Friday, September 29, 2017

Starcrash (1978) – MST3K Review


The Emperor of the Universe (Christopher Plummer) has it rough. He sent a top secret scouting mission to find the evil Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) and his super weapon. But the scout ship was lost with all hands, including Prince Simon (David Hasselhoff). Without the location of the secret base, the universe is doomed to even more ridiculous outfits.

Luckily the beautiful outlaw Stella Star (Caroline Munro) and her navigator (and resident know it all) Akton (Maroe Gortner) have the skills to help out. After some persuading by the gruff Chief Thor (Robert Tessier) and his country western robot Elle (Judd Hamilton with the voice of Hamilton Camp – no I’m not making this up), the four begin their quest. Along the way they will find strange new worlds, face off against amazons and troglodytes, witness the horrors of lava lamp creatures and unleash the power of Stella’s space bikini. Science Fiction will never the same again.

Movie Review:

Stella is ready for space adventure!
I watched and reviewed this movie a few years ago, and it instantly became one of my favorite bad movies. Starcrash hits a level I like to think of as beautifully bad. It is a movie that is completely entertaining in its ineptitude, lovely in its horrible acting, plot points, framing, lighting and overall aesthetic. It is a wonder to behold, and one of the rare types of movies that is artful because of the way it fails. Not too many movies can achieve such twisted perfection. Some examples include Samurai Cop for action movies, and Hawk the Slayer or the Ferrigno Hercules would be a good fit for fantasy films. But I may go out on a limb and say that Starcrash is the queen of them all.

The most impressive set in the film.
One look at the date this film was released, and you know exactly what it was going for: Star Wars. But like many of the cash-in films released during this era, Starcrash knows only that Star Wars was popular, but not the reasons why it worked overall. It tries so hard to please and entertain, and in some ways it does, but never in the way it intends to. At each turn, Starcrash goes hard left when it should go right, and you end up with a movie that is as bizarre as it is ridiculous.

Where to begin? Lets start with the overall visual approach to the film. Star Wars was famous for going for a “used universe” style with its visuals. It avoided the shiny newness that 2001: A Space Odyssey perfected. Instead it had a lived in look, something that grounded the science fiction and fantasy of George Lucas’ world.

Leaping cavemen! Are we in the right movie? Is this
Cave Dwellers?
Starcrash goes in a different direction, something that feels closer to comic books and specifically European comic books. The space opera is a ripe genre in European comics and with artists like Jean Giraud who worked on Heavy Metal and whose style influenced The Fifth Element and Blade Runner. It is no surprise that the visuals in Starcrash look more like these films, than they look like Star Wars or even the Star Trek television series.

The visuals are eye popping with the amount of color on display. Creatures like the red blob monsters and the energy weapons used seem to leap of the screen. The costumes are outlandish and over the top. Stella is sexy, so she has to dress in a space bikini. Count Zarth Arn is eeeeeviiiillll so he has to dress in black. And then there is the Emperor of the Universe himself, looking like a high priest of a metallic pagan festival… or space god… or something. Make up follows the same path, with so much color that it distracts more than compliments. And this being the disco era… well you know exactly what to expect.

Hyperspace looks cherry flavored.
The visual effects are all over the place. Starcrash does use a variety of techniques to bring the universe to life. None of them are very convincing, but all of them are a lot of fun. The previously mentioned red blobs look like a lava lamp superimposed over action. You get stop motion robots of various sizes. There are plenty of space ship models. A lot of them look like obvious kit bashing (again making you appreciate how good the ships in Star Wars looked). You even have a lightsaber that Akton wields in a couple scenes. The scenes where the ships travel through hyperspace involve some really bizarre visuals that may have been inspired by the star-gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Sound effects end up in the same boat. Lots of creative stuff, and some of it is pretty goofy sounding. But it isn’t as bad as the fight sound effects in something like Angels' Revenge so that is positive. I do wonder when it comes to sound effects in this era of Star Wars rip offs, if the creators realized how difficult it was to come up with unique sounds for everything. Or if they just sorted through the sound effects library and pulled out something that seemed to fit.

"Well of course I'm evil. Look at my clothes!"
Now there is an elephant in the room, and it has a 007 on its trunk. When it came to the music to Starcrash the creators wanted to capture that golden age sound that John Williams so masterfully captured. So they went to John Barry. Yes, that John Barry, the man who gave us memorable scores to Goldfinger, Dances with Wolves and The Lion in Winter. At the time Barry was dealing with some tax issues, so it is possible that Barry took the job for financial reasons only. But maybe he figured he might as well have some fun with the score.

"What do you mean I'm overdressed?"
Barry actually scored three science fiction films in the late 1970s, and all of them have similar tone and style. Starcrash has an easy going melodic feel to much of its score. Even the action music is dominated by whole notes and slow but deliberate pace. This is a style that Barry came to rely on around this point in his career (although you can hear the seeds of it as far back as The Lion in Winter). These long slow themes give everything in Starcrash an overly majestic and momentous quality. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it makes everything a bit more ridiculous. There are even a few callbacks to other famous scores. His main theme was certainly inspired by John Williams. And during a scene where Akton battles cavemen, Barry uses a fanfare that nearly mimics the famous Strauss piece from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Compared to his similar scores for Moonraker and The Black Hole it is probably the least of the three, but Barry fans will enjoy it.

"I think we'd get out of here faster if you call KITT."
And now we come to the acting. For a movie that is more Barbarella and less Close Encounters of a Third Kind it is a bit hard to judge. You get the feeling that the cast involved in Starcrash knew exactly what type of movie they were making. So there is a spirit of fun overlaying the whole thing. But you also get moments where you can tell the cast is losing interest (especially Gortner who is obviously staring off into a corner in some scenes). But I have to say Caroline Munro is giving it a great try, balancing sexy and tough fairly well. Hasselhoff also seems to be giving the silly film a solid effort, delivering some very ripe dialogue at times.

