It’s all Ricardo Montalban’s fault. From the moment that impeccably sculpted chest burst through the screen in 1982, it’s cast a daunting, pectoral-shaped shadow over the creative process of every Star Trek movie that followed. Let’s have a villain as good as Khan again, say the producers and writers and studio suits as they bat ideas back and forth like so many caffeine-infused tennis balls. Forget whether the rest of the story makes any sense, let’s make sure we have a bad guy that the audience can boo and hiss and rejoice when he goes to that great villain’s lair in the… well, I guess it wouldn’t be the sky. After Khan came the boring Kruge, the not-quite-a-villain Sybok, the theatrical Chang, the middling Soran, the eerie Borg Queen, the TV-ready Ru’afo. As the production of Star Trek Nemesis got underway, producer Rick Berman, while revealing few other details, promised publicly that it would boast the best villain since Khan, forgetting that unlike, say, the Bond series, the appeal of Star Trek as a whole has never been tied to the quality of its antagonists. The most successful of the Star Trek films to that point didn’t even have one. But after the deliberately lighter Star Trek: Insurrection underperformed First Contact both critically and financially, Berman and his studio superiors decided that Star Trek worked better when it went dark. Back to the fastball, then.
As Insurrection had also been taken to task for its TV-episode feel, Berman made a point to staff up with plenty of cinema veterans this time around: John Logan, who had co-written the Oscar-winning Gladiator, was assigned the script based on a story concocted by himself and Brent Spiner, and as Jonathan Frakes was busy finishing helming the movie Clockstoppers, Stuart Baird was chosen to direct. Baird had a distinguished career as an editor including the original Superman, and was riding high off directing the hit Kurt Russell/Steven Seagal action movie Executive Decision. Berman thought that Baird, who had no familiarity with Star Trek, would bring fresh blood and energy to a franchise that was beginning to list and sag a little under the weight of its then-thirty-five year history. (Prior to Baird, Berman had offered the movie to periodic franchise savior Nicholas Meyer, but like Leonard Nimoy on Generations, Meyer wanted input on the script and Berman had promised full control to John Logan.) Jeffrey Kimball, the director of photography on smashes like Top Gun and Mission: Impossible II, would handle camera duties; Bob Ringwood (the first three Batman movies) would design the costumes, Jerry Goldsmith would be back for the music.
Which brings us then to the cast, and although Ron Perlman’s name was announced with the most fanfare (and received higher billing in the credits), he would be taking a supporting part, that of the heavily-made-up Reman Viceroy. The role of Khan version 8.0 would be played by a little-known English actor named Tom Hardy, who beat out familiar genre names like James Marsters (Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Michael Shanks (Daniel Jackson on Stargate) after first choice Jude Law proved a non-starter. Of all the many flaws that Nemesis would eventually exhibit, credit must absolutely be given to Rick Berman et al for spotting Hardy’s star potential, even if it’s not overly evident in this movie. Hardy got the part after submitting what has been described as a “weird” audition tape in which he appeared semi-nude and included oddball home movie footage (anyone who has seen Hardy’s infamous MySpace photos can likely attest to what that footage contained.) For young and hungry actors, 95% of success is just getting noticed, and whatever the hell it was that Hardy sent in, it was enough to get him cast as Shinzon, the leader of the Reman race who turns out to be a young, unfinished clone of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Nemesis‘ promotional campaign featured Hardy heavily, with the teaser poster showing him in shadow raising a knife amidst a field of green smoke, giving off a vibe perhaps more suited to something like The Ring or The Conjuring and certainly light-years removed – pun intended – from the days of Kirk and Spock.
So was the movie itself.
We know from the outset that this is going to be a darker and more violent entry, as instead of Insurrection‘s pastoral morning stroll, we open with the gruesome murder of the entire Romulan Senate by a cascade of green radiation that turns their flesh instantly to stone. On Earth, the Enterprise crew is celebrating the wedding of Riker and Troi, complete with cameos by Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan and Wil Wheaton as Wesley Crusher, and a rendition of “Blue Skies” by Data. Following a second ceremony on Troi’s homeworld of Betazed, Riker will be leaving to captain the U.S.S. Titan, and Data will be taking his place as first officer. On the way to Betazed, however, the Enterprise picks up a positronic energy signature from the primitive planet of Kolarus III. Picard diverts the ship to the Kolarun system, and in the Enterprise‘s new ground vehicle Argo, he, Worf and Data explore the arid surface, where it turns out that the positronic signature is emanating from pieces of an android body – a duplicate of Data. In what then ranks as the silliest scene ever to appear in a Star Trek movie, Mad Max-type aliens in dune buggies show up and chase our heroes off the planet with the extra android in tow. It’s a Forrest Gump-esque prototype of Data called B-4, and it is basically the same except for a redundant memory port at the base of its skull. In an attempt to augment its programming, Data copies his own memories into B-4, but B-4 shows no immediate reaction.
