Star Trek: Insurrection
America has had a sometimes-clumsy relationship with imperialism and colonialism which comes about, at least in part, because by the time America emerged as a real player and superpower on the world stage (that is to say, in the immediate aftermath of World War II) the great periods of colonialism in history had passed – not entirely over, but on the way out, certainly. The British Empire was on the wane, never to recover. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was gone. The Prussian Empire had gone. Imperial Japan lay in ruins. Nazi imperialism had given even the idea of such a thing such a dirty association that it was essentially verboten. For America, that meant they had what they had and that was pretty much it, despite a couple of extra-time acquisitions in the shape of Hawaii and Alaska. This is, at least in part, why the fetishization of the Western holds such a place in American popular culture – before the war it stood as a symbol of expansion and exploration, fulfilling the same cultural role in America that the exploration of India and Africa had, for example, played in 19th century Britain. That essentially meant exporting the ideals of a nation to areas which lacked them and needed to be “civilized”. And after the war it represented something America couldn’t have, so was looked back on with a mixture of nostalgia and desire. It is from these roots, of course, that Star Trek sprung, with the original series essentially describing a pattern of American colonialism (well, yes, Federation technically, but still) as it could conceivably have been executed, through the filter of possible future developments and deeply 1960’s social and political concerns.
Well, that’s what detractors would say anyway. The common myth about the original series is that the Enterprise wanted to go out in to the stars, meet aliens, and make them just like us. It’s not true, of course, as even a cursory glance at the show would demonstrate, but it’s still an easy joke to make, like lame comedians making comments about how short Uhura’s skirt was (“hey, that’s progressive guys! Wink-wink”) without understanding anything of the context surrounding it (it was, of course, an instrument of liberation). But that perception of Star Trek “going overseas” to make them just like us marries up with the traditional view of how colonialism functions, and it’s easy to project onto a series which both comes from the same roots as the Western and has much of its DNA entwined within it. What Kipling once called the “white man’s burden” – going abroad and “civilizing” the natives, whether they want it or not – seems like an obvious fit for a show that goes to “strange new worlds” (read: continents) and “new civilizations” (read: exotic foreigners). Yet this is a lazy, obvious conclusion that isn’t supported by the evidence. It’s true there are occasions when Kirk acts all too heavy-handedly, which play into this reading of the original show, as with any episode where the Enterprise turns up and blows up a computer controlling the local population regardless of their expressed desires (but let’s say… oh, “The Apple” for example). But there are many, many more counter-examples where the whole point of the episode is that the explorers should not interfere with the local population, and when they do the results are generally disastrous (“Patterns Of Force”, for example). Indeed, Star Trek seems so rooted in anti-colonial sentiment that the Prime Directive is one of non-interference. Even something as broadly execrable as “The Way To Eden” functions as an environmental parable, a homily about taking responsibility for your actions and their consequences, and a lesson in actually understanding the place you want to live in, not just taking a privileged, blinkered overview.
TNG continues this philosophical thread throughout its run. There’s no other lead captain that demonstrates respect for other cultures more than Picard, often at the expense of having to make extremely difficult decisions. It’s within this space that Insurrection carves out its approach, and in doing so feels like the most TNG-ish of the four TNG movies. There’s a real philosophy at work behind Insurrection, and it’s the same anti-colonial philosophy that drove much of both the original series and TNG itself. The very fact that this movie has a core concept and then takes the time to analyze it from different moral perspectives immediately places it directly in line with the show from which it sprung, and after the muddle of Generations and the action-adventure of First Contact it feels like something of a return to type. I must be honest, I’ve been rather hard on Insurrection in the past, and certainly there are areas in which the film is dramatically less than successful, but it’s honest, earnest attempt to put philosophy in front of action feels exactly like something the TV show would have done (around Season Five, maybe). Certainly the wide-open bucolic panoramas, discussions of forced relocation, and how far one must go down a path before one becomes irredeemable, feel very different to First Contact’s cramped battle sequences and desperate struggle for survival, and that’s no bad thing at all. First Contact was very successful in its own way at delivering a particular approach to Star Trek, but Insurrection swings in completely the opposite direction, dropping the special effects and space battles in favour of building a culture and then actually exploring it. The episode this has most in common with is, obviously, “Who Watches The Watchers”, with its duckblind and similar “let’s spy on the natives” storyline (back to colonialism again, then), the twist this time out being that actually the locals are perfectly technically advanced, thankyouverymuch, just uninterested in using that technology. It’s a neat idea, and the Ba’ku do if nothing else benefit from not being put in the “patronize the locals” box. The reveal that they know all about technology is in fact one of the best things about them, and it allows them to fulfill plot-relevant functions without endless reams of exposition (and it’s always a good idea to find ways around that). And it means we get to spend a little bit of time actually inside their culture, so small details like someone being an apprentice for thirty years before becoming an artisan actually add up to more than just, “ohh these people live for a super-long time, don’t they?” That’s relevant because once their culture is under threat of forced relocation by the Son’a we need a real reason to actually care beyond the abstractions of another Picard speech about the rights and wrongs of resettlement, and seeing a specific example of that helps to root the culture in something real.
