Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Review: Star Trek: Generations

Generations may be the toughest Star Trek film to review. Maybe that's why I picked it first. (Don't worry, I'm sure a ranty J. J. Trek review is just waiting to come out of me.)

It's tough because there's a lot to like here, yet there's so much to question and doubt. As you'd expect, Trekkies seem to disagree strongly about this one. (I may be the biggest Trek fan I know, but I'm no full-on Trekkie. I have, however, witnessed Trekkie debates in online contexts.) Some like it while admitting its shortcomings; others consider it at least as bad as V—or TFF, as Trekkies probably refer to it, to prevent confusion with V.

On that spectrum, I'd have to count myself near the middle. I find watching Generations to be an exercise in frustration and tedium punctuated by moments of Trekly goodness.

I'll start with the good:

  • It's fun to see the Enterprise-D made even more glorious by big-budget lighting and camerawork. This was largely what allowed me to enjoy Generations when I saw it in the theater, even as it simultaneously disappointed me in a variety of ways (see below).
  • The concept of the Nexus feels, to me, just enough like classic high-concept sci-fi that I'm not totally opposed to it.
  • Worf's promotion scene is great.
  • Most of Patrick Stewart's performance is as compelling as always. (Near the end, he seems a little lost; maybe the muddled material finally overwhelmed him.)
  • Malcolm McDowell is well-cast as the villain, Soran. His character lacks the power of a Khan or even a Kruge, and he loses too much screen time toward the end, but what's there is believable.
  • The comedy from the Klingon broads is, well, broad, but a nice change of pace from what is often a melancholy film.
  • And how can you not love this crew on the Enterprise-B? Captain Cameron! Human Tuvok! Major Kira's dad! And Private Vasquez/Janelle! "Captain, sick bay reports Wolfie's fine, honey, Wolfie's just fine."

So that's a nice mix of small details and potentially decisive aspects. Unfortunately, the latter are more strongly represented in the "not so good" column.

The story is weird on multiple levels. In Trek, a phenomenon like the Nexus is usually, you know, investigated. At the very least, we might have expected a few lines of dialogue speculating about its origin, or how it works. Nothing of the sort is provided, which makes the Nexus pure space fantasy (as opposed to the thinly-veiled space fantasy Trek has given us on multiple occasions). That might be okay if the Nexus had been a plot-convenience vehicle enabling Picard and Kirk to do awesome things together—the obvious raison d'ĂȘtre of the film—but instead they putter around a kitchen and, in the climax, clamber around some scaffolding in the desert. What little excitement is generated by the stakes of Soran's plan (an unseen planetary population wiped out, plus the whole Enterprise crew, since the ship crashed there) is further weakened by the seemingly budget-conscious action setpiece that leads to his end.

Bringing Guinan in may also have been a mistake. I have nothing against the character and, indeed, some of the better TNGs revolved around her. The problem is that, even in those better Guinan-centric TNGs, once we figured out they were Guinan-centric, we could safely assume that what was to follow would make little sense. In TNG this was only a slight problem—the show began with the godlike Q, after all, and Guinan's merely a "civilian alien with mysterious Yodalike knowledge and powers." We can accept the fantastical now and then on a week-by-week basis, especially on a show with almost no DS9ish serialization. But here, they add some pseudomystical "I'm not here, I'm an echo" business to an already muddled plot involving a magical space ribbon that sends you to Happyland. It's a lot for the audience to go along with, especially an audience that isn't already Trek-converted (and the Trek feature films usually try to appeal to both).

And then there's the fact that the basis for all this, with respect to emotional story beats, seems to have been Picard's near-breakdown at the start of the 24th-century part of the movie. Not only is it an uncharacteristic breakdown—he's snapping at Riker just because of the death of a nephew we've seen once in the series and heard mentioned maybe a couple of times?—but I doubt it's what TNG fans were hoping for in their cast's first big-screen outing. First Contact may have been so successful because it gave us Angry Picard, rather than the Despairing Picard here (or the Wistful Picard of Insurrection, or the…Kinda Ambivalent Picard? of Nemesis).

Speaking of unearned emotional impacts, I will go to my grave insisting that they never should have destroyed the Enterprise-D, or at least not in THIS movie. I recall that it dramatically diminished my already precarious goodwill for Generations as I sat through it the first time. The -D was the most beautiful ship of the entire Trek fleet. Its replacement with the hypermilitarized -E was the first time I consciously wondered if this franchise was starting to flail. (I hadn't seen much Voyager by then.) Their reason for making this choice? Dunno…could be just to give us a reason to care about the Nexus hitting some planet. Or maybe they sensed that the story felt like a so-so episode rather than a feature, and figured, "I know! More spectacle!"

More script problems:

  • The Data emotion-chip stuff is amusing once or twice, but becomes grating fast, and feels tacked-on. Every TNG film insisted on giving Data a major role, and while this is the least prominent of Data's parts in a TNG film, it's also the weakest.
  • In what probably accounts for a lot of the sense of disappointment: Picard and Kirk not only didn't get enough quality time together—i.e. doing typical Trek things like pacifying aliens or yelling on the bridge—but they didn't get enough time together, period. This was what they marketed the movie on, after all. If the writers wanted to get these two characters together in a way that wouldn't mess with in-universe history going forward, I think they could've found another way that didn't limit them as much as this Nexus/Soran plot did.
  • A plot device as powerful as the Nexus is, space-time-wise, raises all kinds of questions about why Picard and Kirk had to cut it so close in coming back to stop Soran—questions that would be time-consuming and maybe even impossible to answer. That may be why they didn't try.

In a way, this script seems to have come from near-total Trek outsiders, but it absolutely didn't. From what I remember, the production of Generations was rushed for some reason (it did come out very quickly after TNG ended), which could explain just about everything.

So I guess I was mistaken at the beginning; this is actually a pretty easy movie to review, but scoring it is the tough part. It's got some of the thoughtful introspection that all good Trek should have; it never gets totally boring, though some bits are slow or rote; Shatner is in top form, what little we see of him; and detail-oriented Trek fans (I'm being polite to myself in not saying "nerds") are given a fair amount of lore to chew on, like the Enterprise-B and the El-Aurian stuff. I'd never accuse Generations of being the worst Star Trek film, but it's firmly on the not-so-good side of the field. And yes, it is an odd-numbered one.

Star Score: 2.5 out of 5

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