What does the ninth Star Trek movie have in common with Apocalypse Now? Would you believe they were based on the same book? Those of you who have read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness may be pained to recall any stretchy-faced aliens in it, but the concept of going up the river to find a long-lost colleague who has gone native is indeed what sparked the imaginations of producer Rick Berman and screenwriter Michael Piller as they bandied about concepts for what Captain Picard and company, triumphant in their victory over the Borg, could do next. The dark tone, elements of horror and catastrophic stakes in the previous film had proven very successful, but no one on the production side, studio side or even the acting side wanted to explore down that alley any further. (Piller, in his unpublished book Fade In, likens it to pitching. No successful pitcher can get away with only throwing fastballs; sometimes you have to throw a curve. Patrick Stewart, for his part, used a cricket analogy of a shot straight back at the bowler.) Early discussions were geared more towards emulating the tone of The Voyage Home, which remained the shining pinnacle that every subsequent Star Trek movie had attempted and failed to reach. Piller wanted to tap into Star Trek‘s optimism, and, inspired by the Rogaine he was spraying on his bald patch one morning, decided to do a Fountain of Youth story and blend it with Heart of Darkness – “Heart of Lightness,” as he called it.
In Piller’s initial treatment (called Star Trek: Stardust after the Hoagy Carmichael song) the movie would open with a flashback to a young Picard at Starfleet Academy with his libertarian best friend, Hugh Duffy, and then fade to thirty years later, where, in the midst of a galaxy-wide shortage of an important medical ore called “sarium krellide,” Duffy has gone rogue on an alien planet and begun attacking Romulan ships and colonies. Picard is assigned to hunt him down through a treacherous area of space known as the Briar Patch, accompanied by a smarmy half-Romulan, half-Klingon named Joss who likes to leer at Troi and pick fights with Worf. When Duffy/Kurtz is found, he looks as young as he did at the Academy, because the entire planet is made of this sarium krellide stuff and it turns out the Federation has made a deal with the Romulans to exploit the planet for its ore, displacing the natives that Duffy is trying to defend. Picard and crew turn their backs on the Federation and help the natives repel the Romulans and kill Joss, at the cost of Duffy’s life, and in an epilogue Picard has a speech-off with a Vulcan admiral (whom Piller hoped could be played by Ian McKellen) about morality and so on, fade to credits. Berman didn’t like the politics in the story and requested that Duffy be changed to Data to keep the drama within the established family. He also worried that the de-aging story might be offensive to Patrick Stewart, as it was essentially telling him that he was an old man. Piller’s rewrite eliminated the fountain of youth aspect and instead played up the aliens on the planet, a race of telepathic mutes without immune systems who are protected from illness by the much-needed sarium krellide. This version was more warmly received by almost everyone… except the man who was going to have to say the lines.
Patrick Stewart, named an associate producer on this movie in thanks for his work on First Contact, was uncomfortable with almost everything. He did not want Picard in deep emotional turmoil for a third straight movie (this time about possibly having to kill Data), he thought the Romulans (and particularly Joss, as conceived) were uninteresting villains, he didn’t think there were any compelling guest roles to attract decent actors, he criticized the sarium krellide concept as asking the audience to get excited about a bunch of rocks, etcetera, etcetera. Ironically, Stewart turned out to be tremendously excited about the dropped fountain of youth idea, and the actor laughed off any concerns as to how his age would be portrayed. The Romulans and the widely panned character of Joss were replaced with a race of tremendously old aliens called the Son’i (ultimately changed to the Son’a to avoid sounding like Sony Pictures) and their leader Ru’afo (played by Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham), the telepathic mutes were made plain humanoids called the Ba’ku, and the magic rocks became the more intangible “metaphasic radiation” present in the rings of the Ba’ku planet which would create a fountain of youth effect. The plot would now revolve around a “Sorvino Switch” (a reference to a Next Generation episode, “Homeward,” where Worf’s foster brother played by Paul Sorvino tries to save a doomed alien culture by beaming them into a holographic recreation of their planet). The Federation would be conspiring with the Son’a to forcibly relocate the Ba’ku in order to exploit the rejuvenating properties of the planet’s radiation. Data would discover this and go rogue trying to protect the aliens, and Picard would disobey direct Starfleet orders to do the same. With Jonathan Frakes back as director, and an increased budget of $60 million in place, the ninth Star Trek film was ready to go, even if no one could agree on a title yet.