But my favorite performances are by Joe Spinell and Christopher Plummer. Spinell embraces his dark side as Count Zarth Arn. He is the opposite of subtle, and seems to be having a great time ranting, raving and chewing all the scenery he can find. His flourishes with his cape, his eye-popping anger and his booming voice all make him a highlight of Starcrash. Yes Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon was impressivly evil, but Zarth here, he’s just bombastically evil.

"Am I that transparent?"
On the opposite end is The Emperor of the Universe. Plummer also seems to be embracing and ludicrous nature of the plot, the characters and his costume. He delivers long speeches with his wonderful Shakespearean diction. Many of his lines are so stupid, and yet Plummer makes them sound so overly important (and John Barry’s music boosts them even further). It is an amazing mixture of stately and silly. Plummer is having a good time and you can’t help but enjoy his time on the screen, even when he is monologuing whole chunks of silly exposition.

Most of the acting is fairly broad across the board. Gortner bursts with zest and energy. Robert Tessier growls and glowers as Thor, who could be a prototype for Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy, you know, if he was in a cheap rip off of that movie. And then you have Judd Hamilton stumbling around and flailing as the robot hero Elle with the country fried voice acting of Hamilton Camp to give everything just that added touch of the surreal.

Stella is looking for Diana... wrong planet.
Like most of these type of knock off movies, not a lot of time was spent fleshing out a good script or solid characters. The idea was to rush something into the theaters as quickly as possible to cash in on a popular film. Starcrash certainly has those problems. But it also seems to really be into the idea of capturing the feel of some of the more experimental European space comics of the time. And maybe I’m giving the movie more credit than it deserves. But comics like Heavy Metal often featured stories where the plot flowed from one event to another with very little connective tissue. There weren’t established characters, but archetypes thrown into outlandish and visually expressive situations. The focus was on letting the visuals carry the mood and plot, such as it was. This is not at all like what we are used to in North America and especially in a Hollywood film. In fact it is the main different between Star Wars and Starcrash. Star Wars was inspired by plot centric serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Starcrash may have been inspired by material that was less concerned with plot and more concerned with imaginative visuals and sexy women shooting robots.

Frosted freaks?
With that in mind Starcrash actually captures that feel very well. The script does this strange thing where it has a simple concept, and yet feels overly convoluted. Our heroes have to find and stop the villain. But the journey to find him takes the form of a puzzle, taking them to different worlds to work it out (and that ignores the first third of the movie setting all this up). In some ways it is like the search for the Galactic Leyline in the anime series Outlaw Star. But that series managed to build clues over its 28 episodes. Starcrash isn’t that clever. It just has our heroes happen into things, or just have Akton reveal another power we didn’t know he had and figure things out.

Pumaman in a special appearance.
That is my main gripe with this movie. We have Stella Star who we are told is this fearless space outlaw. She does get a few good moments, especially during the prison break and on the planet of the Amazons. But about halfway through, Akton becomes our main character. He starts figuring everything out. He’s always right (and always smug about it). He starts obtaining all kinds of crazy powers like deflecting lasers with his hands and conjures a lightsaber out of nothing. Akton even gets to have a Disney fake-out death moment. Stella gets relegated to the sidelines making googly eyes at Hasselhoff. It is an odd turn of events and I’m not sure if that reflects the script or just how things ended up after editing.

Evil gets ready to fight. But are they ready for Akton?
Starcrash is a bad movie, but it an entertaining one. That might have to do with the fact that man directing it knew exactly how silly this whole thing was and didn’t care. Luigi Cozzi has made a career of making these kinds of movies including the Lou Ferrigno Hercules films and a knock off of Alien called Contamination (which is also a hoot, with lots of gross visual effects). Sometimes these movies play out like fever dreams, but they are so visual imaginative and populated by actors who are going for it that you can’t help but be entertained, as long as you don’ think about the plot too hard. That might cause you to see red blobs that destroy your brain.

If Starcrash has any painful issues, they revolve around the pacing. There are a few sequences that just take too long to play out. Sometimes I can’t tell if they are proud of the special effects and showing them off, or if they are padding the run time, or they figure, we’ve got Christopher Plummer, let’s have him talk for five minutes straight!

This reminds me of nothing at all, not a single thing.
In any case, these scenes often slow the momentum down a bit. There is an extended sequence where Stella finds a starship on a beach. She very slowly approaches it. Then very slowly boards it. Then very slowly makes her way to the bridge. Then very slowly turns around for the big reveal. John Barry’s music does its best to make this whole thing seem mysterious and impressive. But mostly you are wondering if Stella got hit by an Amazon slow motion blast or something.

These moments aside, Starcrash is a wonderfully bad film that I had always dreamed of getting the full Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. And when I saw it on the episode list for season eleven, I did a happy dance of joy. The question is, are Jonah and bots ready to take on this masterpiece of cheese?

Episode Review:

Plummer is trying to out-shiny his throne.
I’m biased; I’ll admit it right now. Because any time I get to watch Starcrash, it is a fun happy day in my book. So combine this movie with my favorite television series and it is like chocolate and peanut butter. Even if the riffing is only middling, I’m going to love this episode. So it should come as no surprise that I do, in fact, love this episode.

