Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Star Trek: Generations

Onboard the newly-christened USS Enterprise-B, Captain John Harriman (Alan Ruck) welcomes Kirk, Scotty and Chekov for a photo-op and a brief maiden flight.  The Enterprise, not yet prepared for active-duty service, is nevertheless pressed into her first mission when a distress signal is received from a couple of ships that are trapped inside some kind of energy vortex.  The Enterprise rescues a handful of people from these ships, among them Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) and Dr. Tolian Soran (Malcolm McDowell) but in the process of escaping from the vortex Captain Kirk is lost and presumed dead.

100 or so years into the future the Enterprise-D, under the command of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, receives a distress call from an observatory, whose only survivor is the very same Dr. Soran.  Soran, it ultimately turns out, has a deal with a group of Klingons - he gives them the technology to destroy a star, and they help him carry out his plan to bring the energy vortex, called the Nexus, to the surface of a planet.  Soran desires to re-enter the Nexus, which presents to those who enter it a timeless and ageless vision of paradise, where immortality and ultimate happiness are achievable.  Soran's plan involves destroying stars in order to alter the gravitation along a path that will ultimately bring the Nexus to a planet, from which he can re-enter it, and the solar system in which he plans to re-enter the Nexus contains an inhabited planet which will be wiped out if he is able to go through with his plan and destroy the solar system's star.

Picard, having beamed down to the surface of the planet to confront Soran, is ultimately unsuccessful in stopping him, and both men enter the Nexus as the star and both the inhabited planet, and the Enterprise, are destroyed.  Picard manages to reject the promise of the Nexus and instead seeks out the help of Captain Kirk, who is alive and well inside his own personal Eden, to come back with him to a point in time just before Soran destroyed the star, where the two men together will be able to stop him where Picard alone failed.  They manage to stop Soran, but Kirk is killed in the process.  Picard re-groups with the crew of the Enterprise on the surface of the planet, where the saucer section had been grounded after a battle with the Klingons, and the crew leaves an unsalvageable Enterprise-D behind but the solar system intact.

I think it's safe to say that the 7 key members of the Enterprise-D's crew (Picard, Riker, Data, Geordi, Worf, Troi and Dr. Crusher), taken as a whole, are not as iconic as the 7 members of the original Enterprise's crew.  A bare two years after the final film for the original crew, the film series is essentially completely rebooted with this crew, a crew that was certainly well-known but not cultural icons.  So this film had two jobs to do - it had to tell an interesting story (it couldn't afford to dick around with atmospherics like Star Trek I, since there wasn't a backlog of goodwill and anticipation built up) and it had to introduce our new crew, and make audiences care about them.  Whether it did the former is debatable, I guess; I think there are interesting ideas here that are too often botched, but the basic premise of the film is decent enough, certainly not a complete write-off. Whether it did the latter, however, is a very easy question to answer - it did not.  This film effectively only has 4 characters: Captain Picard, Data, Soran, and Captain Kirk.  That means that, of the seven members of the Enterprise-D's crew, 5 of them are completely superfluous.  To be fair, in 6 films with the original crew, I think Uhura had a grand total of about 3 scenes, and one of those involved her doing a naked fan dance.  So the Star Trek films have always had this problem.  But given that this is a new day of Star Trek, with a significantly more generous leading actor and quite a bit of the 90's era of good feelings baked into the formula, it's pretty disappointing that the film has almost nothing to say about the bulk of its characters.  Even Guinan gets more to do than the superfluous 5.

More than anything else, this film reflects an incredible lack of confidence on the part of the producing team.  The crew of the Enterprise-D doesn't even make an appearance until almost 20 minutes into the film, and the entire third act is given over to Picard and Kirk, with the rest of the crew figuratively and literally side-lined, with nothing to do and no part to play in the plot.  Giving over so much of the film to Shatner is understandable from a commercial standpoint but absolutely indefensible from a storytelling one.  His crew had its time.  They rode off into the sunset, in a movie that allowed them to do so on their own terms.  And yet here he is again, pulling a film that is supposed to celebrate the new crew into his own inescapable orbit.  It was a massive miscalculation, and probably doomed the film before it shot an inch of film, even if the rest of the movie wasn't so decidedly mediocre, which it is.

Bullet points:

The miscalculation starts from the very beginning.  The three old-timers pile aboard the Enterprise-B and what is their first scene about?  Them getting old.

The Enterprise-B is an ugly, dumpy, squat excuse for a starship.  It looks like an MMA fighter, one of those guys with a big square head and no neck.  A totally unlovable monstrosity, something that was obviously cooked up without a lot of forethought.

Captain Cameron Frye, who is presumably Kirk's successor as the captain of the Enterprise, is badly undermined immediately.  How did an indecisive putz like him move all the way up to captain?  And Kirk acts like a total asshole towards him the whole time he's on his ship, questioning him about the lack of all the amenities that have yet to be installed because the ship isn't in mission shape.  Kirk is an old war hero who is on the Enterprise for some dumb photo op, traveling around the Solar System on the new ship.  The fact that the ship left spacedock without those amenities is, quite frankly, kind of his fault.