Fade in on a Vietnamese forest that explodes into flame as Jim Morrison sings “this is the end…” sorry, no. Wrong Heart of Darkness. Fade in on a utopian lakeside village on the world of the Ba’ku, where the inhabitants are tending to their morning chores while a beautiful woman strolls about and children play in the fields. The pastoral scene is being observed in secret by Starfleet in invisible isolation suits, managed from a “duck blind” concealed by holograms. The Starfleet crew are being supervised by aliens we have never seen before: the Son’a, beings with sagging skin stretched taut over aging faces. A sudden explosion, and panic, as one of the crew begins attacking the others. It’s Data (Brent Spiner), who rips off his invisibility suit and fires his weapon at the duck blind, exposing it for the frightened villagers to see. In another sector of the galaxy, Captain Picard and the Enterprise crew, including Worf who has stopped by from Deep Space Nine, are hosting a reception when they receive a message from Vice Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe) aboard a Son’a ship in the middle of a turbulent area of space known as the Briar Patch, advising that Data has taken the planetary observation team hostage. Picard decides to bring the Enterprise into the Briar Patch to see for himself. Descending to the surface in a shuttle, he and Worf are attacked by Data in a scout ship. Picard tries appealing to Data by engaging him in a singing round of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “A British Tar,” which distracts the android long enough for Worf to subdue him. Picard then leads a “rescue mission” to the Ba’ku village, finding both the Starfleet personnel and their Son’a allies sitting down with the Ba’ku for a cordial dinner. He is introduced to Sojef (Daniel Hugh Kelly), the friendly leader of the small settlement of 600, and the lovely Anij (Donna Murphy), who is suspicious of off-landers. The Ba’ku are as technologically sophisticated as the Federation, but have chosen to eschew such advancement and live a simple agrarian life instead. Admiral Dougherty is satisfied that there has been no violation of the Prime Directive, and is eager for the Enterprise to be on its way, even though he and the Son’a will be remaining – to tie up “loose ends,” as Dougherty puts it.
As the Enterprise lingers in orbit around the Ba’ku planet, the crew start behaving oddly: Worf gets zits and oversleeps, Riker and Troi flirt like teenagers and even Picard notices a spring in his step. Geordi discovers that Data’s odd behavior was triggered when his program was reset to function on strict interpretations of right and wrong – by being shot by a Son’a weapon. Data is returned to normal and he and Picard head back down to the surface. Journeying to the last location Data remembers, and accompanied by Anij, they discover neutrino emissions coming from the middle of a lake, which turn out to reveal a cloaked ship. Inside the ship is a holographic recreation of the Ba’ku village, the purpose of which seems to be to move the Ba’ku off the planet; they would go to sleep one night and be beamed into this holo-ship, then flown to another, similar planet and left there without ever knowing what had happened. Picard does not understand why, and the camera lingers on Anij’s face just as they are attacked by Son’a soldiers. Picard and Data overpower them, and Picard orders them taken into custody until he can speak with Dougherty and the Son’a leader Ru’afo, who are on their way back from the outer rim of the Briar Patch.
