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Jammer's Review: "Star Trek: Nemesis" (2002)

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: Spoilers follow for 2002 s Star Trek: Nemesis. ... Star Trek: Nemesis PG-13, 116 minutes Theatrical release: 12/13/2002 DVD release: 5/20/2003
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 11, 2003
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      Warning: Spoilers follow for 2002's "Star Trek: Nemesis."


      -----
      Star Trek: Nemesis

      PG-13, 116 minutes
      Theatrical release: 12/13/2002
      DVD release: 5/20/2003

      Screenplay by John Logan
      Story by John Logan & Rick Berman & Brent Spiner
      Produced by Rick Berman
      Directed by Stuart Baird

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
      Rating out of 4: **1/2
      -----

      Months before "Star Trek: Nemesis" was released in theaters, I kept telling
      people that its box-office performance would be the true barometer to
      indicate the public's actual current interest -- or disinterest -- in the
      Star Trek franchise. With the sophomore season of "Enterprise" facing
      difficult times in the ratings and the holders of the franchise at an
      apparent loss in regard to the eroding viewer base, "Nemesis" represented
      the real test. It was a Next Generation film for a franchise whose
      second-generation resurgence was centered on the TNG cast's success. Would
      this release show that the interest was still there?

      And then "Nemesis" bombed at the box office. The verdict, it would seem, was
      in.

      Let's face it, folks: Star Trek has seen better days, and the glory days of
      its success may very well be in the past, never again to be recaptured.
      Furthermore, the film franchise may be over. In all certainty, the TNG
      franchise is finished; Patrick Stewart has gone on record saying he is done
      playing Captain Picard. Franchise head Rick Berman says he envisions another
      film of some kind someday, but I can't imagine a scenario where Paramount
      would want to make another TNG film, based on the dismal performance of this
      one.

      Why was "Nemesis" a box-office failure? I can't say for sure, but it could
      be that Star Trek simply seems obsolete in the world of cinema today, where
      we have hugely successful, younger franchises like "Lord of the Rings,"
      "Harry Potter," and "The Matrix." Releasing "Nemesis" in between the second
      "Harry Potter" release and "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" was
      putting it up against some serious competition. It did not survive.

      Box-office numbers aside, "Nemesis" is a decidedly mixed bag, with some
      elements that work well and others that do not. I can see what they were
      going for here. Emotionally, they don't quite pull it off down the stretch,
      particularly with the lackluster ending. Technically, as an effects-driven
      hardware-and-battle movie, it's one of the better installments. Overall, I
      found it entertaining, but somehow lacking. Still, what I never understood
      was what seemed to me such an exceptionally negative critical and fan
      reception. This movie is no masterpiece, but it's not the train wreck some
      have made it out to be, and it's certainly better and more probing than the
      marshmallow-like "Insurrection" from four years ago. Perhaps the newer film
      franchises are simply raising the bar of our expectations. (Just look at
      "The Matrix Reloaded"; that's a franchise that makes Trek look seriously
      outmoded. But then, it's also a franchise whose latter two installments cost
      $300 million to make.)

      It is perhaps a telling sign of the age of the Star Trek franchise that I
      went into the film more or less knowing what to expect and pretty confident
      that few, if any, of those expectations would be shattered. Star Trek these
      days, especially The Next Generation, is -- let's face it -- safe. We know
      what they're selling. The question is whether we're buying.

      But I'm rambling, so I'll get on with it. "Nemesis" begins with a prologue
      coup d'etat on the Romulan Senate, in which most of the planet's leaders are
      wiped out with a lethal dose of something that turns them all to stone. Cut
      to the wedding of Riker and Troi, one of the film's genuine attempts at
      character development after the previous two TNG films were content to play
      like stand-alone episodes. It's these sort of scenes that should have
      emotional resonance. Alas, this one is too self-conscious, which made me
      feel self-conscious: It's hard to laugh at or be moved by forced material
      that comes across as vaguely unnatural. Picard's would-be snappy one-liners
      ("Mr. Data -- shut up"), which show up occasionally throughout the movie, do
      not seem particularly in character. If there's one thing "Nemesis"
      reinforces, it's that the TNG cast never had the natural chemistry the TOS
      cast had. Humor is still a point of labor.