Starcrash is a movie that gift-wraps each scene for a riffing crew. Jonah and the bots are up to the challenge taking each of these scenes and going to town with it. Yes, there are quite a few Star Wars based riffs, but these are pretty much expected when it comes to this film. You also get some very funny moments where Tom starts singing improvised words along with John Barry’s thunderous score. During a scene where the Emperor of the Universe cruises over in his giant golden starship and the music swells with majesty, Tom croons about “The Space Church” which caused me to nearly laugh water out of my nose.

No one wants to talk in any elevator, Crow.
This episode also has a lot of moments where the bots get out of their seats and interact with the film. My favorite is during a scene where we travel in an elevator. Crow gets up and stands next to one of the troops and tries to engage in some small talk with him. The guy just ignores poor crow.

The heroic Akton is the source of many hilarious riffs. When we get a look at Stella and Akton from behind, Gortner’s blonde fluffy hair stands out enough for Tom to declare him “some kind of human/luffa hybrid.” Later on Jonah starts to sing, “Believe it or not, I’m not William Katt” to a familiar tune from the 1980s. When Acton begins to shoot waves of energy from his hands, Johan declares that “Akton’s hands have great WiFi.”

There is also quite a bit of singing in this episode. Tom usually improvises along with the score, but all three of the riffers make up a hilarious song about how stupid it is to enter an abandoned spaceship during the long slow scene where Stella does just that.

I bet the Amazon robot hits the gym daily.
But maybe my favorite riffing sequence takes place on the Amazon planet. Yeah I have a thing for warrior women, but besides that, the jokes are hilarious. When Crow gasps, “Amazon’s on horseback!” Tom replies with “That’s on my bucket list.” Me too! Later the bots get really excited when the huge Amazon robot lumbers around attacking our heroes in a hilarious homage to Talos in Jason and the Argonauts. Tom says, “Finally, a little something for the robots,” as the  busty robot stumbles around. In fact the riffs get a bit risqué in this sequence, but I was cracking up at the robots getting turned on by the stop motion giantess and Jonah’s growing discomfort.

Each torpedo comes with a surprise inside!
As they get near the end of the movie, the boys start to lose patience with some of those long slow sequences of filler. An armada launch sequence does provide them with a terrific opportunity to come up for silly names for each space ship, but they start to gripe a bit about these scenes. Luckily one of the funniest bits comes at the end when Plummer delivers a long and stupid monologue, and the boys add even more ridiculous lines to the whole thing.

For me the riffing in Starcrash is just about perfect when it comes to pacing. The riffs are plentiful but never run over each other. And the guys allow enough of the film to play out so you can enjoy the insanity before they chime in. This was the highlight of season eleven for me. Even rewatching it brought out more riffs that I missed the first time. Great stuff all the way around.

Is his cameo about nothing too?
The host segments don’t quite measure up to the riffing, but they are enjoyable. The episode starts with Jonah and the bots playing spin the bottle and it gets awkward. For the invention exchange, the Mad scientists create a Bandit of Condiments that may or may not have been inspired by the sombreros in The Beast of Hollow Mountain. Jonah reworks Tom Servo into BB-Servo inspired by the cute droid from StarWars: The Force Awakens. Unfortunately the Lucasfilm lawyers descend and beat Tom up! At the first break Crow creates a new space opera franchise called World War Space. It seems about as thrown together as Starcrash is. At the next break, the bots are so impressed with Akton and his myriad of abilities that they idolize him. Jonah arrives as Akton to show them the error of that kind of thinking.

Did Crow and Tom break the space time continuum?
We get a special celebrity guest in this episode. Kinga and Max get a visit from the brilliant marketing mind of Freak Masterstroke played with zeal by Jerry Seinfeld. For each marketing idea Kinga has, Masterstroke makes it even better, or at least more outrageous. It is all very silly, but fans of Seinfeld will get a kick out seeing the comedian on their favorite puppet show. The episode ends with Jonah in full Count Arn garb (including magnificent cape) and the bots arriving in torpedoes just like the Emperor’s soldiers in the film. Things get out of control very quickly. All fun and games until someone gets a dome smashed.

When Lava Lamps attack!
For me, this is the best episode of the season. I cracked up the first time and laughed a bit harder the second time I watched it. The combination of an immensely ridiculous and outlandish film combined with some top not riffing and plenty of energy from the cast makes this a real winner. Even if you are familiar with Starcrash, it I worth watching with Jonah and the bots along for the ride.

I give it five giant Amazon robots out of five.

This episode is available Netflix Download.

"And now we fight over whose hair is most spectacular."

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

And Then This Happened... Starcrash

We all had that one friend, or maybe acquaintance is a better term. This friend is always around, but no one really remembers who invited them over. This friend is annoying in so many special ways, but just funny enough to keep around. This friend has been known to be a disgusting slob, a insufferable know it all, or just in a constant obnoxious mood way too often. And yet, they always manage to show up at any given gathering.

Akton is that kind of friend. Just look at this guy and tell me he hasn't just said or done something annoying and yet kinda funny. Yeah he's Starcrash's resident frat boy. But can you give this moment a appropriate caption?

And then this happened...

Friday, September 22, 2017

Movie Musings: The Strange Journey of the Star Trek Films - Part 2

Part Two - The Next Generation and Beyond

Troi proves the seats are as comfy as they look.
In 1994, three years after Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country was release in theaters, Star Trek: The Next Generation released the season finale. Fans were heartbroken. But Paramount had launched its new series Deep Space Nine the year before. The hope was to get fans to enjoy the new show and get the cast from The Next Generation to start a whole new film franchise. It was a calculated move, but one that made sense looking at the scope of the franchise.