A midnight walk with Anij reveals the reason why the Federation and the dying Son’a are so interested in this planet: she and the other Ba’ku are centuries old. They came to this world from the ruins of their warring civilization to establish a new life, and found that the metaphasic radiation from the planet’s rings slowed their aging and led them to develop tremendous mental acuity; Anij herself has the power to slow down time. Picard is envious of the existence that the Ba’ku lead and suspects that someone is planning to take it away from them. After watching Geordi witness a sunrise with restored eyes for the first time in his life, Picard confronts Ru’afo and Dougherty aboard the Enterprise and is informed of the truth: the Son’a have developed a method to collect the metaphasic particles from the planet’s rings for individual medical use, but the process will render the planet itself uninhabitable. The Ba’ku world is in Federation space, and so the Federation Council has authorized Dougherty to transport the Ba’ku off the planet aboard the holo-ship before collection begins. Dougherty argues the revolution in medical science that metaphasics could bring, doubling lifespans and curing disease. Picard says that forcibly relocating the Ba’ku will destroy their culture. Dougherty says that they are only moving 600 people; Picard asks how many people it takes before it becomes wrong. Dougherty shuts down the debate by ordering Picard and his ship out of the Briar Patch. A chastened Picard returns to his quarters and removes the pips from his uniform, deciding to betray his government to save the Ba’ku.
Picard leaves Riker and Geordi to take the Enterprise to the edge of the Briar Patch to call for help, while he and the rest of the crew descend to the surface aboard the captain’s yacht. Figuring that the Son’a will not begin their procedure while the planet is still populated lest a public relations disaster result, Picard’s people set up transport inhibitors and lead an evacuation of the Ba’ku village. With Dougherty’s consent, Ru’afo sends drones to tag the villagers with homing markers that will allow them to be beamed up, and orders two of his ships to stop the Enterprise before it can reach communications range with the outside. A battle in space leaves the Enterprise without its warp drive, but some fancy maneuvering by Riker destroys one of the Son’a ships and leaves the other crippled. On the Ba’ku world, Sojef is taken by the drones, leaving his young son Artim (Michael Welch), who fears technology, in the care of Data. The Ba’ku are shepherded into caves where the mineral deposits will blind the Son’a sensors, but the Son’a begin dropping charges on the mountainside to force them out, and a resulting cave-in crushes Anij. Picard helps her to use her time-slowing power to keep her alive until medical help arrives. Anij is saved, but shortly afterwards she and Picard are tagged by drones and beamed aboard the Son’a ship. There, Picard reveals the final twist to Dougherty and the assembled group: the Ba’ku and the Son’a are the same race. Sojef says that a century earlier, a group of Ba’ku youth eager to embrace technology again tried to take over the colony, and were exiled when they failed. Those youth have become the decrepit Son’a. Dougherty has been unwittingly helping the embittered Son’a take revenge on their forebears – in the name of the Federation. Ru’afo decides to go ahead with collecting the metaphasic radiation even if there are still people on the planet, and murders Dougherty to keep him from telling anyone.
Picard manages to sway Ru’afo’s second in command, Gallatin (Gregg Henry), who was once known as Gal’na when he lived among the Ba’ku and clearly has misgivings. With the assistance of Gallatin, Data and Worf, Picard has Ru’afo and his crew beamed to the holo-ship and presents them an illusion of the collector activating and draining the metaphasic particles. But the savvy Ru’afo realizes it is a trick, and figures out a way to escape the holo-ship and transport to the collector to restart the countdown for real. Picard beams over as well and the two leaders battle it out with fists, with Picard quoting Danny Glover, saying “we’re getting too old for this.” Ru’afo’s crew manages to recapture his ship’s bridge and take Worf and Gallatin prisoner, but the Enterprise returns from the edge of the Briar Patch and disables them. Picard activates the collector’s self-destruct just in time for the Enterprise to beam him off and leave the mad Ru’afo to be consumed by the explosion. The remaining Son’a surrender before their air supply gives out, and Riker advises that the Federation Council has called an indefinite halt to the Ba’ku relocation project. On the surface, the aging Gal’na is reunited with his still-youthful mother and they share a tender, forgiving embrace. Artim bids goodbye to his new friend Data, Picard promises Anij that he has nearly a year of shore leave he’d like to spend with her, and the Enterprise crew beams away to head home as Marlon Brando whispers “the horror, the horror…” – sorry, I did it again. Bad reviewer.
