6.29.2013

Captain's Blog pt. 36: Insurrection

Insurrection is the most undeservedly reviled film in the Trek franchise. 


Don't get me wrong - it's a hot mess and has some incredibly dorky moments. No one's in the wrong for noticing any of that. But Ryan Britt (whose "Personal Log Stardate 5-9-94" is a good litmus test for whether or not you've passed the point of no return re: the ice cage around your heart) sums it up best in his review:

"In almost every way that matters, I unabashedly love Insurrection. Instead of space murders, revenge, and a bevy of bad guys, this movie mostly concerns people sitting around and talking about the ethics of messing with other cultures, the attainability of near immortality, and the dangers of technology moving our lives so quickly that it destroys aspects that really matter. Insurrection is a sci-fi pondering of the slow food movement, an attack on plastic surgery, and a good old'-fashioned "live and let live" message which permeates the optimism of both the classic series and TNG."


"Because of its confused attempt to also be an action movie at times, it comes across a bit messy. However, if you truly love Star Trek, some of that messiness is sort of sweet. The "action" in Insurrection feels like Star Trek got a little drunk and tried to dance to a cool song, with cringe-worthy Napoleon Dynamite results. I seriously doubt a hardcore Trek fan would ever claim Insurrection as the one they hate the most, and that's because despite (its flaws) there's very little that is is offensive about this movie."

Britt's assertion that no hardcore Trek fan would ever claim it's the worst of the lot is incorrect; I run across that routinely. He's 100% correct, though, as to why such an opinion cannot be taken seriously: if anyone claims to be more offended by Insurrection than by Generations, Nemesis, The Undiscovered Country, or The Final Frontier, they simply don't know what they're talking about.


Here is a link to Michael Piller's unpublished behind-the-scenes memoir of making this movie. And here is Mr. Plinkett's dangerously funny (and remarkably spot-on) analysis of the film. I'll be referencing them both extensively, here on out. Sorry for the long-ass post; years worth of Insurrection theorizin' summarized and cominatcha'.

Piller's book is very interesting, as it describes the story's beginnings and maps the changes the story went through as it circulated through the hands of Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, and the studio. "Heart of Lightness, the same structure as Heart of Darkness, but the trip up the river would lead Picard and his crew on a very different kind of adventure. We open at Starfleet Academy in Picard's youth. We give him a best friend, another cadet who is as close to Picard as any man has ever been and ever will be. Flash forward to the present and Picard is sent into the Briar Patch - a region of space akin to the Bermuda Triangle - to negotiate transfer of a (technobabble mineral) and deal with the Romulans, with whom the Federation has entered into an uneasy alliance. The Romulan baddie, "Joss," has a thing for Troi and challenges Worf to a duel en route. Upon arrival, Picard is shocked to meet his old friend, who is exactly the same age, among the Ba'ku, a culture of forever-children. After some convincing, Picard takes us arms with his old friend against both the Federation and the Romulans."

He describes this last part as two parts The Alamo, one part Dunkirk, as in this version, the only access to and from the planet with the technobabble ore is via a wacky band of space mariners, who arrive in the nick of time to help Picard et al. turn the tide against the Romulans. From there, Picard is brought before the Federation Council, where he delivers a big speech which wins the crowd and exposes the plot.

In this version, Boothby was at the film's beginning and end, and it is he who leads this slow-clap/ applause at film's end.

Rick Berman loved it and brought it to Patrick Stewart, who upon proving his big-screen leading man status to the tune of $100+m in First Contact, was now a producer on the movie. Patrick had clear personal goals for Picard in the new movie, Piller reports: "(He said) 'The great all-rounders in cricket, like Don Bradman or Tom Graveney, have a whole range of shots - fast bowling, spin bowling - they can hit all around the field in any direction, making it impossible for the defensemen to position themselves. I think of Picard as Graveney. And Graveney's most dominating, intimidating shot, rarely played, is the one straight back at the bowler and that's what Picard should do in this film.'

