Such is the case with Star Trek: Insurrection, which feels not so much like another Star Trek movie as it does like a two-part episode with a slight (very slight) increase in the special effects budget.
Which is to say, it’s a disappointment that often borders on being a bore.
The fact that it opens in some throwback village and then immediately descends into Data Has Gone Stark Raving Mad insanity as a way to create intrigue is an early red flag that this movie is going to go astray. We spend close to 40 minutes with the mystery of why Data has gone mad as the focal point of the story. We know nothing about the stretchy skin aliens we meet, who these villagers are, and why the Federation seems to be on a secret mission with the stretchy skins to spy on the villagers. The movie is all about Data going bonkers.
That’s television stuff, not big screen stuff. The question is not only not that interesting, it’s actually kind of goofy. Data fighting off hordes of troops like a Terminator, Data in a small fighter blasting at Picard’s shuttle, Data as the deadly android assassin. Who thought it was a good idea to open the movie this way?
It’s damn near an hour until the Data story is dropped like a hot potato and we finally get a sense for what the stakes really are, but once the truth is revealed it’s hard to muster up anything more than a “who cares?” because those stakes are even more yawn-inducing that Data’s mental breakdown.
So here’s the deal: thanks to some pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, this remote planet has regenerative properties that keep people who live there in a perpetually youthful state. The stretchy skins are decaying and falling apart, so they want a piece of the regenerative action. They can’t just move in and live there, though, because Reasons – it will take them too long to regenerate or some such – so they plan to suck up the planet’s energy to git ‘er done real fast like. That will kill the 600 villagers who live there, unless they are relocated by force. Picard and crew discover the plan and most stop the stretchy skins.
Again I ask, who cares? This is television episode-level stakes. There are some intriguing themes here about finding inner peace, what people are willing to do to cling to life, and happiness, but it’s not silver screen stuff, it’s TV episode stuff.
Most importantly, there are no stakes for the Enterprise or its crew. The jeopardy they are in is slight and of their own making. The stretchy skin alien threat is a nebulous one, implied to be more powerful than the Enterprise even though it’s not quite clear how or why. (Seriously, some backwoods knuckleheads managed to scrape together a small fleet of starships that could tear apart the best ship in the Federation? I call bull on that.) None of the Enterprise crew have a character arc of note, either. Sure, Geordi gets to see for a little while, Riker gets a little frisky, and Picard has a chaste and cheesy romance with a 300-year-old lady, but this is all minor material best explored in (again) a television episode or two.
When things DO get dangerous and phasers start flying, this movie’s limitations really start to rear their ugly head. They clearly had just enough money to improve upon the look of the show, but not enough to look much better than a dated video game. Little flying droids, fighter ships zooming around, even the beloved Enterprise, all of it is barely better than B-movie level. If it’s better than an FX movie, it’s not by much. No wonder half the movie’s action takes place on a rocky hillside and in nondescript caves.
By the time we get to the rushed, with-no-setup-at-all climax – one of the stretchy skins betrays the lead stretchy skin, which would have been dramatic if we had any idea who the hell these characters were – we’re left wondering when the actual BIG SCREEN MOVIE is going to start.
But it never does. The story limps to a mandatory explosion and a failed attempt to recapture Wrath of Khan’s nebula battle, then ends.
Star Trek: Insurrection isn’t bad. I’d be exaggerating if I said it was. There are actually some really good concepts here posing the kind of philosophical questions Trek is so good at asking, and there is clearly great love for these characters, who (except for Picard) are more endearing here than in either Generations or First Contact. There are many small character moments, and most show love for the crew. Plus, Jonathan Frakes’ direction is often quite good. He stages a scene well, and the humor throughout is charming to the last.
No, the problem with Insurrection isn’t that it’s bad, it’s that it never rises above Just Another Decent Two-Part Episode.
And if you’re trying to make a great movie, Just Another Decent Two-Part Episode doesn’t cut it.