Star Trek: Insurrection SCE Review
What is there to say about Star Trek: Insurrection? No, really, what is there to say about Star Trek: Insurrection? Of the ten Trek films, it is by far the most anonymous, inspiring neither the zealous passion of The Wrath of Khan or Voyage Home or contemptuous derision like The Final Frontier or Generations. It sits, instead, between the best and the worst, minding its own business and not bothering anyone, a wholly unremarkable but inoffensive entry into the canon. 'Salright. Passes a couple of hours pleasantly enough. It does when there’s nothing better on.
Being an odd-numbered entry in the series, it always had some hurdles to overcome. The old fan saying that the even-numbered films are better than the odd-numbered is, with one or two exceptions, a pretty accurate guide, and, as much as superstition is something best ignored, particularly when dealing with something like Star Trek, it must have been in writer Michael Piller’s mind when he sat down to write the ninth feature, the third to feature the crew of The Next Generation. Piller had been one of the guiding lights at the beginning of TNG’s run on television, his most memorable contribution undoubtedly being The Best of Both Worlds, and he co-created both Deep Space Nine and Voyager. However, he had been away from the Trek stable for a while when head honcho Rick Berman contacted him and asked him to help write the follow-up to First Contact. Quite sensibly, the writers of the previous two films Brannon Braga and Ron Moore felt that they should take a break from scripting the films, especially as First Contact had been such a success – it would be a dangerous thing to try and purposefully outdo something like that. Berman and Piller discussed what they wanted the film to be about, and then Piller went away to write the first of what ended up being several widely differing drafts.
Harking back to the themes of earlier movies, the film Piller produced ended up being centred around a planet which seems to have the secret of eternal youth in the properties of its surrounding rings. The Federation have covertly joined forces with an alien race called the So'na to exploit the planet, planning to move the six hundred people who live on it, the Ba'ku, without their knowledge to another planet nearby where they will begin aging again and, eventually, die. Naturally when Captain Picard and his crew hear about this they decide that sort of thing isn’t on at all, and set about to help the people, directly disobeying the Federation and leading to the insurrection of the title.
Nearly all the Star Trek films are, in one form or another, about mortality and how we face up to the ultimate truths about our existence, so in principle the idea of a fountain of youth for the film is a good one. The problem is the theme isn’t explored nearly as well as it is in some the earlier films. We see the rejuvenating effects of the planet on our crew, making them all feel younger and more alive, but it's played almost strictly for laughs. Look, Worf has spots! How amusing, Troi said her boobs were firming up! Watch Picard mambo! This is all very well, and it's nice to see the crew letting their hair down (literally, in Worf's case), but the collective result of this lightness is that when the big payoffs come they just don't seem to matter as everyone's having such a lark. As well as this, the character changes are taken out of context, being meaningless if you haven’t already seen the 178 episodes and 2 previous films - we don't get to see enough of them to begin with to see the changes. Even for hardened Trekkers, meanwhile, the changes are so slight they don’t really add up to a hill of beans. Riker and Troi start flirting again? We’ve been expecting something like that to happen since Season One. Picard looks at a native woman, Anij, lustily? That’s happened several times before. The one poignant change is when Geordi la Forge, the Enterprise’s blind Chief Engineer, gets his sight back, and watches a sunrise, and even that is laid on so thickly that the emotion of the scene becomes less than it should have been. Ultimately, the potential of the storyline, which is an old sci-fi staple for a reason, is squandered, leaving the fountain of youth as little more than a macguffin to get the story going.
And as for the insurrection? Sadly, it all seems like a bit of a storm in an (earl grey) teacup. The problem is the film is fighting against its own history here. We’ve already seen an insurrection in the films, a great big thrilling insurrection in which Captain Kirk actually stole the Enterprise from Starfleet and went on the run. Next to that marvellous story this looks pale and wan. There’s no equivalent here of the Admiral’s warning to Kirk: “If you do this, you’ll never sit in the Captain’s chair again,” a chilling threat to him which has deep resonances for both the character and the audience watching him. Instead, Picard is threatened with a court martial. Uh-oh, that sounds pretty serious! This lack of real menace to Picard and co regarding their long-term careers is emphasised by the fact the Federation are hardly noticeable. There’s one Admiral, played by Anthony Zerbe, but no ships, no other signs of annoyance back at Starfleet Command. If this had been an original series film, we’d have cut back to a scene in the Federation Council in which Ambassadors of many different worlds got cross and outraged at Picard’s actions, possibly headed by a man with silly facial hair. In this film that all happens off-screen. It just doesn’t seem to matter. We don’t even see the consequences afterwards – it’ll be handled in a thorough review we’re told. Great. That's that sorted then.
