laplume said...

I try to keep the conversation lively in the comments, when given the opportunity!


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