Sunday, September 21, 2008

REVIEW: Star Trek: Generations

Yes. That's exactly what Shatner looks like in this movie.

Kirk or Picard: who's the best captain of the Enterprise?* Not that I'm particularly concerned about this topic--my shameful geek obsessions have long since moved on to Lost, 24, and various video games--but I think a person's answer to the question is actually illuminating about a bit more than just identifying his fanboy loyalties. On the surface, the captains are alike in many respects: while Kirk has the reputation as the guy who bangs a planet's women, then bangs its greatest warships out of existence, he certainly gave his fair share of preachy speeches about peace and tolerance and love. He and Picard probably wouldn't have made many decisions differently, aside from Kirk's giddy enthusiasm for breaking the Prime Directive (don't radically rewrite an alien society's way of living just because it pisses you off), which Picard tended to get far more moralistic about.
"Walter and I are pleased to announce an exciting new project we're working on together, which will debut this Saturday on the Sci-Fi Channel."

Deeper down is where I think the captains were actually most different. Picard was a diplomat who was capable of getting tough, while Kirk was a guy who'd make peace with the aliens because he was basically a nice guy, not because he had any particular reverence for their culture. In fact, if the aliens started messing with his crew, or did anything untoward to their own people, he'd break out the phasers and the fisticuffs and have them licking his boots and begging forgiveness before it was time to beam up. A typical Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ended in one of two ways: 1) The crew of the Enterprise comes to a new understanding with a strange alien presence, and is morally better for doing so. 2) The crew of the Enterprise barely escapes from some kind of (often literally) nebulous space distortion by jury-rigging some kind of nonsensical solution with the warp core/transporter/holodeck/deflector shield, take your pick. A typical Star Trek: The Original Series episode ended in one of two ways: 1) The bad aliens are humiliated. 2) The bad aliens are dead. Furthermore, Kirk’s alien antagonists were less often just character actors with funny noses: they were planet-eating robots, or killer space amoebas, or beings so powerful they could take on the forms of Greek gods just on a whim. And the bigger they were, the more likely it was that Kirk, with the help of Spock and McCoy and Scotty and the gang, would be bathing in alien jerk-face blood en route to the next conquest. And Kirk could get tough when he was off the bridge too. While Picard could bark, “Fire photon torpedoes!” from the ergonomically-sound bridge of his family-friendly spaceship, and could agree to implement Data’s ideas with the best of them, let’s face it: he fought like a girl. Kirk? Take away the man’s phasers and he’d still beat the crap out of anything with a face. And if he found something he couldn’t punch into submission, he’d improvise a bazooka out of raw elements and blast it into the next world. He’d make peace with the aliens all right... after he’d destroyed everything they ever believed in.
That is the new Enterprise??? Since when did LEGO start taking defense contracts?

So with the successful run of Star Trek: The Next Generation just completed, and the original crew of the Star Trek movie franchise having said goodbye, there was one last order of business: get the old-but-still awesome Kirk and the sissy-but-well-meaning Picard together in a movie to bridge the two series on the big screen. The result was Star Trek: Generations, which promised that we’d get both captains together to fight something that needed the two of them together to take down. And that something was... Malcolm McDowell?!? These guys have foiled galaxy-eating monsters and omnipotent psychopaths on a weekly basis, and you put the two of them in a movie so they can beat the guy with the stupid hat in A Clockwork Orange? Whatever. Let’s get to the plot.
Oh, just for old time's sake: Duh-dum, duh-dum, duh-dum, DUH-dum! Duh-dum, duh-dum, duh-dum, DUH-dum! ...