The first venture to the big screen for the new crew would be Star Trek: Generations also in 1994. The cast and crew from The Next Generation found themselves working double time to finish the television series and work on the feature film all at the same time. To entice fans of The Original Series back into the theaters, Captain Kirk would appear in the film and play a major role in the plot. To pull off this time traveling adventure the script went through many revisions. The result was a film that was very muddled from a story perspective. In the end, the movie was a financial success, proving that The Next Generation was popular enough to continue with films. But critical reception was mixed. No one loved the film, and many found much to dislike. But few felt it was as poor as The Final Frontier, so that is something to smile about.

No better way to start the morning. Spot of tea and
a Klingon babe who can crochet.
The next year Star Trek: Voyager arrived on television. Paramount was going all in with this era of Star Trek entertainment.  This was about the time where Star Trek reached its apex of popularity. Paramount moved forward confidently with Star Trek: First Contact, arriving in 1996. The movie used one of the most popular and dangerous enemies of the Star Trek universe, the Borg. It mirrored The Wrath of Khan in many ways, driving up the stakes, making the characters the focus and injecting plenty of action. The impressive budget allowed for some top notch visual effects. Most impressive of all was the commitment to tone. This is a dark gritty movie that keeps things tense and intriguing. Director Jonathan Frakes used his familiarity with the cast and crew to execute an impressive film. Fans loved every minute of it. Critics were also kind, and found a lot to like about the movie and the cast. It was a financial success coming close to the high point reached by The Voyage Home. Everyone seemed pleased with the film and was looking forward to more.

"She's trying to kill him. I just caught her."
More was on the way. In 1998, with Frakes once again at the helm, Star Trek: Insurrection arrived in theaters. This time the decision was made to make the film lighter and a bit more action heavy. First Contact was very dark, and the thought was that fans of the series would like a breather after that. Unfortunately several rewrites of the script ended up with something that felt like an extended episode of the television series. But the high budget and some gorgeous location shooting gave the movie a big screen presence.  Critical and fan response was mixed. For many this felt like a step back, lacking the impact to the characters and storylines they were seeing in the television series Deep Space Nine which was heading into its final season and raising tension and stakes to ridiculous levels. Insurrection felt tame in comparison. General audiences enjoyed it well enough, and the film was financially successful. But Paramount was beginning to suspect that they had oversaturated the market with Star Trek and decided to hold off on any further films for longer than usual.

Titanic, Star Trek style?
Deep Space Nine and Voyager ended in 1999 and 2001 respectively.  While both shows had their fans, the two series never grew into the pop culture force that The Original Series and The Next Generation did. Paramount didn’t feel comfortable trying to leverage either storyline into a full blown movie franchise. So they decided to craft a new series, one that took place before Captain Kirk’s time. Star Trek: Enterprise (or Enterprise as it was first called) arrived on screens in 2001. It was Paramount trying hard to bring in new fans to a new series they could call their own.

Troi just loves putting her feet up... on the phaser controls.
In 2002, after an extended delay Star Trek: Nemesis arrived in theaters. Paramount made no secret that this would be the last film for the crew of The Next Generation. They wanted to try to cultivate what they hoped would be a new, more popular series of adventures with the folks from Enterprise. Once again the focus of the film would be based on The Wrath of Khan template. Romulans were the enemies this time, and the focus on massive space battles at the end promised visual spectacle. They also tried to take the dark visuals of First Contact and give the film a more gritty look. The final result was a movie that didn’t appeal to anyone. Critics felt it was mediocre at best. Fans really disliked some of the plot points and the paint by numbers script. Even the cast wasn’t happy with this one. Much like The Final Frontier before it Nemesis was released during an insane year for sequels. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Die Another Day and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets all came out the same year. To many folks Star Trek looked old next to these newer franchises.  Nemesis was a critical and commercial failure and ended the film tenure of the Next Generation crew on a sour note.

You can't see the green alien babe dancing behind
the camera.
Paramount also miscalculated on the appeal of their new series Enterprise. Long time fans were turned off by the inconsistency within the Star Trek cannon. Others disliked the recycling of stories from previous series in the franchise. Had the saga run out of things to say? Others found the ramped up attempts at sex appeal and action to be too different from what had been established in the tone of The Next Generation series. Producers tried hard to turn things around in the third and fourth seasons, but ratings kept dropping. Enterprise ended its run in 2005 with a series finale that pretty much pissed everyone off.

Most science fiction fans wept a tear that day, figuring that Star Trek had taken its final voyage. Many of us were ready to move on. But Paramount wasn’t. Star Trek was a money making franchise, even if they never really understood it. They let some time pass and also decided that it was time to go back to basics. Star Trek’s most popular incarnation (and still the financial high point for the films) was the original series. If they could somehow leverage new stories in that universe, with familiar characters, they could bring Star Trek back to life.

The impact of Batman Begins as well as Casino Royale in 2008 must have convinced them that a reboot was not only possible, but the most likely way to get people back into theaters. They could recast with younger actors, get a popular director who knew his way around television series and big budget films. They went to J.J. Abrams, who had just made Mission Impossible III a success for Paramount, and asked him to reboot the franchise.

"Did you just die on the first Goomba?"
It was a bold move. But hey, Star Trek is all about being bold, right? The film started from the ground up, redesigning nearly everything to keep it visually familiar, but still new and fresh looking. Careful casting and a story that combined plenty of action and character interaction was penned. Big budget visual effects were brought in. And a key appearance by Leonard Nimoy as Spock would hook the old timers who were curious but cautious about the whole endeavor. And instead of a hard reboot which would alienate the more cannon obsessed fans, they used time travel to create an alternate time line. So now both storylines could exist in the same universe. Very clever. Perhaps the biggest change was the shift of focus to fun. Star Trek would be a film focused on providing a good time to the audience. No deep themes. No navel gazing or long conversations here. Just witty quips, plenty of action and excitement, and a cast that sparkled. It all worked wonderfully. Star Trek was a critical and financial success. Nostalgia for the old series was tapped into, but new viewers were also engaged with the fun characters and action. Yes, some hard core fans grumbled. This wasn’t their Trek. But nearly everyone else enjoyed the film for what it was. It lead to Star Trek being the most financially successful film in the franchise. Paramount was ready for more.

