Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

D: Stuart Baird
S: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner

Times have been getting tougher for the Star Trek franchise. In the four years since the release of the anaemic Star Trek Insurrection, the TV series' Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager have abandoned the airwaves to reruns. Exhausted by decades of committee-driven scripts and politically correct demographic pandering, the people behind the cameras seem to be flailing for inspiration. The thrill is gone: the only promise of discovery is in an appeal to nostalgia. The latest TV series, Enterprise, relies on the gimmick of asking the audience to willingly suspend disbelief and accept its vision of the Gene Roddenberry universe a generation before the original series. Going forward by going backward seems perversely inappropriate though, and in spite of this level of attempted franchise redirection and Insurrection's thematic preoccupation with rebirth, Star Trek is going nowhere.

Cue Star Trek: Nemesis: an attempt to reorganise a couple of tried and tested plot lines for one more crack at the box office before this cast loses all credibility with an audience for whom Star Trek: The Next Generation now looks as arch and campy as the original series did fifteen years ago. The actors look tired, the waistlines are expanding, and casual viewers need a very good reason to want to see this film. Fortunately Star Trek: Nemesis is an improvement over its immediate predecessor. Though it relies upon a baffling insistence on collective amnesia for one of its sub-plots and lurches into utter contrivance in its final third, it is a solid genre entry when judged on its own merits. It is probably not enough to keep the series afloat alongside franchise entries including Die Another Day, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, but it is likely to have a built-in audience big enough to turn a reasonable profit.

The plot details a battle between Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and a villain from the Romulan empire. This narrative dynamic and the fact that the bulk of the action is taken up with cat and mouse ship to ship combat calls to mind a classic episode of the original Star Trek entitled "The Balance of Terror". This episode of the show owed as much to WWII submarine flicks like The Enemy Below as to anything approaching 'science fiction', further evidence of Roddenberry's canny reliance on proven formulae. Of course now the franchise is feeding on its own leftovers, which is a problem, especially when it stops following its own rules. This becomes an issue with the second major plot strain, which requires series devotees to conveniently forget one of the series' major characters. The android Data (Brent Spiner) discovers another android like himself, an early prototype whose physical resemblance to Data reinforces the script's heavy-handed preoccupation with themes of mirroring and reflection. Though this plotline works (sort of), it will have fans scratching their collective heads over inconsistencies, especially when the rogue character of Lore (Data's 'evil twin' from the TV show) was mentioned even in Star Trek: Generations. Most people won't care about this, but the deliberate carelessness of the conceit signals problems at the core of the film which ultimately sabotage its would-be climax.

(Spoilers follow). The finale of the film attempts to revisit the tearful climax of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan with the sacrifice of a major character for the greater good. Unfortunately though, the choice of whom to sacrifice seems driven less by necessity than by backstage wrangling. Spiner's evident desire to pad his part (the actor receives story credit here) results in a final narrative thrust which makes no sense at all and which merely demonstrates how poorly judged the secondary plot thread really is. The film's final third shifts into hi-octane gear with a rather ineffective commando raid by supposedly fearsome Romulan warriors which disintegrates into a mano-y-mano confrontation between Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and a subsidiary villain. Lacking real character drama in the absence of genuine conflict (or in the presence of a more dominant and effective conflict in the form of the central plot), the Spiner plot makes a bid for narrative significance by suddenly stepping up to provide resolution. Spiner attempts to have it both ways by having Data 'die' and having him 'reborn' in one narrative sweep, rescuing Picard from his nemesis much as Kirk did in Star Trek: Generations (and for much the same reasons). Unfortunately, there seems little enough reason for either act (surely Picard's experiences in Star Trek: First Contact have toughened him enough to fight back by now?) and the audience is likely to remain singularly unmoved.

Most people will not care about the intricacies of characterisation and narrative consistency which seem to be at the heart of these criticisms. Audiences are still likely to sense on some level that the film is a little less than compelling. The main problem is the lack of a really tight script, and the holes stem from the tedious anorak stuff. The series has become so constrained by its own history as to have lost the sense of adventure which once beat at its heart. It is now too easy to lose oneself in the small details because the big picture lacks the spark to make it worthwhile ignoring them. The likely result of all of this is that casual viewers, if they bother at all, will probably enjoy and forget this movie while the legions of fans will continue to argue endlessly over minutiae.

For those for whom such points matter, the performances are fine (though everyone seems worn out and grey), the special effects are good and the film has enough solidly mounted action and suspense scenes to fill an hour or two painlessly enough. It has adequate tension and pace to make it more enjoyable than an episode of the show and the sense of scale is gratifyingly greater than last time. Star Trek: First Contact.remains the best of the Next Generation movies, but Nemesis might have enough legs to take the franchise to yet another big screen outing before the whole thing gets put out to pasture. Maybe it is time for producer Rick Berman to ask if they should rather than if they can though.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.