The dude who played Tuvok is on the Enterprise-B.  I guess they liked his "taciturn helmsman" performance enough to bring him back.

You know, as much as the bridge of the Enterprise gets tossed around like a cork, maybe the seats should come equipped with safety belts.

We open up with this crew with a scene on the holodeck (of course), with the whole crew dressed in old-timey sailing gear for a promotion ceremony in Worf's honor.  Do they always go through this horseshit whenever they promote someone?  That seems like a lot of trouble, and also perhaps suggests that Captain Picard is not totally sound of mind.  Also, considering that they're promoting the ship's only Klingon, isn't it kind of a dick move to do this whole thing with old human traditions instead of, you know, Klingon ones?

Picard's geuine nostalgia about 18th century sailing culture also makes him seem like an idiot.

The first shot of the Enterprise doesn't even show the whole ship, just a brief glimpse as the ship closes in the aforementioned observatory.  Okay, the inordinate amount of time spent ogling the Enterprise in the original cast films was a little bit unseemly, but this is almost worse.  It's a neat ship!  Give us something to work with here.

I've always liked the design of this ship's bridge, although the fact that the Captain is directly flanked by his first mate and (ugh) counselor pretty much immediately dates it.  Do all Starfleet commanders have a counselor like Troi sitting next to them?  And if they don't, why did they design the ship that way?

The "emotion chip" that Data gets saddled with during the entire course of this film basically just means that Brent Spiner overreacts to everything and also becomes a hacky, Borscht Belt comic.  It is really quite upsetting.  I didn't even touch on this plot in the recap, the "Data gets to be a real boy" plot, because I don't know what to do with it.  Do fans like this?  I certainly don't.  Data's interesting for the same reason that Spock was interesting, because their lack of an emotional response sets them apart from everyone else, and allows everyone else's common humanity to be seen in relief.  And this film immediately undercuts that, and just makes Data a really unpleasant character.  Part of the problem here is Spiner himself, who really dials it up to an unnecessary extreme.

Dr. Soran has a phaser that's designed to deliver a gangsta-style killshot, in that the gun rotates 90 degrees so that it has to shoot sideways.  "That would be cool!" is a thing someone in production said.

Picard cries, to his counselor, while discussing with her the death of his brother and his brother's son.  Touchy-feely 90's-era Star Trek, at its pinnacle.

I'm guessing that this family of Picard's, if they ever got any notice in the show before, it was only obliquely.  There's this sort of unavoidable irony at play here where you have a show that ran for, what, almost 200 hours total?  But since each of those was parceled out in 1 hour blocks, there was presumably not a lot of time to explore character backstories, since each episode's individual plot had to be dealt with.  Here we have a bare 2 hours of Star Trek, but since it is 2 full hours, dealing with the same plot the whole time, you get stuff like this.  And make no mistake, this character beat that they're forcing Stewart to play is kind of awful, with the audience asked to care about the death of a couple of people who either we have never heard of before (like me) or maybe have the barest hint of their existence (if you're a fan, and this came up in the show at some point.)  Because given how low-stakes "Picard's brother and nephew have died offscreen" really is in the grand scheme of things, it forces the audience to think less of Picard, who gets all whiny and pissy before he's had a chance to actually do anything cool or heroic.

Troi uses her telepathic sense on Picard to come up with the keen insight, "Your family history is very important to you."

God, even Picard is obsessed with getting old.  ENOUGH WITH THIS FUCKING THEME, STAR TREK!  WE GET IT!

There are echoes of earlier shitty Star Trek movies in Soren's plot, with him being a crazy old man trying to get to paradise (V) and also enlisting the help of a renegade group of Klingons (III)

Guinan sure has a lot of candles in her room.  That seems unsafe on a starship.

Soran, during the course of events, takes Geordi hostage, and he holds Geordi captive, shirtless, with a leather collar around his neck, in cinema's least well thought-out reference to Roots.

The Stellar Cartography set-piece is really, really cool.  It's too bad it takes so long to finally begin, after another long, boring discussion by Data about what it means to feel emotions.

Data singing.  The "scanning for lifeforms" song as he pushes buttons on the console.  This....this is a low.

Soran and the Klingons exchange Geordi for Picard, and in the process they rig his visor to allow them to see everything he sees.  He eventually makes his way to Engineering where he sees the ship's shield frequency, allowing the Klingons to shoot photon torpedoes right through the Enterprise's shield.  So the stupid Prefix Code (they don't call it that this time, but it's the same principle) screws the Enterprise, in the way that it was always going to.  All it took the Klingons to get it was to smuggle a damn camera on board.  Sure they did it in Geordi's visor but, honestly, given 24th century technology does anyone doubt they could have stuck a camera in a discrete spot on any given random ensign's uniform?  The prefix code is a terrible idea.  They should have fixed it by now.

