By the time this film reached theatres in 1998, viewers knew better than to expect good science-fiction from STAR TREK features. The franchise had long since reached the level where the selling point was not to “go where no one has gone before” but to put familiar characters through familiar paces, preferably by reviving some villain or other concept from the small screen. So it was a mildly pleasant surprise to see STAR TREK: INSURRECTION – the ninth STAR TREK film and the third featuring the cast of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION – make some small attempt to stand on its own as a self-contained movie. Sure, there were continuity references to STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE, but at least you did not have to be up-to-date on the latest episodes to follow the plot; in fact, you did not have to watch the series at all.
The basic premise of STAR TREK: INSURRECTION – a planet blessed with a fountain of youth – is not original; certainly, the classic STAR TREK visited its share of paradise planets, but thankfully there are no references to any of these episodes. Instead, the idea is used to launch a story in which Picard finds the ideals of the Federation being undermined from within. The result is a moderately engaging adventure that provides plenty of action without resorting to the HELLRAISER-type horror elements used to enliven the previous big-screen entry, STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT.
Along the way, the cast is well served. One of the big problems of the films, particularly those based on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, has always been what to do with all the regular characters while still introducing some guest stars and new villains. Michael Piller deftly solves the problem by making the screen time count, in neat little scenes that tickle audience expectations (as when the youthfully rejuvenated Riker and Troi rekindle their long-dormant romance).
Frakes, meanwhile, does a competent job as director. STAR TREK: INSURRECTION has fewer opportunities than STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT to show off spectacular visuals, so the result feels even more like a made-for-television film (a problem with most of the TREK features). Fortunately, Frakes keeps the story moving and even pulls off a few poignantly poetic moments, as when Picard’s love interest, Anij (Donna Murphy) teaches him to enjoy a perfect moment, wherein time seems to slow down, as evidence by the blurred wings of a hummingbird suddenly clearly visible in slow motion.
Unfortunately, this romance is one of the weak points in STAR TREK: INSURRECTION. (Others include the videogame joystick Riker uses to manually pilot the Enterprise, a holodeck supposedly large enough to surreptitiously transport an entire village that turns out to be exactly the size of a ship’s bridge.) Apparently, more was in the original cut to invest emotional substance in the love story, but it was trimmed down after test screenings. This may be an example of actually slowing the pace down by cutting, leaving the remaining footage without the necessary grounding to make it compelling.
Also altered is the film’s conclusion. No longer does Ru’afo undergo a youthful regression that takes him past childhood to an embryonic stage; instead, he blows up in a space ship – a fiery climax that is a tad too typical. Fortunately, F. Murray Abraham’s performance remains otherwise intact, and he is an effectively malevolent force, even under all the make-up. Even more important, he is in control of his deviousness so that one believes he could gain the cooperation of the Federation’s Admiral Dougherty (a fine performance from Anthony Zerbe, who avoids sinking into outright villainy while clearing portraying a man willing to make moral compromises). One exchange between them is priceless: Ru’afo, who wants to prevent the Enterprise from contacting Starfleet, says, “I could send a ship to… [long pause for the right euphemism] …escort them back.” The look in Dougherty’s eyes clearly shows he knows just what he is agreeing to.
Unlike the foolish STAR TREK: GENERATIONS, with its off-screen and unseen populations threatened by a kid’s science project rocket, STAR TREK: INSURRECTION establishes a sense of something worthwhile at risk that is worth defending. So when the shooting starts, it is not mere gratuitous violence but an expression of dramatic conflict. Frakes and production designer Herman Zimmerman’s vision of the bucolic Ba’ku village may straddle cliché, but the film brings this cliché to life in a way that makes us believe the Enterprise crew would risk everything to defend it. Thus, the film captures the idealism of STAR TREK that is often missing from the big screen.
For all of this, however, the conflict is registered in terms that seem rather mild, hardly rising to the level to justify the use of the word “Insurrection” in the title. This ninth feature film voyage of the Starship Enterprise seemed like reasonably good STAR TREK back in 1998, perhaps mostly because no one was expecting much. At a time when the legend stated that odd-numbered TREK films always sucked, it was not hard for INSURRECTION to exceed expectations, so being half-way decent was good enough.
Over a decade later, the film fades from memory – it’s like one of those not-quite-favorite episodes from the series that you might enjoy watching again if it happens to air during a STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATON marathon, but it comes nowhere near achieving the best that STAR TREK can do, either on the small screen or the big screen. Taken on its own terms, STAR TREK: INSURRECTION is a a minor success with enough appeal to satisfy undemanding fans, but it never rises above its genre, and it lacks the panache that enlivened even the less successful features starring the classic TREK cast.
The crew of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION would make one more appearance in a feature film, 2002’s STAR TREK: NEMESIS, which tried to pump up the proceedings with a darker tone and an oh-so-serious storyline, but it was not until 2009’s STAR TREK that the franchise would once again yield a film that succeeded not only as a big-screen episode but also as a blockbuster big-screen entertainment.
STAR TREK: INSURRECTION (1998). Directed by Jonathan Frakes. Written by Rick Berman & Michale Piller, based on “Star Trek” created by Gene Roddenberry. Cast: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates mcFadden Marina Sirtis, F. Murray Abraham, Anthony Zerbe.
Copyright 1998 Steve Biodrowski. This review, in different form, originally appeared in Cinefantasitque magazine.