      With the wedding out of the way, we move on to more sci-fi oriented
      concepts, as the Enterprise detects a positronic signature originating from
      the planet Kolaris III, which resides very near the Romulan Neutral Zone. On
      the planet surface they retrieve parts of a disassembled android that looks
      exactly like Data, buried in the desert sand. There's a chase sequence here
      involving a Starfleet-issued ground vehicle called the Argo -- a futuristic
      dune buggy -- and the desert's inhabitants. It's reasonably well executed as
      action, I suppose, but not all that inventive when you consider how Trinity
      can ride a motorcycle head-on into freeway traffic in "The Matrix Reloaded."

      Trying to make Trek look more cinematically contemporary, director Stuart
      Baird films the desert scene with that bleached washout look (plus filters
      of reddish brown); you'd think you were watching the desert footage of
      "Three Kings" (except that "Three Kings" was a great movie, whereas this is
      not -- yes, I know; cheap shot).

      The android turns out to be a precursor to Data named B-4, who is a ...
      shall we say, slower and less advanced version of Data. You'd think the
      Enterprise crew might've learned their lesson from Lore when it comes to
      assembling Data's mysterious siblings, but I guess not.

      Around this time, Picard is contacted by Admiral Janeway at Starfleet
      Command, which dispatches the Enterprise to Romulus to open a dialog with
      their new leader, Praetor Shinzon (Tom Hardy), who has extended an
      invitation in the interests of a new peace. "We're sending you all the
      intelligence we have, but it's not much," Janeway says. You can say that
      again. Starfleet Intelligence apparently has no clue that the Romulan Senate
      was just recently murdered en masse; I can't imagine they'd enter a
      situation like that expecting a peaceful outcome.

      Considering that sweeping Alpha Quadrant politics and a huge war were major
      elements of DS9's later seasons, "Nemesis" seems curiously out of touch
      (though no surprise here, since DS9 is the much-ignored Trek). After having
      been allies in that war a few years ago, the Romulans have once again become
      the Federation's major Cold War-like foe upon which galactic peace
      apparently hinges. I'm not suggesting this isn't possible, but the story
      doesn't even attempt to explain it. Not that I expected it to; the masses
      don't likely come to Star Trek movies to learn about its universe's
      political makeup. (One hopes they don't go to "Star Wars" movies for
      politics, either, considering the extreme banality of those last two movies'
      political material.) Also, following in the footsteps of the last movie, and
      also not at all a surprise here (though I still feel obligated to comment),
      "Nemesis" pretends Data's emotion chip never existed, and doesn't account
      for how Worf rejoined the crew of the Enterprise after DS9 had him packing
      his bags for the Klingon homeworld.

      The new players in this interstellar game are the Remans, a race of laborers
      and cannon fodder in the Romulan Empire that live on the dark slave world of
      Remus. Shinzon grew up on Remus, and his mission in life became to free his
      people from their enslavement within the empire. Of course, no villain would
      stop with merely freeing his enslaved people, so after orchestrating the
      power play, Shinzon of course plans to take matters much further...

      Shinzon commands the Extreme Warship Scimitar, a super-mean-looking predator
      that makes the Enterprise look like a toy. Shinzon also comes with a twist:
      He is not Reman but human, and furthermore, he's a clone of Picard who was
      engineered by a former Romulan government to replace Picard as a spy. When
      those plans were abandoned, Shinzon was banished to Remus. Still a child, he
      spent his life in the mines, growing up into a bitter megalomaniac, bent on
      staging an uprising. The invitation he has extended to the Enterprise is
      actually a trap, of course, not a peace offering.

      There is a promising concept here, centering on the nature of Shinzon and
      Picard. Loyal readers will know I'm a sucker for tortured characters and the
      self-identity question, and that's what is at the philosophical center of
      "Nemesis." The main question posed here is whether we truly have the power
      to make our choices, or whether our choices arise directly from our past
      experiences combined with some unknown predisposition. Shinzon has spent his
      life as a human among Remans, and he doesn't see himself as either Reman or
      quite human. He is the product of a hard and joyless life that has left him
      with the sole goal of escaping the confines of that life. But once he has
      escaped, then what? Can he go on to better things, and a life of peace? And
      the question posed on top of that is, would Picard, given the same set of
      circumstances as Shinzon, make the same series of choices?

      It's an intriguing question that gives Picard pause. He sees a lot of his
      younger self in the young and tortured Shinzon, and he begins to wonder how
      he might have turned out had his own life been different. I think this is a
      relevant and interesting question. I've wondered myself how I might've
      turned out had my formative years been harder, or, for that matter, easier.
      Would I have been driven to work harder, or allowed myself to be lazier?
      Could I have gotten as far along in life, or would I have gone farther?
      Would a tougher life have created in me more ambition, or less? How about an
      easier life? What scars or experiences do we carry with us that allow or
      prohibit or compel us to act?

