Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Star Trek: Nemesis

A member of the Reman race, the inhabitants of the Romulans' sister planet, takes over the Romulan Senate and initiates peace talks with the Federation.  The Enterprise-E, after discovering a more primitive version of Data named B-4 on a remote planet, is sent on a diplomatic mission to Romulus and there meets the Reman Shinzon (Tom Hardy), who is actually a human clone of Picard who was raised in the crucible of the Reman slave mines.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Shinzon turns out to be less interested in peace than he seems, and his true goal is to conquer not simply the Romulan Empire but the Federation as well, by using "thalaron radiation" which is weaponized on his ship, to wipe out life on Earth.  In addition, the procedure that cloned him left him with a life-span that is rapidly coming to an end, so he needs Picard's DNA to reverse the process.  Shinzon captures Picard and plans to undergo the procedure that will save him, but is foiled in the attempt by Data - Shinzon had planted B-4 for the Enterprise to find, and had been using him to obtain information about the Federation, but when he thought he beamed B-4 onboard his ship it was actually Data.  With Picard and Data back on board, the Enterprise heads to Earth but is ambushed by Shinzon's ship on the way, and after a space battle which leaves both ships (and another Romulan ship which had entered the battle to try to stop Shinzon) partially crippled, Shinzon activates the thalaron device in order to kill everyone on the Enterprise, and tells his crew to continue to Earth and complete their mission without him.  Picard beams onboard and fights his way to the bridge to stop Shinzon, ultimately killing him, but without the time left to turn off the thalaron device.  Unknown to him, Data has also come onboard Shinzon's ship, and his final act is to affix a beaming device to Picard to beam him back to the Enterprise, before he destroys the thalaron weapon and in the process blowing up Shinzon's ship and also sacrificing himself.  Back on board the Enterprise the crew mourns Data's loss, but B-4 turns out to have been given more of Data's memories than the crew realized, and Data will live on in a fashion through B-4.

I've watched a handful of Next Generation episodes, of varying quality, but the one that I always think of first when I think about the series is "Tapestry".  I won't go into the details of the plot (most of you people probably know it better than I do anyway) but it's an episode about the way our experiences create the person we are, and that we should treasure all of them, both the positive and the negative.  It's an effective episode of television - it's about a Big Idea, and it plays around with alternate timelines and other fun science fiction conventions, while also revealing a nice bit of backstory about Jean-Luc Picard.

Star Trek: Nemesis attempts to find its way to a similar theme.  Shinzon and Picard have the exact same DNA, but they have lived completely different lives, and are very different people (and they are implicitly and explicitly compared to B-4 and Data in this).  Shinzon is angry and vindictive, and is willing to commit monstrous acts of genocide in pursuit of his goals; Picard, naturally, is a scholar and a humanitarian, and believes in peaceful exploration.  It's probably not a surprise when I say that this idea never coalesces in the slightest - Shinzon and Picard don't seem remotely similar on any level, and it is only through exposition that we would even know that they are clones.  Given that The Next Generation is a series about ideas more than it is about action, it's a fairly major indictment of all four of these films that they almost entirely botch their ideas (with a bit of leeway for First Contact, which I was underwhelmed by in general but at least had some vaguely interesting thoughts about revenge).  There isn't really all that much effort put into any of the ideas that these movies are nominally centered around, and Nemesis pretty much gives up on its idea after the first act.

However (record scratch).

Taking that as a given, that the ideas here are a complete non-starter that aren't even really worth discussing, then what is here is surprisingly successful.  In particular, I'd posit that the third act of the film is the most well-realized section of any of the TNG films - tense, exciting, filled with top-notch action and ending with a real emotional payoff (even if it basically repeats the exact same beats as Star Trek II).  A good third act can paper over a lot of sins, and this is a really great third act.  None of the Star Trek films have done a particularly great job of exploring the deeper ends of their bench, and the four Next Generation films were mostly interested in Picard and Data, with everyone else circling their orbit.  But of all the performances in all 10 films so far, I might like Stewart's here the best of the entire lot, because he manages to find depths in his personal quest that aren't really present in the script at all.  I don't think Nemesis is quite as good as the two best Original Series films (II and VI) but I think it is the one Next Generation film that can at least stand in their general vicinity.

Bullet pointin':

The opening scene aboard the Enterprise has Picard giving a speech about duty and honor and leading men into battle, and then the big reveal is that he is giving the best man speech at Riker and Troi's wedding.  This reveal makes him seem like a seriously narcissistic weirdo.

His speech eventually becomes emotional about how much he loves Riker and Troi, and I have to take the film's word for it that the emotion has been earned in the television series, because it certainly hasn't in the film series.

In the future, cymbals will still be the same shape and size, but they'll be made of green plastic.

Data croons a standard for Riker and Troi, because Brent Spiner had albums to sell.

On the planet where they find B-4, the away team of Picard, Data and Worf, after picking up the pieces of the android, are under assault by an entire army of Mad Max rejects.  No one ever seems the tiniest bit perturbed by this fact - the action direction here is pretty poor, with all the effort being poured in to making sure the three seem capable of battle, and no effort being placed on the actors giving believably frightened performances.  I can't stress just how outmanned the away team is - we know they will make it out okay, because it's early yet, but they shouldn't know that.

B-4 acts like child Data, and everyone is really shocked that he exists, but doesn't Data already have one brother called Lore who's evil?

Spiner's performance as B-4 ends up making sense once we get to the big emotional payoff at the end of the film, but it has the unfortunate side-effect of seeming to have been dropped in from a completely different film for the bulk of the running time.  Picard is doing tense, serious acting with Shinzon, discussing all sorts of monumental things, and in the background B-4 is basically eating paste.

We get a Janeway cameo.  For fans only, meaning not me.

The Remans, whose planet is only habitable on the dark side, look like Nosferatu.  It's one of those things that's way too obvious to be called clever.  Was the Reman/Romulan split ever dealt with in the series?  The film dumps a bit of exposition about it, but it all seems very cursory given that we're given this whole other race in this movie who are intimately tied to one of the major races of the Star Trek universe.

Dr. Crusher on how the Romulans managed to clone Picard: "They've probably used a hair follicle...."  Haha, baldy.

Shinzon explains away the fact that Tom Hardy doesn't actually look that much like Patrick Stewart by saying that all the violence he's experienced has altered his face.  Kind of stupid, but suspension of disbelief isn't totally out of the question.  But later, when Picard is looking at an old picture of himself from the academy, it's a picture of Tom Hardy in uniform.  That's sort of contemptuous.  We know Hardy and Stewart don't look alike.  You've hand-waved it away, and we will process it in our own way.  Move on.

Hardy was clearly not yet ready for movie stardom.  It's weird watching this now that he's a reasonably big star - it makes sense that an actor of his caliber would be asked to carry half the film in retrospect. But at the time, he was a nobody, and what he's asked to do in the film is well beyond his means.  He just seems like a petulant child, and he is unable to carry any of the menace that he is supposed to.

Have we ever seen fighter jets in the Star Trek universe?  I don't think I have.  Picard and Data commandeer one when they escape from Shinzon's ship.  Fighters don't fit, somehow, even though they should be a logical extension of everyone's military tactics.  Big ships blast each other with lasers and torpedoes, that's just the way battles happen. (This is obviously nothing more than a function of television-sized budgets in 1967, but I'm just spit-balling about the implications of that fact.)

Poor Gates McFadden has to do a lot of expositing in this movie.

Shinzon's offensive manuever that he runs against the Enterprise is named after himself, but the Enterprise's defensive manuever is named after Kirk.  Fuck that noise.

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