Something has puzzled me ever since I first saw this movie in December of 1998: why don’t I like it more? It captures and reflects the optimism that makes Star Trek endearing, it has an intelligent script, it tells a fast-paced adventure story without racking up an enormous body count, it asks ever-timely and relevant questions about the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few, it has good performances, it has villains but not people being nasty just for nasty’s sake, it has a lot of sweet and funny and even touching moments, it has a Jerry Goldsmith score, and the gorgeous Donna Murphy steals breaths in every frame she’s in (and you get to see Marina Sirtis covered in soap bubbles, if that isn’t additional inducement!) But for some reason the entire affair falls a bit flat. I’ve wondered if it’s perhaps because there’s nothing here that is surprising, and it raises the question of whether surprises always require the risk of making people uncomfortable. This movie, by contrast, was designed from the outset to be light-hearted and breezy, and anything that could have represented audience discomfort was snipped out. (A scene was filmed where Riker and Troi went to the ship’s library to do research on the Son’a and were shushed by an elderly, glasses-wearing caricature of a librarian; deeming this possibly offensive to real librarians, director Frakes deleted it from the final cut.)
Making audiences uncomfortable doesn’t have to mean assaulting their senses and morals with blood and guts and sex and swears, but it does mean thwarting expectations by introducing irrevocable changes to the characters and the universe they inhabit, consequently leaving the audience actively guessing at what could possibly happen next. This movie never does that. It has the visual aesthetic and sweep of a major motion picture, but the play-it-safe mentality of an average TV episode. When Picard, Data and Anij find the holo-ship and Picard describes the “Sorvino Switch,” we’re deflated because what is supposed to be a major plot twist turns out to be a retread of an episode we just saw a few years ago. We don’t want the movies to recycle the TV plots; we expect better, more consequential events than that. We’re paying to be here, after all.
Even the final title of Star Trek: Insurrection is a promise not kept. I hear “insurrection” and I’m thinking wide-scale galactic rebellion among dozens of starships across hundreds of worlds, not just Picard and his crew disobeying the orders of one misguided Starfleet admiral – especially when there is never any legitimate doubt that Picard is in the right (wouldn’t it have been a more gripping ethical dilemma if the audience were to question if the “insurrection” was valid?) Part of the problem could be that, Donna Murphy’s beauty aside, the Ba’ku are not really that compelling an alien species to spin a story around. We don’t always have to put Earth itself in jeopardy to have drama – witness Avatar – and we don’t even have to make the aliens eight-foot-tall and blue either, but they should have a little more meat to them than just coming off like a commune of well-manicured hippie California Democrats. Call it a failure of worldbuilding, as my fantasy-writing friends will appreciate. It’s unfortunate too that the Ba’ku were cast all white, which represents a deep valley in Star Trek‘s otherwise proud tradition of diversity, and I can’t find a logical reason as to why it was done that way.
Look, to echo Michael Piller’s baseball analogy, sometimes a curveball finds the strike zone, and sometimes, as Brett Cecil of the Blue Jays could tell you, the hitter smacks it over the left-field fence. That doesn’t diminish the worth of the pitch, nor does it mean the curve won’t be more effective the next time you throw it. Star Trek‘s curveball, Insurrection, isn’t a bad movie, but it never risks enough to potentially become a great one. Yet you can’t bring yourself to hate it or its creators. Everyone is trying very hard, and the effort is obvious. But its greatest sin is in wanting so much to make us smile that it trips over its own good intentions.
In summary: This curveball, sadly, veers too far off the plate.
Next time: The world gets its first major look at an up-and-coming actor named Tom Hardy. Pity it’s in one of the worst Star Trek movies ever made.
Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.