As the credits roll, we’re treated to a perfectly antiseptic piece of music, the kind that’s used in IMAX movies about deep-sea animals. Bit of a step down from the rousing military score from Star Trek VI, isn’t it? The story opens as a new Enterprise with a new crew is about to head out on its maiden voyage. Kirk, Scotty, and Chekhov are aboard to wish the new crew well, which they’ll need, since their captain is Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and he’s showing all the gutsiness and command of a rookie Yankee pitcher. While everybody makes Kirk feel old and lonely, a distress signal comes in from two transport vessels that are stuck in some kind of energy field (It’s always some kind of something, isn’t it?), and you know you’re aboard an Enterprise because they’re the only ship in the quadrant! Despite having a skeleton crew, almost none of their standard armament, and a douchebag of a captain, the Enterprise sets off to rescue the ships, which are trapped inside what appears to be a big blowing space carpet thing, which looks like the updated version of that glowing thing at the edge of the universe in the original series. They start beaming survivors aboard while the transport ships fall apart. One of the survivors is Malcolm McDowell, who’s screaming about wanting to go “back.” Another is... wait for it... Guinan (AKA Whoopi Goldberg). Yes, that Guinan (played by THAT Whoopi Goldberg), the mystical sage and manager of Picard‘s alcohol-free bar on a future Enterprise. What a blow to the great Kirk’s place in our hearts to learn that he’s to blame for her still being around. Suffice to say that the ship gets jerked around for a while, Scotty makes up some technobabble solution--This really is becoming a Next Generation movie, isn’t it?--that requires Kirk to run down to the surprisingly-abandoned engineering (apparently they left dock without a, y’know, engineer who could have done this) and move some floppy discs around. I remember the old days, when Kirk would have stopped the energy field by talking it into destroying itself. Kirk saves the day, but just as they’re escaping, the hull gets breached, and Kirk is sucked out into the energy field to certain doom.
I understand the sailing uniforms, but is that Ensign... Gozer down there?

Flash-forward 78 years, to the HMS Enterprise, a galleon sailing the high seas. Yes, it’s another moronic holodeck simulation, this time with the whole senior crew dressed up as old-timey sailors to honor Lt. Worf getting a promotion (well, an improved title; he’s still doing what he did for most of the TV show). It’s amazing how much time for kitschy role-playing group bonding sessions you have aboard the flagship of the most powerful space navy in the galaxy. I'll trust that you, dear reader, have seen enough of the TV show that I don't need to explain any of the crew to you, except to say that, as a small mercy, Wesley Crusher is nowhere to be found. As the biological crew members goof off like drunken idiots in their alcohol-free future, the android Lt. Data asks Dr. Crusher what “fun” is. She tries to give him an honest answer instead of saying, “We’ve had this same conversation with you every week for seven years you cybernetic numbskull.” Data doesn’t get it, but his whole character is about trying to become more human, and fortunately for him, he’s got the futuristic equivalent of a video game cheat code, a leftover from the TV show: an emotion chip that he can plug into his robotic brain whenever he feels he’s ready. I like that in a franchise so in love with itself for its insights into the human condition, the writers can posit that some programmer can balance downloading a pirated copy of Iron Man and writing the code that lets a piece of machinery feel love and joy. Regardless, the emotion chip subplot has just about nothing to do with the main storyline, and only exists because, towards the end of the series in particular, every single damn episode of The Next Generation had to be about either Data or Worf. Worf has next to nothing to do in this movie (despite the fact that most of the main villains are fellow Klingons!), so they decided to fill the Data/Worf quota by having Data mug for the camera, draw raised eyebrows from his crewmates, and generally make an ass of himself throughout the whole movie.
It's the FUTURE, so you don't just store a computer chip in some kind of casing. You keep it hovering and spinning around like a Quake power-up.

In the actual storyline, the Enterprise gets a distress signal from some insignificant space station. Arriving, they find some dead Romulans, some dead scientists, and a not-older-than-he-was-78-years-ago Malcolm McDowell, AKA Dr. Soran. Soran? Kind of like Sauron? Why don't you just call him Dr. Hitler and stop pretending you didn't just grab the first entry in the "101 Stock Villain Names" book. He initially pretends he's just an innocent scientist running experiments nobody's at all curious about, and that the station was attacked by the Romulans. That cover lasts about 90 seconds, until he gets back to the station, fires an experimental super-weapon that blows up the nearest star (yet another Star Trek super-weapon that nobody will ever try to duplicate in future installments of the franchise), and kidnaps Geordi back to the Klingon Bird of Prey whose crew he's in league with. Weeeell, three whole movies have come and gone since the last time there was a movie about a rogue Klingon ship's crew trying to get its hands on a planet/star-destroying superweapon, so why not use it again? This time, the rogue ship is helmed by two Klingon bitches named Lursa and B'Etor, who both look very uncomfortable speaking with their prosthetic teeth, moving their mouths the way I did when I had thick braces and a gargantuan retainer in my mouth. Wikipedia says that these two were on some series episodes, but since I tended to avoid the horribly self-important Klingon-themed episodes, I don't recognize them.
Air-traffic controlling in outer space looks challenging.