Newly-promoted Admiral Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) advises Picard about the coup on Romulus and that the new praetor, Shinzon, who is from the neighboring planet of Remus, wishes to open peace negotiations. The Enterprise is ordered to Romulus and encounters Shinzon’s massive warship, the Scimitar, in orbit. Shinzon’s viceroy (Perlman) invites Picard and his crew to beam over to meet with the praetor. The young Shinzon is not Reman at all, but human, and oddly familiar to Picard, even to the point of having suffered the same rare hearing ailment in childhood. A DNA scan reveals that he is an exact clone of the good captain. While Shinzon professes to want peace, not all is as it initially seems; his Romulan allies, including the hawkish Commander Suran (Jude Ciccolella) and the wily Commander Donatra (Dina Meyer) don’t understand his purpose in luring the Enterprise to Romulus, and Shinzon is suffering periodic spasms of extreme pain, which he conceals from all except his Viceroy. However, Donatra, lingering in the corridor outside after a heated confrontation, notices Shinzon’s discomfort. Meanwhile, B-4 receives a signal and begins hacking into the Enterprise‘s computer system.
At a private dinner on Romulus, Shinzon reveals his origins to Picard: he was created as part of a Romulan plot to embed a double agent at the heart of Starfleet that was abandoned when a new government came to power. Shinzon was exiled to the Reman mines to die, but the Viceroy took pity on him and raised him. Eventually Shinzon was able to rally the Remans, recruit Romulan allies, and take over the Romulan government in order to free his adopted people. Picard questions how many Romulans had to die to achieve Shinzon’s goals. Shinzon suggests that Picard would have acted exactly the same way and asks the captain about what it means to be human. The two find that despite their radically different upbringings, they looked at the stars in much the same way. Picard opines that he hopes to be able to trust Shinzon, but that such trust will have to be earned.
Aboard the Enterprise, Geordi advises that scans of Shinzon’s ship have revealed that it is equipped with illegal and deadly “thalaron” radiation, which can destroy organic matter on contact (it’s the same green rays that petrified the Romulan Senate in the opening scene). They’ve also discovered that the Enterprise‘s computer has been compromised. Unbeknownst to them, B-4 is abruptly beamed off the Enterprise and Shinzon downloads what the android has learned from the extra memory port. And that night, as Riker and Troi settle into bed, the Viceroy uses his telepathic abilities to help Shinzon virtually rape her. As Picard tries to persuade Troi to shake it off and stay on duty, he is beamed away to the Scimitar, where Shinzon boasts of his plan to attack the Federation, aided by the communications protocols and locations of the entire Federation fleet that he has acquired from B-4. Shinzon has one of his doctors take a sample of Picard’s blood and leaves him there to contemplate “the triumph of the echo over the voice.”
So… yeah, he’s pretty eeeeeeevil then.
As Riker and the Enterprise attempt to penetrate the Scimitar‘s cloak, B-4 arrives in Picard’s cell and tells the Reman guard that Shinzon wants the prisoner. But it’s not B-4, it’s Data, who has been impersonating the lesser android since the compromise of the Enterprise computer was discovered. They’ve given Shinzon false information on the location of the Federation fleet. Data offers Picard a one-man emergency transport unit to return to the Enterprise, but Picard insists that they find a way off together. They escape from the Scimitar using a two-man attack fighter, and the Enterprise flees at maximum warp. Beverly reveals that owing to a defect in the cloning process, Shinzon is dying, and only a complete blood transfusion from Picard can save him. Geordi also reveals that the Scimitar‘s deadly thalaron radiation weapon can consume an entire planet. Picard orders the ship to meet up with the rest of Starfleet’s battle group, noting they must stop Shinzon at all costs. Data also deactivates B-4 to avert any more trouble. However, they do not realize that Shinzon’s ship is directly behind them, and to reach the fleet they must pass through an unstable section of space called the Bassen Rift, where communications will not function.
In the preamble to the battle, the two characters who have encountered duplicates over the course of this story, Picard and Data, contemplate duality and nature vs. nurture. Picard wonders if Shinzon is truly a mirror for him, and Data disagrees, pointing out that neither B-4 or Shinzon have any desire to grow or make themselves better. The Enterprise enters the Rift, and is attacked by the Scimitar, firing from behind its cloak. Warp drive is disabled, shields are damaged, and Shinzon offers Picard a last chance to surrender. Picard tries to appeal to Shinzon’s human side, but the dying clone is having none of it and the battle resumes.