This isn’t the fault of Jonathan Frakes, who returns to the director’s chair for the second film in a row. He makes another good job of it, even if he is slightly fond of putting his crew in heroic poses. It helps that he has such a rapport with the rest of the cast, which enables them to produce their best, but he handles the action sequences in the village extremely competently. A Star Trek film is not the best place to demonstrate individual visual style, and he does nothing remarkable, but he doesn’t make a mess of things either, and his rapid pace ensures things never flag. Even if he does allow Riker to steer the Enterprise with a joystick at one point (a patently ridiculous moment that doesn’t raise the laugh intended but instead draws the audience out of the scene).
Visually, the film looks quite different from any of the movies so far, with a large part of the action (the crew’s estimate on an extra on the disk of over 50% being entirely believable) taking place in the Ba'ku village. Filmed in a lush, mountainous area of California, it is an extremely attractive location with the village itself lying in a valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains and voluminous lakes. While it is perhaps right to say that the location makes the film feel most un-Star-Trek-like, it can be argued that after eight films the franchise can afford to expand its reach and try something new, even if the juxtaposition of the natural surroundings with phaser blasts and So'na drones is never quite pulled off (not helped by some dodgy CGI). The village itself is perhaps one of the more ambitious sets ever seen for a Trek feature and its Bali-style architecture coupled with small-town Renaissance-era feel blends perfectly with its surroundings – it’s very easy to believe the village has been there for the hundreds of years we are told. If there’s one criticism to be had about the location it’s that it’s too Earth-like – aside from a small CGI-creature at no point is any attempt made to differentiate the natural flora and fauna with Earth’s own, so it becomes difficult to accept this is anywhere other than where it was actually filmed (ironic, really, given this is the first Trek film to have no scenes set on Earth).
The CGI of the film, too, has a different feel to it, understandably given the responsibility for the effects was given to a new company based in Santa Barbara. The most notable difference is that the space exteriors are very different from the general blackness we’ve been used to seeing up until now. The Enterprise finds itself flying through a positive riot of colour, the so-called Briar Patch the film explains, which is extremely attractive but gives the shots a look more of an attractive matte painting than a real environment. The company generally does very well, though, especially given this was the first film to have no model shots at all, and aside from the afore-mentioned flaws in the sequence in which the drones attack the fleeing villagers, which look very artificial, nowhere is the side let down, with the planet’s rings looking particularly convincing whenever they are seen.
However, the big attraction of the film is just to have the pleasure of seeing the TNG crew having another big screen romp. The actors are all so relaxed in their roles now that there is a naturalness and ease about their performances a million miles away from the stiffness you see in a first season episode of the series. Of the regulars, it’s Frakes who seems to have the most fun, jumping headlong into his scenes with Marina Sirtis as Troi giving their romance good chemistry and also revealing how these characters must have interacted before the cares of the world weighed them down. Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner give their usual polished performances, although Spiner seems a little on auto-pilot at times, sometimes falling back on old Data mannerisms. The others, as usual, get less to do – LeVar Burton as Geordi gets his sunrise moment but little else, while Michael Dorn’s Worf becomes comic relief in a rather silly joke about the Klingon reverting into adolescence (although he does get the most amusing line of the film, at the end when he tells the Captain the reason the So'na crew are surrendering). Once more, though, the Thanks For Coming But You Needn’t Have Bothered award goes to Gates McFadden, who gets diddly-squat to do except shoot the odd phaser and grin at other’s jokes. She is easily the most short-changed of the regulars in all the films which would be regrettable if one didn’t remember that her episodes were the most boring on the television series. The three guests, meanwhile, are mixed – F Murray Abraham is underwhelming as villain Ru’afo but Anthony Zerbe (whose face has popped twice on film now: see also Licence to Kill) as the Admiral gives more presence to his weak character than you might expect. Donna Murphy as love interest Anij is okay, but coming after Alfre Woodard’s feisty Lily in the last film is less to write home about.