After consulting with Guinan and the Stellar Cartography room--a rather unnecessarily big room to keep aboard a ship designed for scientific and military operations--Picard figures out Soran's plan. He's determined to enter the Nexus, that carpety energy thing we saw at the beginning of the movie, which is the gateway to some heaven-like paradise. I'm not entirely sure how anybody knows this, considering that it's supposed to be damn near impossible to enter or leave the damn thing, but there you go. He's blowing up stars to divert the Nexus' path so that it will intercept a planet Soran can comfortably stand on, even though nuking the next star will result in the destruction of a planet with millions of people. This is obviously spoiling a later plot development, but since Kirk safely entered the Nexus by being sucked out of a damaged starship, why the hell couldn't Soran just beam himself into the damn thing, or invite some other paradise-seeking people to fly into it and eject themselves? And why the hell hasn't anybody paid attention to the friggin' Nexus up to this point? As soon as the Enterprise starts to look for it, they know where the stupid thing is. Good job exploring the interesting crap out there in the universe; it's much more interesting to learn about Data's pet cat and Worf's constant pissiness about how the rest of the Klingons think he's dishonorable.
Charles Krauthammer, in a role that will surprise you.

The Enterprise arrives at the star system where Soran plans to nuke the sun and enter the Nexus. In orbit around the planet, Picard cuts a deal to get Geordi back whereby he agrees to replace him as the Klingons' prisoner, so long as he gets to beam down and try to talk Soran out of his genocidal mission first. After Picard beams down and Geordi's returned, it's revealed that the Klingons put a device in Geordi's visor that lets them see whatever he sees, allowing them to get the miracle four-digit number that somehow lets them completely bypass the ship's shields. The Klingons start shooting, which takes acting commander Riker off-guard; it's a pretty godawful performance by the Enterprise, as they get pounded for several minutes while returning fire about twice the whole time. And since this is a "movie," random bridge crew don't just get knocked over, but get vaulted through the air by exploding control panels. You know, maybe Starfleet should consider not putting C4 in their instrument panels anymore, since I'm pretty sure that computer hardware alone has little explosive potential. Fortunately, the good guys can pull their own nonsensical science-fiction solution out of their ass ("Generate some kind of ionic burst from the deflector dish," or something like that), and blast the Klingon ship to pieces in one shot. Unfortunately, the warp core's damaged, as usual, but this time it requires that they evacuate everyone to the saucer section and leave the rest of the ship behind before it blows up. Unfortunately, because this ship is carrying a crapload of children and non-uniformed idiots into battle, it takes them forever to get the lower decks evacuated. Seriously, how the hell do the Klingons and Romulans keep losing to a vessel that's 30% battleship and 70% community college? The saucer section detaches, but gets caught in the shockwave from the warp core breach, sending it toward the planet as the newly-emotional Data proclaims, "Oh, s***!" Data, not even Bones ever said, "Oh, s***!" Get it together. The saucer section crashes into the planet hard, sweeping down a whole forest full of model train set trees, passing a confused Godzilla and Mothra along the way. But as we all know, just so long as the whole thing doesn't actually explode in flames, the recurring characters inside are fine.
"Ahhh, Picard! The thing you call eHarmony has sent us to mate with you!"

On a mountainside elsewhere on the planet--you know, the sunny, rocky desert planet from Starship Troopers, Star Trek V, half the Space: Above and Beyond episodes, and 90% of the Firefly episodes--Picard has beamed down to try to talk Soran out of his scheme. The man's got his star-destroying rocket ready to go, and a force field around it to protect himself from Picard, who's phaser-less anyway. I'll say one good thing about this scene: it reminded me that Malcolm McDowell is actually still a pretty good actor in his gray-haired years, which for British actors is also known as the "Generic Villain in Hero-Driven Action Movie" years. Picard finds a way past the force field, sneaks up to Soran and... is promptly kicked off a bridge. He fails to stop Soran from firing the rocket, which takes about 5 seconds to leave the planet's atmosphere, and another 4 to get all the way to the sun; that thing must have some real kick at the end. Soran and Picard are sucked into the Nexus, and everyone else dies.
Safety belts are tentatively scheduled to be installed on the Enterprise-W. Until then, all Enterprise models will come stocked with extra Tylenol.

