Tuesday, September 15, 2009


No, “Star Trek: Insurrection” (*** OUT OF ****) is not as good as “Star Trek: First Contact.” Nevertheless, the ninth entry in the long-lived but prosperous space odysseys of Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the Starship Enterprise still has what it takes to boldly go. Director Jonathan Frakes, who helmed “First Contact,” shifts the emphasis away from the usual swashbuckling heroics in this otherwise predictable but entertaining installment. Instead, Frakes focuses on the camaraderie among the Enterprise crew. Character dominates action in “Insurrection.” Although younger “Star Trek” fans may complain about the scarcity of photon torpedo dogfights, the old guard will applaud “Insurrection” because the entire crew rather than Picard alone influences the outcome.

The Rick Berman & Michael Piller scenario has the Enterprise thwarting the forced relocation of 600 helpless colonists from their Eden-like planet whose properties make it a fountain of youth. Picard (Patrick Stewart) and crew find themselves drawn into an interstellar blood feud when android Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner) runs amok while participating in a Federation mission on the Shangri-La home planet of a gentle people called the Ba'ku. The Ba'ku live simple, uncomplicated lives comparable to the Quakers and the Amish. Shunning technology, these self-sufficient folks grow their own food and produce by hand their own clothes, tools, and art. According to the Ba’ku, when you create a machine to do a Manos work, you take something away from the man. Over 300 years have passed since the Ba’ku encamped on this unique planet in an unstable quadrant of space designated 'the Briar Patch.' Moreover, this Caucasian race of humans has weathered the ravages of centuries. The 'metaphasic radiation' emanating from the planet’s rings has given them perpetual youth.

Meanwhile, suffering a dire reversal of fortune, the Federation has grown weak. The Borg and other enemy aliens have taken their toll, and the Federation has formed an uneasy alliance with the Son'a, a dying but technologically advanced race of fascists who dress like a cross-between of the Mummy and Marvel Comics' Dr. Strange. You know the Son’a are the bad guys the moment you see them because they look hideous. The Son’a endure constant face-lifts, like the cosmetic surgery in the Terry Gilliam movie “Brazil,” because they cannot keep their wrinkled and rotting skins wrapped tightly enough. These devious dastards have teamed up with the Federation, and they are observing the unsuspecting Ba’ku before they pack them off the planet.

Dressed in orange outfits which enable them to pass sight unseen among the inhabitants, Son’a and Federation scientists both study the planet and plan for the removal of the Ba'ki. When the Son’a fire without provocation on Data, the pale-faced android short-circuits and destroys the cloaking device concealing the expedition from the Ba’ku. Suddenly, the Ba’ku find themselves surrounded by intruders. Hijacking a starship, Data opens fire on the Son’a flagship from which the Son’a chieftain, Ru'afo (F. Murray Abraham, who played the evil Salieri in “Amadeus”), and Star fleet Admiral Dougherty (Anthony “License to Kill” Zerbe), coordinate the mission.

Dougherty contacts Picard during a diplomatic ceremony and requests Data’s schematics. When Picard offers to help, Dougherty politely declines. Pointing out that the Enterprise has been assigned elsewhere, Dougherty assures the inquisitive captain that Ru'afo and he can handle Data. An incredulous Picard decides to check things out for himself; he cannot believe that Data would turn rogue without a good reason. As they chart a course for the far side of the galaxy, Picard invites Worf on “Deep Space Nine” to accompany them. When Picard's navigator indicates that the Ba’ku planet is in the opposite direction of what they have been ordered, Picard shrugs it off as if it were nothing.

When the Enterprise enters the 'Briar Patch,' the age reversal harmonics of the Ba’ku planet affect the crew. Cmdr. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Lt. Cmdr. Troi (Marina Sirtis) rekindle a long-dormant romance. Soaking by candle-light in a tubful of bubbles, Troi shaves off Riker's beard. Not only does Cmdr. La Forge (“Roots” LeVar Burton) regain his sight without the aid of technology, but also he experiences his first sunrise. Lt. Cmdr. Worf (Michael Dorn) suffers an outbreak of Klingon acne as well as a blood lust for combat. Finally, Picard himself dances to mambo music in his own quarters. When he beams down to the planet, Picard falls in love with the sensuous Anij (Donna Murphy), a 350 year old Ba’ku dame who doesn’t look a day over 40 thanks to the regenerative particles in the planet’s rings. Sadly, Frakes and his writers leave Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) hanging without a mini-subplot of her own.

