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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  1. I, too, found this film not painful but eminently forgettable. “Are humans that insecure that they would rape a planet to stay young…?” Well, I might be personally, but Starfleet stands for nobler stuff. It does seem outside their métier.

    1. Yeah when I see folks really railing on this movie, I just don't get it. Solid entertainment for sure. But I think the comparison to the previous film really hurt it.

      Yeah I found out recently that the writing for this film was a real issue. Lots of changes in direction and too many chefs in the kitchen. It did explain why the movie feels so messy at times.