Two Romulan ships suddenly arrive and Commander Donatra, who cannot abide having Shinzon’s planned genocide of Earth on her conscience, agrees to assist the Enterprise. But Shinzon’s ship is too strong, and her vessels are swiftly disabled. A trembling Troi offers her services, using her limited telepathy to locate the Viceroy – and with him, the Scimitar. The Enterprise is able to finally disable Shinzon’s cloak. A boarding party led by the Viceroy beams over and engages in hand-to-hand combat with Riker and Worf, and with phasers and photon torpedoes exhausted, Picard decides to do something out of character and rams the Enterprise into the Scimitar. Both ships are critically damaged and Riker defeats the Viceroy, sending him plunging down an open shaft to his death. Shinzon activates the countdown on his thalaron weapon, and orders his crew to kill everything on the Enterprise and then do the same to Earth. Picard beams over to stop it, followed by Data, who – with transporters now down – has to leap across space to access the enemy ship. Picard and the increasingly decrepit Shinzon have one final duel and Picard stabs his deranged clone with a piece of pipe. Shinzon drags himself along it, mumbles something Palpatine-esque about destinies being complete, and dies. Data arrives and beams Picard back to safety with the emergency one-man transport unit. He then pulls a phaser on the thalaron energy matrix and blows it, the Scimitar and himself into subatomic bits, while Picard appears safely back on the Enterprise bridge.
Picard and his officers share a quiet toast in memory of their lost comrade, and the Enterprise returns to spacedock above Earth for repairs. Picard activates B-4 to tell him a little more about who Data was; the prototype does not understand, but as Picard goes to leave, B-4 starts singing a verse from “Blue Skies.” Thinking that he may not have lost Data after all, a more confident Picard struts out into the corridors of his ship, and the Star Trek fanfare sounds for this particular crew for what would turn out to be the very last time.
Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat (or, two thousand words in I suppose).
I HATE this movie.
HATE IT, HATE IT, HATE IT.
I despise it with as much of my being as is healthy to assign toward two hours of celluloid that was designed primarily to entertain me, not to punch me in the stomach or piss on my lawn or strangle my cats.
I went to see it alone on a weekday in December of 2002 and sat there feeling a progression of emotions from bemusement to frustration, disappointment, and downright annoyance. In grand geek tradition I felt personally slighted that the creative chefs behind one of my favorite franchises had deigned to serve me this thoroughly unappetizing meal after a four-year wait.
This is a really, really bad movie.
To me, everything that is loathsome about Nemesis begins at its conception, with the choice to build the story around the arc of the villain, not the hero. WRONG. Wrong, wrong, basic Screenwriting 101 wrong. You’re supposed to start with the arc of the hero: what does he want, and what is preventing him from getting it; therein lie the stakes, and the villain should grow organically from that premise as the primary obstacle to the hero’s goal. Nemesis, by contrast, is entirely about Shinzon’s journey and his struggle to find his purpose in a life that was thrust upon him, a life that but for a far-fetched Romulan cloning plot never should have been. That’s all well and good and might have been fine in another movie, but as the audience we don’t care one solitary iota about Shinzon. We care about our heroes, the Enterprise crew, and they have mostly nothing to do here except react to Shinzon’s evil machinations (which make no sense – we never understand why he’s hell-bent on annihilating Earth, given that his main beef seems to be with the Romulans whom he’s already defeated). The thematic arc of “family” for Picard, his adopted family (the Enterprise crew) versus his “blood family” Shinzon, is a tenuous connection at best. It bears saying again (especially given what’s coming in Star Trek Into Darkness) that Khan was not the reason for the success of The Wrath of Khan – his total screen time is quite minimal. It’s how he spurs our heroes to confront their weaknesses, and prove their heroism through the capacity for sacrifice they find within themselves, that makes the movie work. The emotionally hollow Nemesis gives us nothing similar, and even Data’s grand send-off – particularly given Brent Spiner’s story credit – feels like the dutiful and orderly execution of an out clause in a restless actor’s contract.