Cut to Picard's paradise in the Nexus. I didn't mention it earlier, but he was very upset to learn that his brother and nephew had died, thus giving him some kind of weirdo Hallmark card/Charles Dickens Christmas scene with his made-up wife and made-up family. I guess Picard doesn't want any specific family (although his dead nephew is among his 200 children), just any old shmucks the Nexus pulls in off the street and dresses in Little Women outfits. Now, Kirk, on the other hand, spends his Nexus time chopping wood and cooking eggs. Any doubt remaining as to who's more qualified to kick Soran's ass? When Picard snaps out of it, aided by the ghost of Christmas Past... er, ghost of Guinan, he's told he can leave the Nexus anytime and anywhere to stop Soran. Gee, do you think it might be a good idea to return to the Enterprise back when you had Soran in custody, so you could warn the crew about what was up? Sure, the crew would be a bit freaked out to see a clone of their captain suddenly appear, but considering their 150+ incidents of similarly goofy stuff happening in the past, I think they'd get over it. But no. Picard, great tactical genius that he is, decides to go back to fight Soran on the mountainside, apparently ticked at how easily he was dusted last time around. So let me get this straight: every time Picard loses the fight with Soran and fails to stop the rocket from firing into the sun, he'll get sucked into the Nexus and get to try again, just so long as he doesn't get himself killed. Doesn't that mean Picard gets infinite Continues, to use an appropriately video-gamey term? There's a very sobering line about terrorism, that the good guys have to succeed every time, but the bad guys just have to succeed once in order for a catastrophe to occur. Here it seems to be reversed. Furthermore, if Picard's going back in time, shouldn't there be two Picards showing up on the mountainside now? You'd think that he could just get together with himself and lay low a few times, then try it again when he has something like seven Picards to throw at a very surprised Malcolm McDowell: four to hold down his arms and legs, one to kick him in the groin repeatedly, one to deactivate his star-destroying rocket, and one to taunt him for his role on Heroes. But I'll just say now that the movie tries to sweep that idea under the rug, and there'll be only one Picard at any given time.
Star Trek: The Adventures of Deadeye the Klingon Gunner

Guinan shrugs her shoulders, knowing that asking a fake Frenchman to beat up a real Englishman in a fight might take a while, and says to go ask Kirk if he'd like to come out of retirement, Rocky-style, for one last mission. Kirk's pretty resistant at first, understandably. After all, he's got Karma with the universe to spare, the Earth's not remotely threatened this time around, the aliens inhabiting the threatened planet might very well be Nickelback fans or something equally reprehensible for all he knows, and the Federation's probably better off in the end without all the squishy Dr. Phil types on the modern Enterprise. So he's persuaded to step out of the Matrix... er, Nexus and give old Picard a helping hand.
He has emotions for four hours and he's already flashing gang signs.

So this is it: the fabled team-up between Kirk and Picard. The union of two captains who have saved the universe countless times. The alliance of two heroes famed for their effective leadership, albeit with very distinct styles. The ultimate Star Trek fanboy dream. The whole reason this movie was made in the first place. And it amounts to the two of them rassling with one gray-haired bad guy for five minutes on the side of a boring sci-fi mountainside. Was this seriously the best they could do? First, I'd kind of figured that if these two teaming up was the big centerpiece of the movie, it would have started more towards the center, not dangled onto the end. Second, couldn't the threat that Picard needed Kirk to have a prayer of defeating have been something more than a lone Malcolm McDowell running around with a handgun? You could have at least given him a bunch of henchmen; I figure that there'd be plenty of baddies who wouldn't mind eternal paradise. Third, wouldn't it have been better to have two famed captains do some actual captaining? I realize that they couldn't necessarily have gotten Spock and the gang back due to budget reasons, but they could have had Kirk barking some orders at Data and Worf or something. And since they're both famous for commanding ships called the Enterprise, maybe it would have been nice to have the Enterprise nominally involved in the final conflict.
"Upon further review, we have ruled that the Nexus' feet were in bounds. Touchdown."