Is this successful? Weeeeeell…. In truth Insurrection is a fairly frustrating film, because of the four movies it’s the one that feels like it hovers closest to the TV show that spawned it but without ever quite sticking the landing. Earnest treatises about respecting the rights of other cultures is exactly what TNG does well, and big speeches from Picard about how many people need to be relocated before it becomes wrong obviously give Patrick Stewart plenty to get his teeth into (and boy does he ever). The direction, from Jonathan Frakes again, is markedly less flashy than First Contact, and feels much more “house-style”, which again very much lends this the feel of a TNG two-parter. And so on. The frustrations with Insurrection, unlike Generations, don’t lie in the basics of the plot – “aliens live on planet and have special McGuffin, bad guys want to take it away” doesn’t leave a lot of room for mistakes, really – but there’s something very insubstantial about all of this. There’s not much of a moral grey area here – the guys that look like they’re the bad guys are the bad guys, and we meet another in a long line of “but it was for the Federation!” crazy Admirals who can’t see the wood for the trees. It’s all very standard fare, and that’s really where the centre of Insurrection’s issues lie. For all First Contact’s faults, huge pitched space battles and vast numbers of assimilated crewmembers showed ambition and scope, even if it was ambition in a thread of TNG that wasn’t often explored. Insurrection made the entirely correct choice to not try and top the action of First Contact and instead strike out in its own direction. This was a sensible decision, and it was even more sensible to choose the kind of enquiry that has thus far been lacking in the TNG films. These are the things Insurrection gets right. Yet taking the time to explore the culture of the Ba’ku is only really a worthwhile exercise if they’re interesting, and this is the point where doing a redemptive reading becomes seriously difficult, because the Ba’ku are one of the blandest, most generic civilizations that the Enterprise has ever encountered. Even the twist that the Son’a are the same race doesn’t do anything to make them more engaging.
But… well, this maybe seems like an odd observation, given I’ve spent the preceding few paragraphs pointing out how closely Insurrection hews to its parent series, but actually this movie gives us something that we hardly ever get from TNG – a hangout vibe. Really, the whole movie functions as a hangout vibe, and seen that way it starts to make a lot more sense. Insurrection was released in 1998 and hangout vibes were big in1998. Friends, probably the ultimate hangout TV show, was about mid-way through its run, at its cultural peak, and its influence was vast, but it wasn’t the only show that captured this feel. Frasier was doing it as well. Seinfeld was just coming to an end. Hangout shows were everywhere. Seen in this context, Insurrection makes a lot more sense. The plot shenanigans are there, ticking away in the background, but really, this is an excuse to hang out with a bunch of characters you already know you like for a couple of hours. Contextually this makes the movie very much of its time. There’s a bit of a moral dilemma, a bit of action, a bit of faffing about on the planet, a bafflegab McGuffin, and you’ll enjoy yourself. Taken purely on those terms, Insurrection is a triumph of the hangout genre, even as it struggles elsewhere. It’s great fun watching Troi and Riker flirting with each other. Or Data’s halting attempts to befriend a small child he initially scared. Or Picard putting on his game face in the middle of a diplomatic mission while wearing a silly hat. Or… well you get the idea. This film is littered with hangout moments, and they all show a cast and crew completely at ease with the characters they’re playing and the situations they’re portraying. Do the other characters fade into the background? Yes, but the point of a hangout vibe is that you hang out with the characters you know and love, so moments like a newly-shaved Riker telling Data he’s as “smooth as an android’s bottom” becomes more important than a few natives running to some caves. In a better balanced film they shouldn’t, but we have to work with what we have here. The sense that everyone is mostly here to have a good time actually becomes quite infectious (well, until about the mid-point, where they try to take it all seriously and things fall apart a bit) but it’s awfully hard not to enjoy Riker bouncing his way into a “counseling” session, or Picard doing a mambo. The actors have inhabited these characters for so long now that everything looks natural, a logical extension of what we’ve encountered before.
Because, really, the plot here is small fry. Subspace weapons and ejected warp cores might try and convince us that there’s a bit of threat going on but there isn’t, not really. The relocation of a bunch of bland-as-bland-can-be natives doesn’t provide enough impetus to feel real moral outrage over, even if that is what the film is going for, and the baddies plan make the usual little-to-no-sense. Indeed after a certain point you can hear the gears of the film grinding as script desperately tries to find excuses for the bad guys not to just wipe out the Ba’ku and Our Heroes, as if the writers have realized this is an issue and keep sticking in lines to handwave it away. We’re going to secretly relocate them! They’ll lose support in the Federation! Um, Some Other Reason! A Picard speech! Erm… The thing is, none of that is necessarily fatal to a film, and this is perfectly fine in the context of an ongoing TV show. The problem comes when all these things – directionless plot, bland natives, lack of momentum – combine and they no longer exist within the context of an ongoing TV show but instead as part of a sequence of films you only get once every couple of years, if you’re lucky. This does, at least in part, explain Insurrection’s fairly poor reputation. If it had happened in the middle of a season it would be a perfectly acceptable two-parter but it’s very different when you expect members of the public to actually go out and pay to see it. As a result, as one of only four cinematic outing for this crew it can’t help but feel like something of a missed opportunity, albeit a perfectly pleasant one.