Tom Graveney. "We nodded politely as though we understand. Rick asked, "Is this anything like a single up the middle in baseball?" "Why yes, I'm sure it must be," said Patrick."

A-ha! See, I don't think what Patrick is describing is like a single up the middle. I'll defer to any cricket experts out there, but I think this is perhaps where communication wires first crossed. Piller states that his and Rick's wish for the third TNG film was to throw a curveball. "Every big league pitcher knows you can't keep throwing your fastball if you want to be successful. (First Contact) had been a fastball - and a good one - but we decided it would be a mistake to try and out-Borg the Borg."

So, you have three people who are not on the same page with their sports metaphors, and that's never a good thing. Patrick's reaction to Piller's first attempt at a script (summarized briefly above) is interesting not just for the insight it gives into Patrick's understanding of both Picard and Trek but in shedding some light into the retrograde/play-it-safe thinking that eventually led to Nemesis

"(Your script) has no sweep. (There is no instance of) We must stop Soran; we must annihilate the Borg. It deprives us of the Data that everybody wants to see for most of the story and once again appears to make him the enemy of Picard." (Piller's first treatment had Data de-activated by Picard in the first act, only to discover Data was on the right side, i.e. against the Romulan/ Federation alliance. He would only appear as himself well into the third act.) "It has Picard for the third time in emotional agony, I must fight my old comrade, etc. It again and again covers territory well explored in the series. Worf defends his honor, Troi is romantically pursued by the villain who attempts to violate her, etc. Picard maneuvering through the Patch we have done before. Telepathy using aliens is much trodden ground. Ditto the communication problems, i.e. Darmok. Ditto the woman who keeps changing into the devil, and others." (This refers to attributes given the Baku/ Briar Patch in the first treatment.) "Data malfunctioning - very selectively - and ditto Picard forming a bond with the child... 'Hero Worship' and another episode, the title of which I can't remember but where I played a sort of racquet ball with a troubled youth."

You should probably read that last sentence in your best Picard voice.

"I think what dismays me most about the story is the dredging up of the Romulans - a race already unexciting in TNG. It is revisionist and backward-looking in a most disappointing way. After the Borg, the Romulans? Oh my."

Piller wrote a lengthy defense of his original story, emphasizing the 'family' aspect and the return to exploring/ personal stories. Patrick wrote back:

"I think it is retrograde to emphasize 'family' so strongly. I think that is sentimental and uninteresting and eventually leads to space heroes sitting round a campfire singing 'Row Row Row Your Boat.' The family building aspect of TNG is passed. Not dead, but the work is done. Most of our audience know who these people are and how they feel about each other, and our new audience that the studio are so eager for us to win and hold don't need to be told that. I agree that we must tell personal stories, but they must be personal stories on a big canvas. I don't agree about our being explorers again. I think that that is series material but not movie material."

That last argument, interestingly/ perhaps-inevitably, has re-erupted in the wake of Into Darkness.

"I think that it is a deadly idea to have even an overhauled Romulan villain. After the Borg Queen it will look as if we just couldn't come up with any new bad guys. But we must. Could they be Federation Executive Council? (Gene, stop spinning.) Or a cadre inside the Council? The bad guys are right there in the heart of the Federation. That is certainly contemporary and, God knows, depressingly relevant."

The more things change...

"One of the great strengths of First Contact was the creation of three marvelous guest roles and three terrific performances. James Cromwell was perfect, but what really appealed to audiences and critics was the Borg Queen and Lily, both of them sexy, provocative, dangerous, funny. There is no female role like that or really one of any significance in this story. I think that is a mistake. Lily and the Queen (and Cochrane) challenged our people, challenged their actions, their beliefs, their virtue. Isn't that good?"

Again, I think it's remarkable both how spot-on Patrick Stewart is, here, about just about everything, and how so many of his reasonable concerns and observations are basically tossed aside for Nemesis.

Piller started again from scratch. "Something about this world must tempt Picard to stay and yet, at the end, he knows that if men like him abandon the Federation to men like Doherty, the Baku's fate will be some other race's. Ditch the forever-children, then; it has to be adults. And we must personalize the temptation with our own version of Jane Wyatt."