Run toward the red foliage, you'll blend right in.
Abrams stayed on board for the next film Star Trek into Darkness in 2013. Once again the decision was made to mimic Wrath of Khan, but more than just in story structure, but in full on story. The visual style was kept, but leaned more toward grey and black to give the movie a darker feel. Popular British actor Benedict Cumberbatch stepped into the role of Khan. Like the previous film, there is plenty of action and space adventure. But the story is much darker, with actual ties to current events. The script does take lines and moments from previous films and attempts to spin them in unexpected ways. But this ended up doing more harm than good. The tonal shift ended up disappointing those looking for a fun time (and would get it in Guardians of the Galaxy the next year). The script similarities and recasting of Khan would really vex other fans, who called it a mockery of some of the best of classic Trek. Critics generally seemed to enjoy the film. But there was a taint around it in general fandom that persists to this day. Financially the film did extremetly well, eventually surpassing the previous film overall.

"I don't see any booze. You said there was going to
be booze."
This guaranteed a sequel. Abrams left to work on Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the franchised shifted to Justin Lin. Star Trek Beyond was due in theaters in 2015, the 50th anniversary of the franchise. Lin went back to the format of the 2009 film and focused on fun and action as the guiding force for the movie. He also had a script that tried to feel more tied to the spirit of The Original Series more than the previous two film had. There are plenty of references to the older series in the film, as well as nods to all kinds of Trek lore. Unfortunately the focus on big action and banter continued to rub some Trek fans the wrong way. Some viewers fun with the film, but felt it was too lightweight. Other felt that the series was hurtling further and further from the original vision of Star Trek, and felt Beyond was further evidence of Paramount not understanding the franchise beyond a money making machine. Critical response was mixed. But financially the film barely broke even. (and some estimate that it didn’t). It was a disappointment for all involved.

While Star Trek Beyond was in production, Paramout felt the financial success of Into Darkness meant it was time to start up a new television series based on Star Trek. The goal was create something new and exciting for their new online network, and Star Trek: Discovery got the green light. It seems to have had some changes in direction during production and trailers have received a mixed reaction. Visually it looks a lot like the J.J. Abrams films. But it is supposed to take place before the events of The Original Series. Sounds like Enterprise all over again, but I’m willing to give it a shot. We’ll see if Beyond’s financial performance impacts the series. Who knows, if the series does take off, we might have more Star Trek films in the future.

It takes a special kind of guy to fall
for a Borg Queen.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)


It is kind of strange that a television series that debuted in the 1960s would actually hit is popularity peak in the late 1990s. But such was the fate for Star Trek. The Next Generation cast and concept was king of the science fiction world in the 90s. The success of First Contact pleased fans and Paramount and they were both anticipating the next outing of the famous crew. But this was also the ninth film of the series. And you know what they say about the odd numbered Star Trek films, right?


On a mission away from the Enterprise, Data (Brent Spiner) malfunctions and starts attacking Federation agents and their allies. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) arrives in time to stop Data’s rampage (with some help from Gilbert and Sullivan). When they finally get Data sorted out they discover that something triggered his morality protocol. Picard starts to investigate the Federation’s mission on this mysterious world.

The planet is populated by a blissful society that shuns technology, and are living in a state of perpetual youth. In fact, anyone exposed to the unique radiation emanating from the rings of the world starts to return to their prime physical condition. Of course this impacts the crew in a variety of amusing ways, but it also turns out to be the draw for Federation interest in the planet. Turns out there are a group of aliens desperate to harness the radiation, and if it means destroying all life on the planet to do it, they will. Picard can’t believe the Federation is mixed up in such a heinous scheme. So he declares an Insurrection and defies his orders. But will the crew of the Enterprise be able to stop the full might of the Federation long enough to turn the tables?

Good Points:
  • Sets up an interesting conflict for the crew of the Enterprise to untangle
  • A top not adventure score by Jerry Goldsmith
  • Wonderful location shooting and a less dark visual style

Bad Points:
  • Some of the humor doesn’t quite land
  • The alien races feel less creative than they should be
  • The whole film lacks in stakes or character evolution compared to other entries


If you are in the mood for a solid Star Trek adventure with the Next Generation cast, then this film will fit the bill. It has an interesting premise, some solid action scenes and sports a polished look. But it feels very middle of the road. Nothing really stands out that is bad or great. I see a lot of folks call this an extended episode of the series, and that is accurate. But for a feature film, I expect a little more.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review

Worf takes aim at the haters.
In many ways Insurrection feels like a firm attempt to distinguish itself from First Contact. This makes sense as the previous films in the series each had a central focus and style that made them unique. So Insurrection goes for lots of location shoot in the mountains of California. There are plenty of gorgeous settings with a variety of colors popping off the screen. First Contact spent most of its time in dark spaces often inside starships and cramped quarters. The use of color extends to the surrounding cast of aliens. Both the Ba’ku and the So’na have costumes that use different colors and textures. You also have the youthful Ba’ku and the wrinkled and withering So’na providing two distinct looks. The So’na use starships and technology, as well as aligning with non-human minions. The Ba’ku have denied themselves technology and are isolated. Lots of visual differences in these two groups and it provides for some visual interest and contrast to the single visual aesthetic of the Borg in First Contact. I think a lot of production work went into giving fans something different from the previous two Next Generation outings, and it shows on the screen.