      I guess the point here is that we all have a certain level of responsibility
      in controlling our destinies, regardless of our pasts. When Picard despairs
      over Shinzon's escalating brutality, Data reminds him that they are not the
      same person -- although this becomes a bit too obvious after awhile:
      Obviously, Picard would not plunge the entire quadrant into war simply to
      "satisfy [his] personal demons." By making Shinzon into such an unyielding
      megalomaniac, the bigger point is somewhat lost among his standard-issue
      mega-villain excesses. (His first instinct is to follow the tired "go
      destroy Earth" sci-fi idea, which is too obvious and ups the threat into the
      land of foregone conclusions. Why does he automatically have to assume his
      best interests mean the Federation *must* be destroyed? Because he's the bad
      guy, naturally.)

      Tom Hardy creates a reasonable villain who brings a respectable level of
      menace to the character -- which is important when he's standing up against
      Patrick Stewart, who as an actor always has your attention. Shinzon has some
      memorable lines, as when he refers to himself as an echo of Picard, and
      promises that the onset of war will represent the "triumph of the echo over
      the voice." He also gets some of those obligatory attitude-heavy lines
      necessary for all movie villains. My favorite funny exchange, a somewhat
      low-key one, has to be this one:

      Shinzon: "You may go."
      Data as B-4: "Where?"
      Shinzon: "Out of my sight."

      (I guess the humor is in the delivery. For me, it was the biggest laugh in
      the movie.)

      The good news is that the movie's philosophical center, the themes centering
      on Picard and Shinzon, mostly work. The bad news is that there are some
      other things in here that do not work, particularly within the flow of the
      plot.

      Take, for example, the almost ridiculously convenient plot device that B-4
      represents. There's a point, as the away team is finding pieces of B-4 in
      the Kolaris III desert, where Picard says, "This doesn't feel right." But
      that feeling is apparently dismissed immediately; it's as if finding a
      disassembled android in the middle of an alien desert is just business as
      usual. Kolaris III is within a stone's throw of Romulan space, and within
      literally moments of recovering B-4 comes the news that the Romulans want to
      open diplomatic talks. Suspicious? Hello? B-4 has been programmed, you see,
      by Shinzon to steal intelligence data from the Enterprise and report back to
      the Scimitar. It comes as a relief that the Enterprise crew figures this out
      and turns it against Shinzon, but the use of B-4 here by all parties is so
      full of fortuitous timing that everyone involved comes off looking silly
      before they can look clever.

      Then there's the use of the Reman Viceroy (Ron Perlman in a wasted role),
      Shinzon's trusted right-hand man, who unfortunately never emerges as
      anything but a nebulous plot device. Remans, it would seem, have telepathic
      abilities, which allows Shinzon to invade Troi's mind while she and Riker
      are having sex. The point of this -- beyond a cheap shock -- is beyond me.
      We never learn what Shinzon hopes to gain by invading Troi's mind, short of,
      I guess, mental rape because he's a Bad Guy. This device "pays off" in a
      later scene (pulled from thin air) where Troi turns the tables to invade the
      Viceroy's mind as a desperate attempt for the Enterprise to track the
      cloaked Scimitar. This scene is laughable; director Stuart Baird shines a
      light directly on Troi's eyes -- a hopelessly silly technique that drives
      the point so far over the top that it's impossible to take seriously.

      "Nemesis" is more action-oriented than many previous Trek films, though the
      action isn't particularly fresh. The pacing and editing is fine, but the
      concepts are worn out. There are phaser shootouts in the corridors that
      might've seemed exciting ... had this been 1977. Having hordes of shooting
      Remans stand in for Imperial Storm Troopers is not much of a take on
      cinematic action in the year 2002. Similarly, the space battles rely a bit
      too much on the Trekkian staple that "Voyager" made officially unwatchable:
      scenes where sparks explode on the bridge and tactical officers urgently
      inform the captain that shields are down to X percent. I'm thinking "Shields
      down to X percent" is the line most in need of being banned from all future
      Trek-related scripts. Make it so.

      The action I did enjoy mostly involves big ships shooting at each other and
      impressively flying past the camera in the vastness of space. Big starships
      and rumbling bass are still effective today, and the space battles -- taking
      place in an area of space that has eye-pleasing wisps of green clouds --
      look great, and benefit from the latest in CGI and motion-control visuals.
      There's one jarring scene where the Enterprise is shot and a hole is punched
      right through the front of the bridge, and people get sucked into space and
      stuff. Neat. Maybe Starfleet should rethink putting the bridge right up
      there on top for all to see and shoot at.