Ronald Coleman's love interest in Lost Horizon, one of the inspirations for the story.
also known as Spock's Mom.

Berman agreed. "This is the first, clear emotional arc we've had for Picard, and it will work. In FC, (he) preserved the Federation's origins; now he is called upon to save its future, its soul."

Piller added (or rather, he restored: he had it in there originally, but Berman made him take it out as he thought his lead wouldn't want to draw attention to his age. Patrick's response on hearing this: "It's very nice for your to consider my feelings, darling, but I actually think it's quite interesting." That cracks me up.) the fountain of youth aspect and the love interest.


 
 
Anij, played by Donna Murphy

This time around, Patrick was much more enthused: "Yes, the fountain of youth - everyone is fascinated by the youth culture. I think this has potential. Contemporary resonance includes obsession with youth, respect/ disrespect of age, the Mao, Breshnev, Ziou thing..." (???) "...communion between young and old, fear of death, fear of change, old betraying the young and vice versa, our hero's place in this, fun with the crew, conflict on the Enterprise. And outside it all - Data." (The Asimov robot who malfunctions by refusing to function in a dysfunctional rationale. I can't recall if Patrick Stewart said that or if I read it elsewhere, but it's certainly true.)

Patrick added: "Picard's decision to resign should be motivated in part by the changes in his personality that the fountain of youth has created. Adults are more complacent than youth. Young people are more impatient, more impulsive, more leap before they look. Picard should be far more impulsive than normal."


He also enjoyed the addition of a love interest, and here I just want to say, the romance between Anij and Picard is the great strength of the picture.
It makes immediate sense why Picard would be attracted to this woman, beyond her looks, I mean. The sort of unhurried existence and mature communication she represents, yadda yadda. Donna Murphy plays the part with a quiet strength that is effectively communicated everytime she's on screen.
Says Murphy: "Anij walked in a state of meditation. That was very attractive to me, and I loved that ability she had to slow time down, to really get inside a moment."
"People talk about that kind of thing, but they found a way to make that active in the movie." I quite agree. This Zen/ understated romance aspect of the film is probably for me the film's most appealing aspect.
Although the Ba'ku's "alien"ness also constitutes one of the film's biggest problems, but that aside for now, I enjoy that they are characterized by this sort of thing and not by funny forehead make-up/ nose-ridges.
 
I would have liked a tad more of Picard's spiritual rebirth thoughts, but I like everything we see, here.

With Patrick's problems resolved, they turned to Brent Spiner, whose objections (too lengthy to reproduce here) read like a garden variety Trek-forum argument. Intelligent objections, tho, to be sure. His questions about the Baku were mainly addressed by dropping the forever-children aspect and re-structuring Data's part.


For the worse, perhaps, but we'll get to that.
Frakes agreed to direct the revised script, and he, Berman and Piller began to white-board the story. But... perhaps they should have white-boarded it a tad more before the cameras began to roll.

Many of the complaints I read re: Insurrection I agree with; they just don't add up to much for me. Most of them arose from trying to keep the actors happy, and you've always got to take that into consideration when evaluating these things. It's part of the process. (I just finished an entertaining book called Fiasco that drove this point home over and over again.) As alluded to above, Spiner saw little point to his character's arc, so he and Piller worked on giving Data some symbolic importance to the plot. Instead of Picard bonding with the child, it was decided Data - as a literalization of the technology the Ba'ku have left behind - should get that part.


Like it or hate it - and I think most people hate it - this does indeed satisfy Spiner's concern that Data's character arc should serve to round out the theme of the movie/ be counterpoint to Picard's.
I personally don't mind the cutesy stuff with the kid. It's light-hearted and perhaps a bit too on the nose, but it's harmless enough.
Let's just not mention the cartoon chipmunk. Or Spiner's various ad-libs that made it into the movie. ("Floatation device" and such.)
And yes, I cringe at this sequence as much as anyone else, but consider its evolution. First, the script called for a long-ish joke that Picard recalled Data enjoying, something Brent didn't like. So, it became a section from King Lear that Data and Picard were supposed to have been rehearsing, something Patrick didn't like. Someone mentioned "A British Tar," and Stewart and Spiner - both musical theater nerds - loved it. It just goes to show: keeping actors happy over writing for/ appealing to non-actors can sometimes be a slippery slope.