The Enterprise is running a little rich there.
When it comes to visual effects you’ve got a strange situation. The film came out in 1998, right in the midst of the over-indulgence period of computer generated effects. Studios were showing off all the great things they could do with CG visuals, and how quickly the technology was evolving. The thing is, as impressive as these leaps were compared to previous restrictions with practical effects, most of these effects are starting to look their age. Insurrection boasted the first time all the starships in a Star Trek film were not created in any physical way. This allowed the camera to be much more dynamic as it could swoop in and around the virtual ships without worrying about physical restrictions. In that aspect, the film does some really interesting things. The shuttle versus shuttle battle between Picard, Worf (Michael Dorn) and the malfunctioning Data is fairly intense as the two shuttles chase and fire at each other while plummeting into the atmosphere of the Ba’ku home world. This whole sequence would have been very difficult to achieve with models, and the CG effects allow the team to pull it off really well. Many of the space sequences in general feel more dynamic as a whole, and give the film a boost.

The Son'a packed their ships full of oily rags.
On the downside the ships themselves are a mixed bag. This is still early in the life of CG effects and many times you can tell that the whole thing is obviously computer generated. Sometimes the textures don’t feel right or the lighting is slightly off. These ships haven’t aged all that well. Modern viewers will be pulled out of the story because their eyes are telling them that this stuff just isn’t real. It is interesting that these top of the line ship effects have dated poorly (especially on high definition televisions) but those amazing models of the Enterprise from The Motion Picture way back in 1979 still look amazing. Obviously CG would get better in the coming years with the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings paving the way. Hell, even Nemesis would have some excellent ship-to-ship combat sequences in four years. But in 1998, the technology wasn’t quite there yet.

They are so damn wholesome in their earth toned clothes.
I touched a bit on the two alien races in the film, and that is one visual aspect where I feel things don’t quite work. I understand the idea behind the two cultures and the way they visually attempted to contrast them. But Insurrection has this problem of not quite going far enough with a concept. And the alien races in this film are a good example of that. The Ba’ku look like they live in a southern California outdoor mall. Their clothes seem like they were borrowed from central casting for drab extras for Renaissance Faire. It doesn’t seem like a utopia that we are supposed to believe. No matter how many happy faces we see, and how hard Jerry Goldsmith’s score tries to create a pastoral bliss setting, the visuals just don’t sell it. Something a little more primitive maybe, or just giving them something a little less wholesome… I’m not sure. But all told the Ba’ku are just not all that visual interesting of an alien race of humanoids.

Even whiney despots get hot alien babes.
The So’na fare a little better. It seems like there is a story behind why they have allied with the two non-human races that work with them. They are constantly stretching their skin and trying to stay young. Their clothing has obvious metal in it giving them some hard and jagged visuals. Most of their technology has that same unfriendly feeling to it. It is not a bad visual concept, but it also feels like it could have gone just a touch further. The skin stretching seems like an interesting idea and a pointed dig at a society so obsessed with youth that they are torturing themselves and willing to commit atrocities to maintain that youth. Yeah, Insurrection has something to say about a lot of things. But these cosmetic surgery moments cheapen them a little. It makes them seem petty instead of desperate. Part of that may be F. Murray Abraham’s performance choices, but as a whole the So’na feel like they lack in the threat department. Visuals play into it, but I think it is also a script issue.

Sound effects are excellent. You expect a Star Trek film of this era to take elements from the series and punch them up with some impressive sonic power, and you get that in Insurrection. Obviously the big battle scenes are highlights. But there is some really excellent sound work in the shuttle pursuit sequence, and I really like the effects for the drones that used to chase the Ba’ku in their exodus to the mountains. All in all, the sound enhances the film and will rock your speakers when it needs to.

Heroes reporting for duty.
Jerry Goldsmith returns to Star Trek for his fourth film. This is great news for fans of the franchise, and what we get is probably the best Star Trek film score of the 1990s. Goldsmith takes ideas he crafted from The Motion Picture, The Final Frontier and First Contact and weaves them together into the new film. The main title is of course taken from the 1979 film, but he opens the movie with the television arrangement that includes Alexander Courage’s theme for the 60s series. Also taken from The Motion Picture is the Klingon theme. Once again he turns it into a motif for Worf when he engages in heroic actions. It is a fun addition that fans of the franchise always look forward to. From his score to The Final Frontier, Goldsmith takes his camaraderie theme and uses it for the crew of the Enterprise when they are working together.

Could be Ru'afo is overcompensating for something.
But the score is more than old material. The So’na and Ba’ku both get themes. The So’na’s is a relentless threatening motif that drives many of the key action material in the score. It often plays in counterpoint with the main theme and the camaraderie theme, creating that dynamic interplay of musical action that Goldsmith excelled at. And speaking of the action music, Insurrection goes full bore with thrilling action tracks that feature an orchestra unleashing its power, and integrating synthetic sounds the interplay with the orchestra. The result is a score that could only be for Star Trek. The synths are a unique array that span delicate crystalline sounds to some heavy bass tones. Goldsmith never attempted to duplicate orchestral sounds with synths. He wanted the electronic sounds to have their own voice, and when he was at the top of his game it is impressive. Insurrection is right up there with Total Recall when it comes to top-notch weaving of orchestra and synths. 