And what of the overarching theme of loss that permeates all TNG films? Well, as I discussed in the last two reviews, this is one of the aspects that gives unity to the TNG films, but ironically for the film which most resembles the TV show this is where the theme of loss is least expressed. Which is not to say it doesn’t exist, but of the four films it is in Insurrection where it’s the most downplayed. The clearest anchor for loss is the Son’a having lost their home – this is brought up in a late-in-the-movie twist when we discover the Ba’ku and the Son’a are, in fact, the same race, but the Son’a were ejected from Ba’ku society for trying to embrace technology. There’s a potentially fascinating debate there, especially from a show who’s usual approach is that technology makes everything better and often equates human progress with technological progress, but it never really amounts to much. The loss the Son’a experience is a direct motivator to their attempted revenge but, a couple of “ohh, aren’t you so-and-so…?” questions aside, there isn’t any real sense that the two races have anything in common at all. Indeed, it’s the old mistake – we’re told they’re the same, but we’re never really shown anything to bring what we’re told into relief. There are other losses, but as with most of the film these feel comparatively small – inconveniences as much as thematic points that link the sequence of films together. Indeed this is the only one of the four TNG films which actually concludes on a constructive rather than a destructive note (you could make a case for First Contact here, since the last moment of the film is the coming together of humans and Vulcans, but it’s a past event, not one happening in the present of TNG). Yes, the bad guy is killed, but ultimately the Son’a and Ba’ku begin the healing process. That in itself marks Insurrection out as different from the movies that surround it, but as with First Contact, the suggestion here is that even when the loss is as terrible as exile and being cut off from your friends and family apparently forever, loss doesn’t have to be a one-way street. You can, it seems, go home again. This constructive ending again feels very much a piece with the TV show, and the more brightly optimistic approach Insurrection takes to its conclusion feels both earned and consistent with what has come before.
I know this review has rambled a bit, but really that reflects the nature of the film itself, so I’d better try and come to some kind of conclusion. An explicit rejoinder to the evils of colonialism and forced resettlement doesn’t sound like the sort of territory a big late-90’s sci-fi movie would naturally cover, and even now it seems like an unusual approach to take. Insurrection at least has this approach going for it, and it was a good decision to do something that connects much more with TNG’s roots. It feels politically, socially, and philosophically consistent with the show that spawned it, more than any of other TNG films, and that can only be a good thing. The real issue here is… well, it’s not even that the stakes are low. I mean, they are, but as I said earlier that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s more that they feel inconsequential. The Ba’ku are some of the least interesting people TNG has ever delivered, and as a result it’s very difficult to care about what happens to them. That makes all Picard’s worthwhile, meaningful speeches about how wrong it is to move them without their permission kind of evaporate. It’s not that Stewart doesn’t sell the speeches – of course he does – but such grand gestures over such a boring collection of colonists just doesn’t amount to very much of anything. The Son’a have potential but when even F Murray Abraham doesn’t make much of an impact you know something’s gone wrong. The Son’a fail as a satire of the beauty industry, again a potentially lucrative direction for the film to explore – partly because it’s just so obvious and partly because the script never does anything with them – and fail as colonial aggressors because the script doesn’t quite know how to address this aspect of the story, even though this seems to be nestling at the heart of everything that happens here. Oh and it all ends with a big explosion and Picard being rescued by someone else in the nick of time. Just like First Contact. And Generations. And, for that matter, Nemesis. The romance at the centre of the film is completely unconvincing (and possibly the most tame, least passionate romance in the history of cinema). And yet… I dunno, I didn’t hate it. The big saving grace is that hangout vibe. It doesn’t sound like it should count for much, but somehow it does. It’s not enough to make Insurrection compelling – it’s never compelling – but at least it gives the film a reason to be. It’s good fun hanging out with our old friends again, seeing them piddle about in a minor story, and at least for the first half, it’s pretty enjoyable. The plot hobbles things in the second half, and muddy script editing mutes a lot of the potential power of the two big twists. Insurrection could never be mistaken for a good film, but it’s probably a bit better than its reputation, and viewed with a degree of indulgence, a bottle of wine, and maybe some friends, isn’t a terrible way of spending a couple of hours. But there’s absolutely no shaking the feeling that this should have been so much more. All the key elements that make TNG so compelling – the philosophy, the exploration of culture, the moral outrage, the character work, everything – are there to make this a proper, genuine slice of TNG on the big screen. That Insurrection never achieves this is a terrible, terrible waste.
Any Other Business
Prole Hole is a not-especially-small robot of European descent, based grudgingly in Amsterdam, NL. Indoctrinated into the Star Trek way of life from a very young age by a father who would use having a child as a bit of an excuse to watch TOS himself, it has proven a hard habit to break, so here we are. Prole is currently undertaking a redemptive review of the entirety of Star Trek:Voyager – yes, really – which can be found at http://tolerabilityindex.freeforums.net/board/41/star-trek-voyager
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