Other problems, though, were a result of not properly thinking things through, and here we can only blame Piller, Berman and Frakes. I'll use Mr. Plinkett's review, afore-linked, as my template here and address them in the order he does:

SPECIAL F/X / VISUAL DESIGN: He thinks it looks cheap. I disagree. I actually think the Briar Patch/ ships look quite lovely, and the outdoors scenery is great. It does not, however, resemble an alien world whatsoever, which would have been a pretty simple fix and one they totally should have done. This is my only real objection to the film: take Anij out of the way, and the Baku are just pretty uninteresting and un-alien-like. Still, I rather enjoy that we don't learn about their evolution of government, royal family, etc. The tail too often wags the whole damn dog with that in the Trekverse. It's enough that the Federation wants to do something it shouldn't with them; I don't need their whole life story.

Still, if they'd invested a few million in making the sky/ environment look as alien as possible - maybe to make that the visual hallmark of the production - I guarantee people would be more forgiving of this film. It'd basically be Avatar. (More or less the same story and set-up.)

COSTUMES: He refers to them as "the JC Penney catalog," with nothing but repetitive earth tones.

Hard to argue with that one.
The Hardcastle and McCormick guy (Daniel Hugh Kelley) in particular wears the same outfit for days.

GENERAL PLOT CONFUSION: These are a bit more baffling in their un-thought-through-ness...



- In the shot above, Data shoots his phaser at four points on the Starfleet/ Sona monitoring station, exposing it. As you can see, a facade of rockface hides the (cloaked) station. Did, uh, they beam up or otherwise demolish the rocks, build or beam down the station, then project this illusion of the rockface? Presumably, the Ba'ku would notice if the rockface decreased or increased dramatically in height, otherwise.

(Also, does it make any sense for the monitoring station to even exist? Can't they do this from orbit? Or from further away? Is it necessary to look directly onto the village? The answers are no, yes, yes, and no.)

- Speaking of...



The whole drain the lake/ expose the holo-ship / imaginary stairs leading up to the entrance thing is really sloppy. And why is the cloaked holo-ship underwater (and so close to the village) anyway? And how, exactly, is this plan going to work, like, at all? "Homeward" makes sense because the aliens are tricked into thinking they're traversing a network of caves, bound for a new home. Are we really to believe the Ba'ku would be duped into waking up on a holo-ship and think they were still home? Or get to their new destination and not notice the different sky/ constellations, etc.? Presumably, the Federation would 'fess up once they got them aboard the holo-ship, but it's a presumption the audience shouldn't be left to make for itself.

- Why is Data on this mission, anyway? It's never satisfactorily explained. Like a lot of things in the script, it seems to exist solely to create complications Picard can then solve. Still, I do like the symbolism. Shrug.

- Shouldn't the Ba'ku be in much greater numbers? Mr. Plinkett counts something like 30 or so 12-year-old children in the movie. Extrapolating from this, he comes up with a number for the Ba'ku at just over 3 million persons. Why not just have the Ba'ku spread out on the planet, at that population? It would strengthen every other premise in the movie, wouldn't it? I do like that the point of everything is that it's "only" 600 people, but... it forces the viewer to ask some unpleasant questions about their gene pool, etc.

- Far too many recalls to the series. We get a mash-up of concepts from "Who Watches the Watchers," "Thine Own Self," "The Ensigns of Command," Journey's End," and "Homeward," just to name a few. And that ties into another problem but one not exclusive to Insurrection.


The Picard of the movies is not, generally speaking, the Picard of the series.
He's all about following orders/ relocating folks (who are even Federation members) in some of the episodes just mentioned...
Don't get me wrong. I like that Picard's feelings have "evolved" on the subject, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point it out.