Picard and Anij talk philosophy and life.
Goldsmith was also attracted to the Ba’ku and their peaceful ways, as well as Picard’s romance with Anij (Donna Murphy). At this point in his career Goldsmith felt he was typecast as “the action guy” so he was always on the lookout for composing a love theme. His music for the Ba’ku has a wonderful gentle pastoral feeling to it. He uses it quite a bit and shifts its tone depending on the action on screen. It is a bit complex of a theme, so it doesn’t stick in the mind all that well. But it gets some showcase moments in the film. The love theme is directly linked to the Ba’ku theme, and can even be thought of as an extension of it. It is tender and emotional, as it should be. Most often you hear it and its variants when Picard and Anij are together. These two lovely themes give the score for Insurrection its own unique voice. Combined with the excellent action music, this score is well worth enjoying outside the film in either the original release or the excellent expanded edition.

We aren't letting you out until you promise to
stop singing the "lifeforms" song.
Enough of me gushing about my favorite film composer. Let’s take a look at the acting. Let’s be honest here, the cast of the Next Generation should be good at their jobs after playing these characters for 11 years. They all do a solid job in the roles, and even though the script has its problems, the cast does what they can with the material. As is usual for the films of this series Picard and Data are the focus of the script, so the most impressive acting comes from Stewart and Spiner. Data is up to his old shtick again. But Spiner does it all so well, that you can’t help but be engaged. When he malfunctions early in the film, Spiner gives him this cold persona, operating on his morality protocol. After he is repaired, he’s back in typical Data mode, and his interaction with the rest of the crew as they become more youthful aims for humor. Spiner plays it well enough… but that weak script rears its head. Falling in that same line is Data’s interaction with the child Artim (Michael Welch). The material is overly familiar (if you’ve seen the series) and it feels cliché, but Spiner and Welch do a solid job growing the relationship between the two.

I think Riker shaved his beard so he wouldn't look
like Dougherty here.
Stewart gets the juicer material in this film. I’ve already mentioned his romance with Anij. But Murphy and Stewart do a good job creating the chemistry needed for the characters and letting us buy into the relationship. Tough since it happens so quickly. Just as crucial to Insurrection is the interaction with Picard and Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe). Zerbe is always dependable when it comes to playing weasely characters. His interaction with Picard is really excellent and the two play off each other well. You can actually see Picard losing more and more respect for Dougherty as the film progresses. Zerbe plays it just right. You can tell he annoyed with Picard, but also feeling the guilt of his actions, and they eat at him. But he’s too stubborn (and afraid of the So’na) to do anything about it. Stewart is always good, and his performance here really helps the film overcome its script on a number of occasions.

One of Burton's best moments in the films.
The rest of the crew does a fine job. Levar Burton gets a really excellent moment when Geordi’s eyes regain their natural sight and he witness a sunrise with them for the first time. I also really like Jonathan Frakes’ performance when dealing with the pursuing So’na ships. When he gets fed up and takes the fight to them it’s a treat to see Riker just bring on the pain. You can tell Frakes is having fun. He even has some playful scenes with Marina Sirtis that build on their relationship, and actually lead to events in Nemesis. Sadly Gates McFadden and Michael Dorn aren’t given too much to do. Mostly they deliver exposition and some comedic lines. Solid work, but the script doesn’t do anything interesting with them.

He just found out that Mozart is still alive.
Once again we get a villain that is bent on revenge. Yeah, Paramount kept trying to capture The Wrath of Khan vibe in as many Star Trek films as they could. In this case they brought in F. Murray Abraham to play Ru’afo (what is with all the apostrophes in these alien names?). Abraham can be very menacing and sinister, we’ve all seen it. And there are some really great moments where he is intimidating, especially when dealing with Admiral Dougherty. But there are other times where Ru’afo comes across like a petulant child. He nearly throws a tantrum when things don’t go his way. He expresses his frustration with howls of petty anguish and whining. This kind of performance can work, if the villain is a wild card. But Ru’afo has a specific agenda, and his antics just don’t feel like they mesh with the character concept. Abraham goes over the top a few times, and he seems to be having a blast chewing the scenery. Unfortunately I don’t think his performance works the way it should have. Instead of a desperate man leading a group of desperate people, we get a whiny dictator who is obsessed with stretching his face. The threat as a whole is diminished because of his petty villain.

What sorcery is this?
Yet that may be by design. I get the feeling that Insurrection was trying to say a lot of different things thematically. That may be one of the key issues. It tries to say so many things that it doesn’t say any of them well. The script draws obvious parallels between the situation with the Ba’ku and the Native Americans. This story theme was really going around Hollywood in the 90s; even Disney was tackling it in Pocahontas. Picard’s main conflict with Dougherty strikes at the crux of the argument, where the Captain asks the Admiral how many ruined lives does it take before it becomes a concern. What is interesting is that this flies directly in the face of one of the key tenants of earlier Star Trek films: the needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few. Starfleet is proceeding logically, harnessing the resources that will benefit millions of people at the expense of a few hundred inhabitants. It is a hard choice, and distasteful choice. And Starfleet makes it. I like the idea behind this film and how it shows Picard breaking further and further away from Starfleet. If the movie had focused on this aspect of the film, it could have been really something special.