      And, of course, there's the movie's Centerpiece FX Sequence where the
      Enterprise rams the Scimitar in order to fulfill the movie's Mass
      Destruction Quotient. Such sequences are fun for those of us who need to
      satiate our appetite for imaginary visual chaos and Dolby Digital assaults
      (myself included). This collision happens at the same time as a scene where
      Riker fights the Viceroy below decks in hand-to-hand combat -- a scene that
      seems to exist out of a desperate need to give both Riker and the Viceroy a
      reason for still being in the movie.

      "Nemesis," under Baird's direction, is one of the darker Trek films on
      record, in both tone and visual style. The lighting and art direction for
      the film paints deep shadows, particularly on the Scimitar, which has a
      huge, darkened bridge that looks like it could double as a concert hall. I
      liked the darkened tone, which is a nice change of pace after the overt
      brightness of "Insurrection" (the Trek movie with the most overstated
      title). Baird's visual style is one aspect of the movie that works.
      Meanwhile, Jerry Goldsmith turns in a memorable score that heightens the
      tension.

      Unfortunately, knowing that "Nemesis" is almost certainly the end for TNG, I
      don't feel the film ends in success. It's often efficient on an action level
      and has some themes I appreciate, but the movie is ultimately unable to
      generate the *emotions* it needs to cap off this series. The ending tries to
      be ambiguous, and there are too many places where it looks like the writers
      were hedging their bets -- as if wanting to say goodbye while at the same
      time hoping they wouldn't have to.

      Watching the deleted scenes on the DVD and listening to the commentary
      track, I wonder if maybe too much was cut out. Some of the unused material
      might've helped this movie reach the destination it was looking for --
      though I can't be sure. The DVD materials indicate that earlier cuts of the
      film played up on the theme of the Enterprise crew breaking up and moving
      on -- hammering home the fact that things were definitely going to be
      different. This sense is de-emphasized in the final cut in order to get the
      story moving along faster. For example, the information that Dr. Crusher is
      leaving the Enterprise is no longer in the movie at all. A scene where
      Picard and Data discuss issues of family is gone. These little bits and
      pieces might've signified the ending of an era, but without them, the era
      seems like it's on the fence as to whether or not it actually intended to
      end. Riker has been promoted to captain (at long last), and he and Troi are
      leaving the ship for the USS Titan, but that doesn't seem to say quite what
      needs to be said.

      Instead, the movie puts all its eggs in the basket of Data's grand sacrifice
      at the end, which is a good idea in theory but -- I'm sorry -- in practice
      is simply not "Star Trek II" by any stretch of the imagination. Watching the
      end of "Star Trek II," even though I've seen it at least half a dozen times,
      can still evoke an emotional response in me. Spock's sacrifice really had a
      dramatic impact that resonated from one end of the film to the other, in
      thematic and emotional terms. I can't say the same for Data's end here. It's
      heroic and selfless, but it is not particularly emotional nor ingrained in
      the fabric of the movie. The crew's small, intimate memorial scene is so
      muted that it comes across as emotionally vacant. This provides one of those
      rare occasions where I will argue that less is not more. Less here is
      actually less.

      I also find it a bit of a cheat to give B-4 all of Data's memories, and
      imply that he may one day reclaim them. You can almost sense the calculation
      here: Kill off a beloved character, but leave the door very obviously open
      to bring him back, one way or another. It feels like using sci-fi loopholes
      to toy with the audience, rather than playing the emotions that have been
      dealt. Yes, "Trek II" left a similar door open, but it wasn't nearly as
      blatant about it; we could accept the emotions on their given terms, which
      made so much sense in the context of the movie.

      It's sort of too bad, because "Nemesis" is not a bad film and in some ways
      is a passable one. The movie takes a while to get going, but benefits from
      the sort of talkiness that one has come to expect from TNG. Once it gets
      going, it moves along at a steady clip. The Picard/Shinzon conflict reveals
      some interesting nuances. But in the final analysis, this is an uneven
      picture, with some pieces of the plot that tend to clang to the floor, and
      an ending that falls short of the mark. The TNG cast is now probably
      officially retired, but it looks like they didn't quite get the curtain call
      one might've hoped.

      -----
      Copyright 2003 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

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      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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