- Does anyone else find it strange that Picard would take so many weapons down to the planet? These are pacifists; does he really need so many rifles, Worf's purple rocket launcher thing, and 7 metric tons of explosives? Once the Sona start firing their isolinear tags, none of the Ba'ku even pick up a weapon. Again, as a holdover from the first script, when Picard was holding out at the Alamo, the amount of weapons makes sense, but not in its final version.


Awkward.

- And sticking with Picard for one minute more, is it really in character for him to leave Ru'afo to die at the film's end?


 
I suppose this is more of a Riker problem, actually.

Riker arrives on the scene and beams Picard off the Collector but leaves Ru'afo to die. How does he know thatt Picard hasn't given one of his effective speeches and Ru'afo has given up peacefully? But this is movie-Picard, where he's much less concerned about other people's lives than tv-Picard. 

Another thing I like about Insurrection: half of the crew doesn't effing die. And, as Red Letter Media notes, this is the only TNG film where Picard seems more or less like his old self: ethical, compassionate, etc. vs. haunted, driven, raging, blubbering, oh-so-tired, etc.


 

I could go on, but you get the idea. A lot of things just aren't very well-thought-out. One of the most common complaints is that it's a step backward from First Contact / feels more like a good 2-parter for the series than a movie. I can't dispute that, but I find it endearing. It probably was the wrong film to follow FC, but I get a kick out of that, too. Unfortunately, Berman's and Piller's "curve ball" didn't strike out the batter at the box office. It made a little money, but after FC, the studio's reaction was lukewarm.

The reviews were split pretty much down the middle, but the general impression in fandom is that it's terrible. I've never agreed nor understood the logic in that approach, but that's how it is popularly regarded.


Anthony Zerbe is a good evil-Admiral. (The only kind Starfleet ever seems to hire, incidentally! How many Admirals are bad guys in Trek movies/ shows? It starts to boggle the mind after awhile.) Originally, he was considered for the role of Ru'afo, but then they went in a different direction.
And while the Sona/ Ba'ku have their problems, it's undeniable that F. Murray Abraham gives a stellar performance. This scene with the bleeding facial sore is a nice (if gross) touch.
 
Abraham reveals that his children to this day remain unimpressed with his work on Amadeus or elsewhere but are huge Trek fans, so they consider this the actor's finest role. I won't go that far, but Ru'afo (like Kruge) is all too often and unfairly left out of "Great Trek villains" lists.

Another endearing for me but perhaps polarizing for others thing about this film is its subversion. Not just the fighting-Starfleet thing, but the implications of this "insurrection." It puts the movie in the anti- establishment/ status-quo/ Hollywood side of the spectrum. Did this make the studio/ audiences uncomfortable? What are the real-world parallels and what are we to make of Picard's actions against them?


"On old Earth, petroleum turned 'thugs into tyrants.'"
Throw in some rather barbed satire of botox/ plastic surgery, and it's easy to see how it could have ruffled some of the wrong feathers. (Particularly with Hollywood producer's wives.)
"You've brought the Federation into a blood feud."

I'm not suggesting it's commenting on any one of these things specifically, though it certainly makes sense to read it these ways, only that it's easy to see how any of them could have made the studio/ distributors uncomfortable. Or even pissed off. I mean, Hollywood is not very forgiving to those who break ranks with its agenda.

So, the rest of the cast gets some cutesy moments. Troi/Crusher talking about their boobs, Worf gets pimples, etc. (And Riker and Troi take a bath together. Eww.) But this bit with Geordi and the sunrise is quite nice. "How could I enjoy another sunrise knowing what my sight is costing these people?"

Good question.
 
 
As scenic as this vista is, another blown opportunity for Avatar/ ST: The Motion Picture style fx!

Marina Sirtis has gone on record saying she thinks the film is stupid. Patrick Stewart, on the other hand, has said, "It works on so many more levels than anything we've done before." I'm with Captain Picard, here. Sorry, Counselor. (She's also a FC Tottenham fan, so... anything she has to say about anything is fatally compromised.)