I've heard of "losing face" but this is ridiculous.
But then they added the fountain of youth element to the script and I think this is was the real issue here. Maybe it was added to further link the film to the Wrath of Khan where age plays an important thematic role. Maybe they felt it would give them plenty of humor opportunities like seeing Picard mambo and hear Troi and Crusher talk about firm boobs. Maybe someone on the crew always wanted to see Worf with a zit. I don’t know. In any case this fountain of youth concept feels a little too magical, and not quite Next Generation era Star Trek. It is the same issue I have with The Nexus in Generations. It feels like a construct, not something grounded in the world of the series. Because of the youthful energy, we get some of the issues with the villains too. They are desperate for the energy so they can stay alive. But the film keeps focusing on looking and feeling young. So the villains get painted with that too and end up looking petty, especially with all of Ru’afo’s face stretching nonsense. It also makes Starfleet look petty for wanting this as well. Are humans that insecure that they would rape a planet to stay young, even with medicine in this century extending life and youth already?

"Great, now I've got the 'Lifeforms' song stuck in my head."
Picking this type of resource was the major issue here. This could have been a new power source, or something that makes cloaking ships easier, or hell, you could stay medical and make it something that keeps you from being assimilated by Borg and tie it back to the previous film. In this way the stakes are clear for Starfleet and the villains. No one seems petty, and the question that Picard poses becomes more important. Is Starfleet willing to exchange their morality for their advancement? If so, can Picard still be part of Starfleet? The insurrection becomes a more powerful outcome here. But part of me wonders if making the villains and Starfleet look petty was intentional, that way Picard looks like a more obvious hero. If that was the idea, I don’t think it was successful. The movie didn’t generate discussion because of this critical decision. The question was too muddled and many viewers focused on the tone of the script and the attempts at humor that didn’t pay off.

Um yeah.... no.
Yeah let’s talk about the humor. Now, Star Trek has never been the bastion of non-stop laughs. But let’s be honest and say that The Voyage Home handled it’s fish out of water humor with a great deal of skill. It was a fun movie all the way around. I get the feeling the Insurrection was going for the same feel. Unfortunately, most of the humor in the film lands with a thud. Nearly all the jokes based around the characters feeling younger just seem too goofy. Data being confused by this worked OK, but begged the question, was his emotion chip back in? There are a few scenes where it seems to be the case. Geordi mentions that Data removed it for the mission for Dougherty. But when he is repaired did it pop back in? Oh and speaking of Data. The scene where Picard and Data sing Gilbert and Sullivan just doesn’t work for me. Each time I revisit the film, I know it is coming. I hope my reaction will be different. But nope, sorry, it just isn’t funny or fun. It slows the momentum of that excellent sequence down to a crawl. That may be the biggest issue here, not so much that the humor is dopey. But the fact that it doesn’t feel like it does much add to the film, but instead slows it down. I get they were going for a lighter tone overall, but I think the darker First Contact handled its lighter moments with greater skill.

After how many years and it all comes down to a
bubble bath.
There is also a difference between lighter tone and a fluffy plot. That may be one of the strangest things about Insurrection. It is called Star Trek: Insurrection. That word has a lot of weight to it. But the film has a light feel. The stakes never seem all that high, and the adventure itself doesn’t really impact the characters or the universe as a whole. All the best films in the franchise impact the characters in a meaningful way or change the Star Trek universe in a meaningful way. The great ones do both. Insurrection doesn’t do either. You could argue that Troi and Riker cement their relationship in this film, but it seems like such a sub-sub plot I don’t count that. Once again, look at The Voyage Home. It is fun and light, but the stakes for the characters are real. Earth is in massive peril, and the crew may be trapped in the past. Not only that, but you have a further evolution of Spock’s character in this film. His growth to return to his former self is an interesting mini-journey. Picard is really the only one seems to have any stakes in this film. But the potential was there for Insurrection to be the start of something larger in the Star Trek universe.

Never give up. Never... oh wait...
If memory serves, that was the original idea. But Paramount got cold feet. They didn’t want to change things too much to scare away loyal fans, and they didn’t want to make a film so entrenched in Star Trek lore that it would alienate a wider audience. A similar fate affected Generations and Nemesis during the screenwriting process. And all three of these films feel like they could have been much improved with a much more focused script and some actual guts in the storytelling. I know that Insurrection featured an ending that didn’t include Picard and Ru’afo shoot at each other on a scaffold and then a huge explosion. That was all done later because the original ending was deemed too low key (or too “Star Trekky” when some people tell the story). I’m not sure if more action and explosions was going to help a movie that was already so muddled in the script.

Hair. You're doing it wrong.
The thing is Jonathon Frakes does a very good job directing this film. He sets up and shoots the action sequences very well. There is a lot of momentum and energy during many key moments in the film. Yeah the humor doesn’t always land, but that has more to do with the way it was folded into the script. Maybe he could have moved some scenes around in the editing room, but with the location shooting giving the scenes unique looks it might have been tougher without full blown reshoots. Frakes gets good performances out of his cast, and everyone seems to be engaged in the material. It is a solid job, and I don’t blame him for the way the film turned out.

Another adventure complete. What does the future hold
for our brave crew?
Let’s be clear here, I don’t hate this movie. I enjoy it while it is on. But it is one of those movies that I tend to forget about when talking about the franchise as a while. It falls right in the middle of the pack. Not failing enough to be memorable. Not being good enough to be memorable either. It’s a flawed movie for sure, but it has some real highlights. I see some people put this one down as one of the worst (or absolute worst) of the entire series. I’m not sure where they are coming from. I can think of two other Star Trek films that are much weaker than Insurrection. But I think that expectation plays a big part in this. First Contact surprised everyone. It was really good, and looked even better compared to Generations. I think that with the same cast and crew coming back, expectations were really high for Insurrection. What we got was a storyline that feels like it could be a two-part episode from the television series. That isn’t bad. But for a big budget blockbuster we were all expecting a lot more. Seeing the film these days, with adjusted expectations, I find it entertaining, but not much more than that. Sad but true.

Guess who I am. Geordi! Get it?

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