Why does the Klingon ship have a periscope?

When the Enterprise manages to defeat the Klingon ship and blow it up, it is definitely the exact same "Klingon ship explosion" effect from Star Trek VI.  Exact same.

Part of the "Picard for Geordi" hostage negotiation involves Picard being beamed down to Soran's location on the planet.  I actually like the quiet detente between Soran and Picard, as Soran does his final preparations for the star-destroying weapon, and Picard can't get to him because he's protected by a forcefield.

So the Enterprise, after the battle with the Klingons, has its warp core irrevocably damaged, and the ship has to separate the saucer section from the rest of the ship.  I get the impression that this is a Big Deal, the sort of thing fans had been pining for for a long time.

They have to evacuate everyone from the lower portion of the ship into the saucer.  Someone on the Enterprise, during the evacuation scene, is clearly holding a tribble.

Why would sickbay be in the same section of the ship that houses the warp core?  That's just sloppy design. There's also a really regrettable amount of kids in the section of the ship that is most in danger of going completely critical in the event of a particularly heated space battle, which happens to the Enterprise, I don't know, all the goddamn time.

Given that this is the second Enterprise in this film series that has been written off as a total loss, Starfleet's insurance premiums must be astronomical.

The saucer section gets pulled down by the gravitational field of the planet, and crash-lands in a forest.  Most everyone seems to live, because Hollywood.  Anyway, the force of the crash broke the glass dome on the bridge, which is a thing that exists I guess?  This is another one of those things that is just really bad design.  If the crash could do that damage, so could a well timed phaser or photon torpedo burst out in space, and then the entire command crew of the ship would be sucked out into the void of empty space.

One of Picard's kids in the Nexus is played by Thomas Dekker, who's been in a bunch of stuff but who I always think of as this little bastard, from Seinfeld:

Credit to the filmmakers for making the Nexus more than just a MacGuffin and actually exploring it as a space.  And then all that credit removed, and many demerits added on top, for how blandly pedestrian the whole thing is.  Picard's paradise is some cloying, Victorian-era domestic scene (and the whole scene is underscored by the most unsubtle choral oohing and aahing imaginable); Kirk's is a cabin that someone built in basically the same location that they had their awful camp-out in Star Trek V (Kirk dreams of, I guess, spending all day chopping wood) and then something something horses.  This is the place that warped Soran's mind so bad that he was willing to kill hundreds of millions of people in order to re-enter it?

And here's the other thing - this scene totally sells out everything we know about both characters.  What is the one thing we know about Captain Kirk, the one message that was drilled in our heads over and over and over again through the first 6 movies?  He lives for captaining a starship.  That is his passion, through and through.  He mentions that the cabin used to be his house until he sold it, presumably because he was out gallivanting around the galaxy and didn't need a house on boring, provincial Earth.  But the Nexus, taking him to his own personal Eden, takes him to a life of domesticity on Earth?  Give me a fucking break.  All the same things apply to Captain Picard.  If he wanted to settle down and have a big family and celebrate Christmas with them in domestic bliss, he could have.  He chose to pilot a starship around the galaxy, because that is what he actually wanted out of life.  The Nexus doesn't even give you what you actually want, it just grounds your ass on Earth and says, "This is what you always actually wanted, trust us."  Fuck the Nexus.

Guinan serves as Picard's spirit guide in the Nexus through the power of whatever sci-fi witchcraft they exposit.  She brings him to Kirk's paradise, because magic.

Kirk cracks an egg in a hot pan first, and then proceeds to start whisking it.  God, what a dingus.  Give Shatner credit here though, he's having a lot of fun.

Why does Picard need Kirk to help with with Dr. Soran?  Does he need his technical expertise?  His knowledge of Soran and the Nexus?  No. He just needs an extra set of punching fists.  This movie thinks so, so small.

And then a bridge falls on Captain Kirk and he dies and everyone hates this movie forever - even by Hollywood standards, Kirk's death scene is remarkably stupid, not just for the chumpy way he goes out but also by how much jolly opining he is allowed to do before he expires.  And his prophecy from the earlier films doesn't come true in that he doesn't die alone, because Picard is there, but maybe this movie just doesn't think much of Picard, and thinks that dying with him around is the same as being all by yourself?  Kirk doesn't even get a proper burial, just an ugly pile of rocks in some godforsaken, backwater shithole.

Data finds his orange tabby in the Enterprise's wreckage and the cat is as happy to see him as every cat always is to see their owner, which is to say not at all.

I guess I have to mention the fact that the plot of this film, with its no-questions-asked time travel, means that Picard could never truly fail his quest, because he could keep entering the Nexus over and over and then go back in time until he got it right.  He didn't even really need Kirk's help, except he's lazy and didn't want to have to keep doing it again and again.

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