And that can summarise the whole film really. It’s okay, but nothing to write home about. As much as one wants to avoid the old cliché, it feels much more like an extended episode of the television series than a movie. While it makes a nice change to make the film about the fate of six hundred people rather than the entire galaxy (or, at least, the six billion of Earth in First Contact), the screenplay doesn’t have enough dramatic weight to pull it off, leaving the whole as fun but inconsequential – at times it can’t decide whether it wants to be played for laughs (Worf’s spot, the singing of Gilbert and Sullivan and so on) or seriously (Picard’s confrontation with the Admiral), a tightrope the original series films managed to walk pretty well but doesn’t really get right here. Movies have to be bigger than the shows that spawn them, and Insurrection just isn’t. If it had been an episode of the show, I have no doubt it would be remembered fondly – perhaps not in the same breath as Best of Both Worlds, The Inner Light or All Good Things, but certainly in the first league of stories – but as a film it just doesn’t cut it with the big boys, and it’s unsurprising cinema audiences gave a collective yawn when it was released. Star Trek: Insurrection? Star Trek: Indifference more like.
The Special Collector’s Edition has two disks, one with the film and the other with the extras. The case is the usual double jewel case all the previous SCEs have come in. The film itself is presented in its original 2.35 ratio with an anamorphic transfer and is subtitled, as are the extras with the exception of the trailers. The menus are set in a CGI representation of Ru’afo’s ship, but the animation is more sparse than previous efforts, and once the business of actually selecting what you want to watch the background disappears altogether, giving us just generic alien decoration for the menu. The extras menu is broken down into different categories - Production, Creating the Illusion, The Star Trek Universe, Archives, Advertising and Deleted Scenes - each of which has its own particular featurettes. Once again there is no Play All button, an absurdity this time given that each featurette has exactly the same credits after it, despite the fact many credited interviewees only pop up on one or two of the pieces.
Not very good at all. I don’t know whether it’s because so much was filmed out of doors, but a lot of the colours are washed out, and skin tones in particular are pale and dull. There is also a softness about the image at times, you’ll spot the odd bit of edge enhancement and there are even a few minor print artefacts while detail is lost at a distance. The scenes set in the studio are better, and the space scenes are reasonably good, but for a film which has so many exteriors, this isn’t a good effort.
One of the big selling points of these new SCEs are the DTS tracks included. This isn’t the most dramatic of the films aurally, with less in the way of atmosphere than some, but the soundtrack still picks up during the set pieces, notably the attack of the drones and the various space battles (especially in the last thirty minutes), which really resonate. The normal 5.1 track is pretty good too.
The King and Queen of Trek trivia Michael and Denise Okuda do their stuff once more and provide another fact-packed companion to the film. They supply their usual mix of cast credits, trek tech, notes about all aspects of the production and any other kind of minutiae you can think of. Very addictive.
It Takes a Village
Mildly boring fifteen minute look at the various sets for the film, both of the village itself and also the two principal ships and the site of the film’s climax. Nothing interesting is said here and the looks at the sets are purely functional, resulting in a dull featurette that even the presence of a llama named Kissy can’t redeem.
Location, Location, Location
This starts off slowly but ends up being an entertaining look at some of the challenges the film crew faced shooting on location. Aside from a misplaced couple of minutes in the middle which inexplicably look at the scenes set in the caves (which were all shot on soundstages) this has some fun moments, including watching Brent Spiner walking into the water and Jonathan Frakes getting excited about blowing things up.
The Art of Insurrection
Aside from a very cursory look at props, this concentrates entirely on the development of the designs of the ships. Illustrator John Eaves talks about why he made the ships look the way he did, and while this is undoubtedly of more interest to those fans who enjoy designing their own ships it’s sufficiently interesting not to drag its fourteen minutes out.
Anatomy of a Stunt
Extremely interesting look at stunt coordinator Matt Avery putting together a sequence for the film. Although it’s for a scene that was ultimately cut out this is very revealing, and shows that even with all the CGI in the world at your disposal these stunt guys still have a hair-raising time.
