Space. The final frontier. Is this the last voyage of Picard’s Enterprise?
Star Trek: Nemesis is the tenth Trek film and the fourth to feature the Next Generation crew led by stalwart Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and Lieutenants Data (Brent Spiner), Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) and Worf (Michael Dorn) have been through it all and then some with Picard since the TV series began in 1987. Nemesis, unfortunately, falls desperately short of the excellent heights they’ve reached during their 15-year mission to seek out new life forms and boldly go where no one has gone before.
Star Trek: Generations (1994) was the feature film passing of the phaser between the Kirk and Picard regimes. The next two TNG installments, 1996’s First Contact and 1998’s Insurrection, were directed by Riker himself, Jonathan Frakes. Particularly in First Contact, his execution seemed effortless and came across flawlessly. It makes a lot of sense that it would shake down that way; Frakes knows the characters and the mythology, he knows the actors and he knows what made the show work. His Trek films were filled with the kinds of little character interactions that thrilled longtime fans and conveyed years of character development to new audiences with simple looks and gestures.
But for this installment Frakes was replaced in the director’s chair by Stuart Baird, whose only other directing credits are the Fugitive spin-off U.S. Marshals and the hilariously bad Executive Decision. You don’t have to be Mr. Spock to think the decision illogical. Though Baird has been editing movies for the better part of three decades, he’s still an editor at heart. Nemesis has some impressive action sequences, but the action can’t match First Contact in ingenuity or intensity. Even worse, character interaction under Baird’s command seems stilted and often even awkward.
The script by Trek newcomer and Gladiator scribe John Logan never realizes what little potential the story provides. On its way to drop newlyweds Riker and Troi off for their honeymoon, the Enterprise crew discovers an early prototype of Data (cleverly called B4) and ends up being sent to investigate what just might be a Romulan proposition for peace. But the line between the hierarchal Romulans and grotesque Remans has been crossed the hard way by Shinzon (Tom Hardy), a young clone of Picard whose brutality is a match for Picard’s nobility. (It’s almost not as silly as it sounds. Almost.) Tempered by a life of Romulan cruelty, Shinzon has a plan to ravage the entire known universe with a radiation weapon that acts as a virus. It’s Picard vs. Evil Young Clone Picard with the fate of the universe at stake. Whatever.
Production designer Herman Zimmerman is still on board from the previous films, allowing Nemesis to maintain the clean, unique visual style that has come to define Star Trek. The ships look particularly impressive. But the cutting room work of Baird and editor Dallas Puett (Tomb Raider) leaves much to be desired and even sinks as low as cheesy slow-motion in some of the fight scenes. Remember all of those breathtaking multi-ship space combat scenes in First Contact? Don’t expect that here, though Nemesis does have its moments as the Enterprise takes it worst beating yet. But overall, the level of visual excitement just isn’t there.
The biggest weaknesses here are story and script. Picard’s wedding toast to Riker and Troi sounds like the awkward ramblings of a complete stranger. The characters have been reduced to standard action movie stereotypes who say standard action movie things. (The last scene between Riker and Picard, for example, is not only infinitely underwritten but a terribly tired cliché.) Maybe it’s the script. Maybe it’s Baird’s lack of familiarity with Star Trek. Either way, you don’t get the impression that these people have been serving together for 15 years of love, loyalty and loss.
The actors do what they can with what they’ve got. Dina Meyer (Birds of Prey) plays a sexy-as-hell Romulan commander called Donatra. With much of her lovely face covered by makeup, Meyer really gets to show off her superbly effective voice. As Shinzon’s right hand Reman Viceroy, Ron Perlman looks more like something out of Blade 2 than he did in, well, Blade 2, and admirably acts beyond the limitations of a mask. Brent Spiner gets some wonderful moments as Data here, while Marina Sirtis gets to do some powerful dramatic work. LeVar Burton gets a few good moments with Spiner, but the rest of the cast members seem like cameos in their own movie.
The significant Data story aside, Nemesis boils down to Shinzon and Picard. Though certainly righteous, Picard is never pretentious. Hardy manages to steer barely clear of overdoing it as the young clone of Jean-Luc, and is convincing in his portrayal of the depravity that Shinzon can only barely contain. Patrick Stewart has as many good moments as the screenplay will give him, but the material here is nowhere near the quality he had to work with in First Contact.
For every big dramatic set-up in Nemesis, we get a cheap, shallow pay-off. And what should be the most explosively emotional moment of this crew’s entire 15 years together is split up into so many scenes over so many minutes that all emotion is sucked right out of it. It’s one thing for the Trek producers to have made such a decision. But it’s a shame that it had to happen in a film so mediocre as this one. If this is the final Next Generation film, it’s a stunningly terrible way to end such a wonderful series. If further adventures are planned, it will take a lot of work to breathe new life into the shambles this installment has left of the franchise. It might have somewhere left to go, but only a good story can measure how boldly.