Wednesday, 5 August 2015

A Final Insult: Nemesis?

About two years ago I started writing a post on Star Trek: Nemesis that never made it beyond a few straggly lines. It rested in Development Hell until +James Patrik happened to mention he fancied drafting up a piece on the tenth motion picture. Who was I to refuse so, with a major rewrite, James and I can finally present one of SKoST's Lost Posts seemingly perfectly timed as Beyond begins filming and I actually managed to watch this movie again over the weekend...

Nemesis.  In the thirteen years since its release, its very name has become an epitaph to a bygone era of Star Trek.  

Hammering the final nail into the “Prime” universe’s coffin, its critical and commercial failure signalled the end of the Berman/Braga paradigm and the start of a long period of hibernation for the franchise.

While painfully aware of its terrible reputation among fans, we are firmly in the minority who appreciate the film for the fantastically flawed piece of Star Trek that it is.  Released at a time when interest in the franchise was at an all-time low, Nemesis exists as a curious beast when compared with the rest of the film franchise. Perhaps it's one that deserves more attention than the lauded First Contact if only for its shortcomings.

Four years after the previous film, Nemesis gathers all the familiar faces for what Paramount’s marketing department was quick to bill as a ‘generation’s final journey’.  But right away, things don’t look right.  After such a lengthy break, the characters look noticeably older, and sadly, appear to be operating on autopilot.  Having Stewart and Spiner involved in the production ensures the movie rapidly degenerates into the Picard and Data Show perhaps giving only Frakes as Riker an opportunity to spread his action wings.  Much like Insurrection before it, the growing influence of its stars during production only served to dilute the original story and satisfy ego. That over-familiarity with the subject matter could well have been a major thread in the unravelling of the franchise as it hobbled into the 21st Century.

Indeed, it is in the film’s story that the most significant problems can be found.  An ardent Trekkie, John Logan (an otherwise superlative writer) proves that fanboys aren’t always the right people for the job.  Culling elements from The Wrath of Khan, Logan’s theme of mirror images is an intriguing one, rife with storytelling potential.  Tom Hardy delivers an able performance as Shinzon, but alas, never really feels like Picard.  Much like Nero after him, his motivations remain unclear, robbing the film of its narrative spine. For Data, the discovery of yet another Soong-type android in the form of B-4 feels contrived and tired. Almost as bad is the egregious dune buggy sequence in which he is discovered (supplanting the gimmicky ‘manual steering column’ of the previous film). B-4 might even be seen as a huge insult and the biggest deus ex machina ever to grace Star Trek. Kill Data but hey, if all fails we can still bring him back. This kind of stuff might have worked in 1987 season one of The Next Generation (cue synth score) but not in cinematic 2003 territory.

It has often been said that Star Trek’s main draw-card is its characters.  Nemesis is a film that finds these characters out of focus, lost to action sequences and scenes of boring exposition.  The film’s deleted scenes reveal the mindset of the film-makers in the kinds of edits that were made.  For those who own the Blu-ray or special edition DVD, you can see a proper scene with Wesley, a final farewell for Beverly, the arrival of Riker’s replacement and a poignant reflection on the passage of time between Picard and Data. But the cuts also reveal an even darker edge to the film which would have seen Troi encounter Shinzon in a terrifying telepathic attack and add weight to the flimsy story which gives the counsellor very little to do.

The blame for these unkind cuts is often laid at the feet of director Stuart Baird.  While clearly able to put together a cracking action sequence, Baird shows little regard for the beloved The Next Generation crew, excising the more character driven scenes in favour of action, action, action!  While he has never commented on the film in the years since, numerous cast members have publicly criticised his direction, citing on set conflicts (referring to LeVar Burton as “Laverne”) and a fundamental misunderstanding of what Star Trek was about.  The end result is a story that feels emotionally bankrupt.  Compared to Spock’s funeral service, Data’s wake (and Sirtis’ crocodile tears) lacks emotional punch. It's almost gut-wrenchingly bad and comes close to ruining 15 years of hard work in minutes.

There is no payoff for the audience, and the film simply sputters to an end. Tragically the closing moments have Picard and B-4 engaging in little more than a sing-along which, while it reveals Data is still around - somewhere - it's a bit limp given the significance of the hour and you're left hoping that there will be another movie to give the crew the send-off they richly deserve. Even numbered this may be, high quality it ain't.

For a film that makes so many mistakes, it does get quite a few things right.  Tonally, the film is refreshingly dark – enhanced by a foreboding (and excellent) score from Star Trek stalwart Jerry Goldsmith who deftly weaves electronic elements into an otherwise traditional sci-fi film score. Linked intrinsically to the franchise on both the big and small screen though it could be said that his involvement had been as overstayed as Berman's tenure at the top. Certainly one thing that can be applauded in the JJ-verse is that Michael Giachinno's score has brought a dynamic versatility to events. However, Goldsmith does solidly deliver with Nemesis, more aware of his material than the director may have been.

The climactic battle in the Bassen Rift is without a doubt one of the most exciting sequences in all of Star Trek.  Featuring the final on-screen appearance of the Enterprise-E, Nemesis makes good use of much improved CGI technology, delivering a battle unlike anything seen in Star Trek before.  For the first time, viewers saw redshirts despatched into the vacuum of space as the main bridge was blown apart, not to mention the Enterprise ramming the Scimitar in a sequence that is both exciting and terrifying. The Scimitar itself is a work of art. Rightly noted as a predator by Picard upon decloaking it's one of the most vicious, dominating and memorable ships ever and does get to bear her teeth. There is a great Attack Wing miniature available and hopefully we'll get to see an Eaglemoss entry in the Starships Collection soon when they manage to work out all the finer details. 

It is in this way that Nemesis points the way forward, offering Trekkies a sign of things to come; more action, faster pacing and huge set pieces (and ships).  After examining these high octane elements, one might speculate that at this point Berman had become aware of the shifting demands of modern audiences.  Was it too little, too late? Potentially but by the time he might have realised it was time to move on the final nail was in the coffin and the drastically diminished box office takings revealed how bad things actually were.

Alas, all speculation is moot. This film now stands as the final instalment in the “Prime” movie franchise, replaced in 2009 by JJ Abrams Nu-Trek.  Though the two films released thus far have been resounding financial successes, they continue to polarise the fan base in a way Nemesis never did.

Set in the year 2379, Nemesis represents the farthest point in future history depicted on screen.  With series Star Trek Enterprise scrapped in 2005, and the Nu-Trek films continuing, Star Trek has effectively been trapped in prequel-land ever since. Even the majority of the more well-known fan films tend to rely on the cheaper-to-produce classic era.

I have always felt that The Next Generation crew deserved better - a fonder, more definitive farewell. Before the film’s 2002 release, Patrick Stewart claimed that there were plans for a sequel; however those appear to have been consigned to the dustbin. With the third rebooted Star Trek film being released next year, and a number of dormant media properties being reborn (The X-Files, Heroes, Full House) there may still a slim chance that Picard and co will be seen on screen one final time.

Who can be certain?  It’s sci-fi.  It’s Star Trek.  And there are always possibilities - at least that's what Spock said...and he was right.

Have we got it right? Go on - you know you can't resist commenting about Nemesis...

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