Sentimentalist, sure. Plot loopholes, you bet. Troi and Riker taking a bath, ewww, God. But as far as the NextGen movies go, the latter is par for the course, and the former is never done better than here.

7 comments:

  1. F Murray Abraham turns in a fine performance, indeed. The Trek films generally have good luck casting the lead villain, even in the movies that suck.

    And speaking of sucking, let's spend a few secs on Anthony Zerbe. He sucks in almost everything he does. He sucked in the Bond movie, he sucked in the KISS movie, he sucks here.

    The thing that bugged me the most about this movie: We're given no explanation whatsoever for Worf's presence. Picard: "Mr Worf, what are you doing here?" Worf: "Well, Captain, it's like this..." Picard: "No time for that now!" WTF! I realize they were probably running out of ways to have Worf conveniently show up since he left the Enterprise, but this was just plain dumb.

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    1. Actually, Anthony Zerbe is pretty good here, so I don't know what you mean. And he's fun in The Omega Man and good in The Dead Zone. He does what the role(s) call for.

      They give some excuse for Worf to be here; I forget what it is. It's in Nemesis that this is totally disregarded, though. They don't even mention his being the Klingon ambassador, or even bother trying for an excuse.

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    2. I always kinda liked Zerbe, personally, despite the fact that he looks like the kind of guy who'll grope your girlfriend while you're in the bathroom and figure out a way to keep her from saying anything to you about it. There's a place for fellas like him in the movies, though, I guess, and he mostly seems to have found it.

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  2. I like the idea of blaming this movie on poorly-synchronized sports metaphors. So THAT'S why they fumbled at the goalline...

    I've got no real beef with "Insurrection," beyond being unable to shake the feeling that if the producers had opted to go with an awesome Q adventure, they'd have made $150 million and launched the series into the stratosphere. They didn't do that; instead, they made a movie that has considerable appeal for people who were already fans, but didn't do a heck of a lot to pull in new viewers.

    It's unfair to judge a movie on what it isn't, though. I get that. I can't help DOING it in this instance...but I do get it.

    So in the interest of judging it on what it is, I'll say this: I don't like the villains at all. They're gross. They're just plain gross, nasty, ugly, difficult-to-look-at ghouls. And not (for me, at least) in a fun way; in a "I'll be sorta glad when this movie is over so I don't have to look at these assholes" way.

    But there are indeed some great scenes, and some fun character moments, and I would say that at least as much of it works as doesn't. I'm not a fan of the movie, particularly, but I certainly don't think it's a bad flick.

    Bonus points for the good Jerry Goldsmith score. Not up to his work on "The Motion Picture" or "First Contact," but still quite good.

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    1. It is difficult to judge things for what they didn't do/ failed to be, I grant you. I do it all the time myself. I stand by my conviction that had they just invested the money in making the film Avatar-alien-blaaaow-ed out, it might have made a lot more money. But then they'd had to have covered Donna Murphy in day-glo paint, or something... hmmm. I withdraw my caveat. Maybe that would have been just fine.

      I like the ghastliness of the Sona, me. But they're certainly gross. As the twisted mirror image of the Ba'ku, it works for me.

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    2. What's weird is, I've seen way, way grosser things in who-knows-how-many other movies. I mean, I've seen "Terror Firmer." Multiple times! So really, the Sona shouldn't bother me at all. But they do. It's an irrational reaction, but an unavoidable one, seemingly.

      I will say this, though: before I watch the movie next time, I am DEFINITELY going to read "Fade In." It sounds awesome.

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    3. Fade-In is definitely worth reading. Practically every film of the franchise has a behind-the-scenes memoir. I wish the TNG cast would start releasing some. (Or DS9 and Voyager alum, to boot.) I'd like some kind of better explanation for Nemesis than what we currently have (i.e. a couple of Spiner interviews, some apologetic tweets, and convention-panel ad-libbing.)

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