In the absence of a writer’s commentary on the film itself (which have been the highlight of both the previous SCEs of the TNG movies) this does quite nicely. Michael Piller talks us through the creative process that went into writing the film, from initial ideas through to his opinion on the final result. Frustrating in that you feel he has a lot more to say and could easily have filled a commentary, but this is enlightening and one of the best extras on the disk.
Making Star Trek: Insurrection
A tepid twenty-five minutes made up mainly of the principal cast talking about the film and their role in it.
As with the Piller interview, this eighteen minute featurette of Frakes talking about the film seems to be in place of a proper commentary. Frakes, who did a rotten commentary for First Contact, is much better here, talking sensibly about various aspects of the making of the film, and even his bit at the end about how close the cast is comes across as much less maudlin as usual. Very good, and a shame it wasn’t extended to cover the entire film.
The Star Trek Universe
Star Trek’s make-up supremo Michael Westmore (the guy responsible for designing the different kinds of bumpy forehead) talks about his designs and techniques for making the aliens in Insurrection for seventeen minutes. I found this utterly boring and even people with an interest in this area of the show’s production will find it long.
Star Trek’s Beautiful Alien Women
In which various cast members cast their eyes appreciatively over all the Trek series and pick their favourite bits of totty. Kirk would no doubt thoroughly approve.
Creating the Illusion
Three short featurettes that all look at how particularly tricky CGI shots were accomplished. All three of these are talked over by Peter Lauritson, the co-producer of the film. The best of these is the first and looks at about the scene in which Picard and Worf’s shuttle meet up with Data’s, Shuttle Chase. In its ten minutes it goes from the initial storyboards through to early animatics and on to the final sequence. The other two are less than half the length, and look at the Drones attack, especially the moment Worf smashes one up, and Duck Blind, the opening sequence of the film, both of which jump straight to the animatics and are a little more cursory.
An extra not listed on the DVD box, there are seven scenes here totalling twelve minutes. Two come with prefaces from Lauritson explaining why they were dropped, including the original ending, which is rather poetic but less dramatic than the final cut's. The picture quality on these isn’t very good but there has been some post-production on them, with some of the SFX filled in, and there are a couple of amusing vignettes to be found in here, including Picard spilling his lunch over himself and an extended version of Riker and Troi’s visit to the Enterprise library. No Quark scene, though, which was apparently filmed but left on the cutting room floor.
Two areas here. The first, Storyboards: Secondary Protocols, has nearly fifty pictures from the board for the opening sequence while the second is a Photo Gallery with forty photos consisting mainly of behind-the-scenes pictures. Both galleries have to be manually scrolled through using your remote.
Gosh, I remember being terribly excited seeing the Teaser Trailer for the first time, thinking how good and epic it all looked. It’s still a good trailer, a little better than the main Theatrical Trailer, which gives away a little too much about the film and is a fairer representation of the film itself. Both of these are included as is one of those five-minute adverts that are nowadays called First Look, the Original Promotional Featurette which uses lots of clips that crop up elsewhere on the disk (watch out for the misleading moment in which it suggests Michael Westmore watched some cosmetic surgery just before he started his designs). Rounding off this section is the now obligatory appearance on a Trek DVD of the Borg Invasion trailer for the Las Vegas attraction Star Trek: The Experience.
An exceptionally exciting in-depth examination of how Marina Sirtis manages to keep her weight down while making films. Or, to put it another way, one minute of the actress showing us the catering spread.
The film itself is enjoyable while it lasts but remains instantly forgettable, while the transfer itself is a tale of two parts: the video is awful, the audio great. The extras, which some feared would be sparse given the lack of interest in the film itself, are of the same standard as previous films, and their format will be familiar to anyone with another of these SCEs. The lack of audio commentaries is disappointing, especially given the quality of comment in the interviews with writer Piller and director Frakes, but pretty much every aspect of production is covered to satisfy even the most obsessed fan. Pleasingly, there is a notable lack of the saccharine sentiment this time around that does occasionally plague Trek documentaries which is welcome. A very mixed bag of a release all in all.