In a film riddled with plot holes and convenience – space is really, really, really big, and was dumping pieces of an android on a primitive out-of-the-way planet really the most effective way to lure the Enterprise to Romulus? – there’s one glaring one that really grates: why is Shinzon screwing around for forty minutes of screen time instead of just going ahead with getting what he needs from Picard? The audience might not necessarily think about that, but the filmmakers helpfully shine a spotlight on it for them by having not one, but two scenes of Commander Suran asking Shinzon what the hell he’s waiting around for, with Shinzon unable to provide a satisfactory answer either time. We can only conclude that Shinzon has studied at the same academy that taught Voldemort and Sauron and other like supervillains not to try so hard to complete their heinous plots. Either that or writer Logan realized his “best since Khan” baddie wasn’t substantial enough to pad out a movie’s expected running time. I’m also not certain why, unless it was simply that the powers that be thought Marina Sirtis needed something to do, the telepathic rape scene was included. As soon as it occurs, as we watch Shinzon leer and descend into total creepazoid mode, any shred of sympathy we might have nurtured for him is vaporized, as if by a thalaron radiation blast. What’s even worse is that without a beat, Picard totally dismisses it and asks Troi to subject herself to additional attacks because it might gain them a tactical advantage. This is abhorrent, and the point in the movie where you stop caring about anyone in it. (And in the original cut, believe it or not there was a second tele-rape scene to endure.)
For Shinzon to work as a character at all, you have to buy that he really is a dark mirror of Jean-Luc Picard. But despite Hardy’s game efforts and innumerable “we are the saaaaaame!” scenes, at no point are you ever convinced that this is the case. There is no way these two men share any heritage beyond the plastic nose and chin they’ve glued to Hardy’s face (and again, it’s lampshaded for us when Shinzon says “not quite the face you remember, is it.”) Some have suggested that the movie would have worked better had Patrick Stewart played both roles, but the concept was simply misguided and unworkable from the get go. Picard never needed to meet his evil twin. Wouldn’t a greater challenge for him be a run up against the very unknown he had dedicated his life to seeking out, something that would have led him to question the value of that life, the moral certitude that was his defining character trait? In Nemesis, there is no contest as to who is the better man. Shinzon is a psychotic rapist; game, set and match to Picard, mic drop.
So how can a movie fail so utterly and completely? Bad scripts can sometimes be rescued by good direction, but Stuart Baird is not the man for the job. Editors don’t necessarily make better directors as their skill is in assembling puzzle pieces and not having to understand the emotional truth behind the creation of each piece. Consequently the overall tone of the movie is simply unpleasant, as if that green smoke on the bad-Photoshop-job posters was ripe sewer gas. Jeffrey Kimball either chose or was told not to use any lights, as most of the scenes are so dim you occasionally have to squint to see what’s going on. There are also at least a half-dozen insert close-ups of fingers pushing buttons as if Baird doesn’t quite believe the audience will comprehend that an action is being taken. He proves that the lack of familiarity with Star Trek was not a blessing, as he doesn’t seem to even understand the screenplay and bludgeons home story points by staging repetitive scenes that deliver the same information again and again (and let’s steer clear of discussing the inclusion of the bizarre dune buggy chase). When X-Men director Bryan Singer gets his 18-frame cameo as a relief tactical officer after we’ve been subjected to one hour and twenty minutes of pretty inept filmmaking, it yanks us out of the moment and has us wishing that he’d been the one behind the camera instead.
In the theater, I always stay to the end of the credits, as I enjoy listening to the score and have an interest in the technical side of film production. As the lights finally went up after Nemesis had sputtered to a halt, I caught wind of a conversation between an usher and a woman in a row further down. He asked her if she liked it and her reply was “yes, but I love them all.” I used to be that person too. I forgave copious sins because I was enamored of these movies (and associated TV series) simply being Star Trek.
This movie ended that for me.
Taste matures with age and experience, and sadly the things that once made our eyes light up eventually only make them glaze over. Visible seams once ignored become more obvious, and there just isn’t enough good stuff in Star Trek Nemesis to balance out the blatant awfulness of the bad. Loyalty to a franchise can eventually only bring you so far, and it should never be taken for granted on the other end either. It is not that the audience will only accept consistent and innovative quality – remind me how many seasons of The Bachelorette have aired now – but as a storyteller, you should be doing your damnedest to see that we get it, if for no other reason than to stand proudly atop your work. Don’t give us sloppy retreads of earlier, greater achievements, and above all, don’t ever assume that the bad guy is the sole key to a meaningful story. That way lies Batman & Robin, about which one could easily say that Nemesis is Star Trek‘s equivalent – an absolute disaster followed by a much-improved reboot.
I’m not the only one who felt this way, as Nemesis opened in second place at the box office behind a forgotten Jennifer Lopez rom-com, ended Stuart Baird’s directing career, and kicked poor Tom Hardy – of whom you can at least say was trying his absolute best here – back into movie purgatory until he hauled himself out again years later with Bronson, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises among others, and just this year got his first Oscar nomination for The Revenant. (I somehow doubt he looks back on this one with much fondness.)
In summary: If you don’t feel like reading through 3700 words, this image of Worf from Riker & Troi’s wedding reception says it all.
Next time: Over to you, J.J. and friends.
Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating: 0 out of 4 stars.