Nevertheless, “Insurrection” qualifies as an ensemble effort with everybody getting into the act, even if they don’t have a subplot to distract their actions.
Admiral Dougherty isn’t happy when Picard arrives and requests clearance to deal with Data. “Insurrection” gets off to rip-snorting start as Picard and Worf pursue Data on a hair-raising chase and try to transport him out of his spacecraft. When aggression fails, Picard opens the audio channels between ships and warbles a Gilbert & Sullivan tune from a play that Data was rehearsing before he left for the Ba’ku mission. Before Data realizes Picard’s subterfuge, the Captain docks with Data’s ship, Worf sneaks on-board and incapacitates the mutinous android. Beaming down to the planet, Picard frees the expedition who had been taken hostage, and learns first hand about the Ba’ku. Admiral Dougherty has trouble concealing his rage; he acts as the liaison between the evil Ru’afo and virtuous Picard. While Picard noses around on the planet, La Forge discovers the truth behind Data’s inexplicable demeanor. Geordi explains his theory that the Son’a fired first on Data, and Picard takes Data back to the planet to reconstruct the incident. Their investigation, with Anij and the Ba’ku leaders in tow, reveals the presence of a half-built holodeck that resembles their village. Gradually, a conspiracy rears its ugly head, and an angry Picard demands an explanation from Dougherty.
An uncomfortable Admiral Dougherty reveals that the Ba’ku are going to be relocated, so that the Son’a can harvest the 'metaphasic' particles in the planet that constitute a fountain of youth. Picard protests in the name of the Primary Directive, which prohibits the Federation from interfering with other alien cultures. “The darkest chapters in my world can be traced to the forced relocation of a small group in order to satisfy the demands of a large group,” Picard comments, dredging up memories of the Jewish Holocaust, African-American slavery, and Native American Indians.

Dougherty retorts that the Federation has endorsed the mission and that the Ba’ku do not fit the Prime Directive because they are not indigenous to the planet. Naturally, Capt. Picard doesn’t like it and refuses to stand by while a helpless race of people are abused. Picard’s insubordinate behavior recalls Capt. Kirk’s equally insubordinate attitude in previous “Star Trek” escapades.
The Rick Berman & Michael Pillar script hearkens back to those venerable 1930s’ Lone Star westerns with John Wayne where the city slicker bad guys try to steal the mineral rich ranch lands from under the naive pilgrims who don’t realize the wealth that lies beneath their lands. Like John Wayne, Capt. Picard decides to intervene. Already deeply in love with Amij, who has shown him the eternal beauty of a single moment in time, Picard disobeys Admiral Dougherty’s orders to clear out. Amij reciprocates and supports Picard when he reveals that the Son’a are going to destroy their way of life.
Shucking his insignia, Picard gathers an arsenal of weaponry and tries to sneak off the Enterprise, but the crew catches him as he is loading up the captain’s yacht. When Picard explains his intentions to help the Ba’ku, his loyal crew join sides with him. “Saddle up,” says Data in his best John Wayne impersonation as he shoulders a phaser rifle, “Lock and load.” Meanwhile, the impatient Ru’afo has grown as weary of Picard’s meddling as he has of Dougherty’s dawdling. Ru’afo wants to obliterate the Enterprise and harvest the rings. The mining process will also wipe out the Ba’ku and turn their planet into a wasteland. Ru’afo, it seems, doesn’t have long to live, and nothing can quell the blood lust boiling in his toxic veins.

F. Murray Abraham wears an occupational sneer throughout as the despicable Ru’afo. Unfairly, Abraham shoulders the burden of villainy. Surrounded as he is by an army of aliens, Ru’afo never assumes the kind of villainy of a Darth Vader. The Son’a never mount a wholesale attack like the Storm Troopers from “Star Wars.” Instead, the Son’s prefer to deploy technological devices, so that “Insurrection” never lingers long on battle-scarred action sequences. Despite all of the fireworks, only a handful of characters actually die. “Insurrection” lacks the massacre and mutilation of “Starship Troopers.” Although he proves his murderous aims when he kills Dougherty on a skin-stretching rack, Ru’afo is really the only character who suffers a horrible death that he deserves for this fiendish forays.

As cheery and good-natured as “Insurrection” is, this “Star Trek” has its share of problems. Although “Insurrection” generates warp-speed momentum in story-telling, too many things are left unexplained. Director Jonathan Frakes along with Berman and Pillar jettisoned a lot of exposition that would have shed more light on the blood-hate between the Son’a and the Ba’ku. Rarely do you find a movie that needs to exceed its running. “Insurrection” could have gone on a good 45 minutes without wearing out its welcome. The filmmakers rely on the yucky looks of the Saran-wrap-skinned villains who bleed when they become enraged, but Frakes never explains why the Son’a resemble burglars with pantyhose stretched across their faces.
Happily, Frakes and his writers reveal enough to keep the action going at full-tilt. Although the first hour or so is largely devoted to talk, the last half-hour provides an exciting dogfight in space and Picard’s showdown with Ru’afo on board a satellite that will mine the planet’s rings. Jerry Goldsmith’s familiar “Star Trek” tune livens up this last reel confrontation between hero and villain. The trick that Picard and crew pull on Ru’afo to spoil his plans is foreshadowed early in the plot but so well integrated into the story that you only realize it in retrospect.
No, you neither have to be a Trekkie nor a Trekker to appreciate “Insurrection,” but it wouldn’t hurt. History will record “Insurrection” as more of a more crew intensive adventure.

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