Back in the movie they actually gave us, the three old men squabble for a few minutes, Soran obviously wondering why the good guys think it's sporting for two of them to team up against him. We're not talking John Woo fight choreography here: Shatner's well on his way to his later Boston Legal girth, and Stewart appears to be practicing his future role as a guy in a wheelchair. They wind up with Kirk crawling to the end of a buckling bridge to grab a device that decloaks the invisible missile launcher, which Picard rigs so that it blows up upon launch, taking Soran with it. But Kirk goes down with the bridge, plummeting into a ravine and sustaining critical injuries. Kirk's final question is to ask, "Did we make a difference?" Well, Picard could have made a difference without getting your ass crushed on a barren planet, if only he had thought this through a bit. Does that answer your question? Furthermore, Picard has the gall to bury Kirk right there on the planet, eschewing the kind of lavish funeral Starfleet would likely want to give the greatest hero in human history. And considering what the Enterprise crew typically goes through, it would probably take about three weeks for them to find someone who could resurrect him, if only Picard had opted to haul around his body for a while. I think Picard was just sick of people thinking the fat old guy was awesome.

Don't future people ever get nostalgic about cars and helicopters and jet skis?

But let's not be sad, because out of tragedy comes new hope. When the survivors of the Enterprise are rescued (whose casualties were "light"), Data discovers that his cat is still alive! And he cries! So did Data's creator anticipate that emotion chip and just opt to manufacture some artificial tear ducts just in case? That's dedication for you. In any event, the crew beam up to the rescue vessels, and the music swells as some pretty hideous-looking starships fly off into space. It figures that a movie about Kirk and Picard teaming up doesn't even end with the Enterprise.

If I were to be generous, I would say that Star Trek: Generations might have been a half-decent episode of the TV show. It still would have had the horrible Data subplot, and the Picard/Kirk teamup would have still been both overplayed and underdeveloped, but it would have been an acceptable two-part episode. On the big screen, however, this movie is just way out of its league. It actually feels very cheap: the special effects are only modestly more impressive than what appeared on the Next Generation TV show, and in some cases, the movie actually steals special effects shots from past movies and TV episodes. I know that the shot of the Klingon ship exploding was lifted from Star Trek VI, and I think some of the random shots of the Enterprise moving through space might have been as well. Two years later, the sequel First Contact at least showed that on a similar budget, they could go back to making a Star Trek movie that actually looked like a movie, and not a slightly elaborate season finale episode.

"Oh, bloody hell. All right, I'll say it. Prepare to meet Kali... in HELLLL!"

The Star Trek movies have always been a crapshoot from one installment to another, but this one might represent the bottom of the barrel:
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture: What bright, shiny color of uniform should our brave men and women of Starfleet wear as they journey to save the Earth? I know! Sand!
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Even if it wasn't great, it would be worth it for the hilarity of seeing Kirstie Alley as a Vulcan.
  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: Didn't take them long to completely negate the emotional ending of the last movie, did it?
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: New Defenders of Wildlife ad: "If we don't save the whales, who will be around to save the Earth from giant intergalactic space turds?"
  • Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: A true return to the heights of the original TV series. Well, in the special effects department at least. The story, meanwhile, was a mortal sin.
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: It didn't make a lick of sense, but the score was cool. And it was worth it to see Kirk make a 7-foot-tall alien his prison bitch.
  • Star Trek: Generations: I think I've conveyed my opinion on this one.
  • Star Trek: First Contact: Could you imagine if the Borg invaded a planet of George Romero zombies? That would be one heck of a ponderous battle scene. Anyway, I remain convinced that if the phasers never work against them, the Federation should just be handing out Samurai swords to all their people.
  • Star Trek: Insurrection: F. Murray Abraham?!?!
  • Star Trek: Nemesis: I know I criticized the lack of action in Generations, but you didn't have to turn Picard into Col. John Matrix.
I really don't know what happened with Generations. Having more involvement from Kirk wouldn't have guaranteed a good movie--Kirk's crew didn't exactly have a spotless cinematic record--but I can't imagine a producer said, "Let's put Shatner in the first 15 minutes of the movie, show the android acting like a crackhead for 90 minutes, then bring Shatner back for the last 15 minutes and slap his face on the poster."

"I can't heard a damn word the director's saying, you?" "I never listen. If they wanted me to listen, they'd let me direct again."

If you want to experience the thrill of Kirk and Picard working together, I recommend putting on a community theatre reading of some newsgroup fan fiction.

*No, I'm not going to talk about the Quantum Leap guy.

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