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Jammer's Review: "Star Trek: Generations" (1994)

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: This review contains spoilers. ... Star Trek: Generations PG, 117 minutes Released: 11/18/1994 (USA) Screenplay Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga Story
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 21, 2005
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      Warning: This review contains spoilers.

      -----
      Star Trek: Generations

      PG, 117 minutes
      Released: 11/18/1994 (USA)
      Screenplay Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga
      Story by Rick Berman & Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga
      Produced by Rick Berman
      Directed by David Carson

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

      When "Star Trek: Generations" was released in late 1994, Star Trek was at
      the height of its popularity. The Next Generation had wrapped its television
      run the previous May, still very highly rated. Deep Space Nine was on the
      air. Voyager was in production, less than two months from premiering. Sci-fi
      magazines were devoting half their issues to do season retrospectives of TNG
      and DS9. Trek was even on the cover of Time magazine.

      It was the pop-cultural apex of Star Trek, and Generations was the
      punctuation mark for that moment, where Captain Kirk would famously meet
      Captain Picard. On opening weekend, there were sellout crowds. (There were
      no sellout crowds -- or even close -- a couple years ago for a "Star Trek:
      Nemesis" premiere.)

      I was more in anticipation for "Generations" than any movie that year -- a
      year that, ironically, would end up releasing what would become two of my
      (and probably many people's) all-time favorite films (Pulp Fiction and The
      Shawshank Redemption). Strange what a decade can do. Even stranger that it's
      actually been that long.

      Not even the problems with "Generations" really detracted from the
      atmosphere that the film enjoyed during its release. The film itself is
      actually very ordinary -- a hit-and-miss affair that does some things right
      and some things wrong. Maybe the best way to summarize it is that it gets an
      A for theoretical ambition but a C for actual execution. Sounds like my
      freshman year of college, also starting in 1994. The C part, anyway.

      One thing you're forced to face with the opening sequence aboard the
      Enterprise-B is that bringing back original crew members -- after a
      perfectly satisfactory sendoff at the end of "Star Trek VI" -- is a
      double-edged sword. Sure, it sounds great in concept, but does it actually
      work beyond what it needs to do to set up the end of the movie? It's been
      said that the original intention was to also bring back Spock and McCoy, but
      because the actors said no, the screenwriters went with the trio of Kirk,
      Scotty, and Chekov. Does it service anyone but Kirk to abandon these
      characters barely a third of the way into the first act of the film?

      The opening sequence -- while, again, reasonable in concept -- plays like
      something of a compromise. I don't know what it is about the TNG era of
      humor, but something about it in the movies always felt a little forced (not
      like the unforced nature in many of the TOS films), and here the TNG humor
      ailment seems to carry over to the TOS characters: As Kirk and Scotty trade
      one-liners, something about the proceedings feels vaguely frail.

      The Enterprise-B was the only one of the Enterprises we hadn't seen in a
      story leading up to "Generations," so it seems natural to bridge that
      Trek-history gap in a film that, in essence, is all about bridging
      generation gaps. Yes, "Generations" is without a doubt the literal
      torch-passing affair that it promised to be. It's just that it's not an
      especially satisfying experience on the whole. It's a bit of a mishmash.

      A crisis forces the Enterprise-B, commanded by Captain Cameron Frye -- I'm
      sorry, I mean Captain Harriman (Alan Ruck) -- to mount a rescue mission of
      some El-Aurian refugees whose ships have become trapped in an energy ribbon
      and are minutes away from being destroyed. There are a couple good moments
      here, like when Kirk, who is only on board for reasons of publicity, can
      barely restrain himself from offering unsolicited advice; when Harriman
      finally gives up the captain's chair, Kirk sits down and relishes the
      moment, before realizing that he should relinquish the chair back to
      Harriman. Alas, there's too much meaningless technobabble involving the
      ribbon and it's gravimetric (or whatever) forces; you can see already that
      this is a TNG production as opposed to a TOS production.

      In the course of the rescue attempt, the Enterprise-B is damaged, and
      Kirk -- inside one of the damaged areas -- is swept out into space and
      presumably killed. This prologue, while necessary and functional and kind of
      entertaining, is not much more than that. It's a stage-setter that obviously
      will come up later. The fact that Guinan shows up in this prologue provides
      an obvious clue (to regular TNG viewers, anyway) that this is part of a
      master plan.

      Move forward 78 years, where Worf is being promoted in the holodeck of the
      Enterprise-D. The setting is a sailboat at sea -- named Enterprise, of
      course -- and it's one of those sequences (albeit one that's perhaps too
      earnest) that lends more cinematic appeal to the proceedings by filming on
      location and drawing the nautical parallels that always characterized the
      TOS films.

      Interestingly, one of the inherent drawbacks of essentially relaunching the
      show as a film series is that the screenwriters have to bring non-followers
      up to speed. Consider the scene after Worf falls into the water, where Data
      expresses his confusion to Geordi about what is and isn't funny. This scene
      would not have to be explained to us on the TV series, and here seems forced
      upon the characters, as if to say, "Okay, now we're going to bring all you
      unfamiliar audience members up to speed!"

      One thing "Generations" gets right is the scope of its storytelling. Unlike
      "Insurrection," for example, which felt like just another routine TNG
      episode, the events of "Generations" take on much more significance than you
      would see in a typical TV episode. Promoting Worf, giving Data emotions,
      killing Picard's brother and nephew, killing the Duras sisters, blowing up
      and crashing the Enterprise, wiping out entire solar systems -- these are
      the kinds of bigger things that should happen in a movie adapted from a TV
      series.

      Anyway, let's start with Data. In a character development that took a
      certain amount of guts, the producers finally decide to let him install the
      emotion chip that had been sitting on his shelf for the past year. (Never
      mind that the emotion chip would be negated two films later; in this movie
      it was a good idea.) It's a milestone for the character, and filled with
      promise. Unfortunately, the writers don't do very much with it, especially
      early on, in scenes where Data laughs incessantly until everyone else
      (including the audience) starts to get annoyed. I'll admit that I laughed at
      some of this goofiness (to this day I still quote, "I cannot help myself!"
      in situations that warrant that punch line), but there just isn't much depth
      to the overall arc. As I said before, A for effort, C for execution.

      Picard's arc is also a good one in theory, touching on the whole
      aging/mortality theme that was made so memorable in "Star Trek II." In
      practice, however, it's not all that great. I wasn't much moved by the
      deaths of Picard's brother Robert and nephew Rene, and while Picard has
      every reason to grieve, I've never been a fan of the crying scene where
      Picard breaks down. (Indeed, it's a scene that I have mocked in the past.)
      Patrick Stewart is a fine actor, no doubt, but there's something about this
      scene that just doesn't work. I think, in a way, we simply don't want to see
      the captain of the Enterprise sitting in the dark, crying.

      Having the main storylines follow mainly Picard and Data would become the
      template for the rest of the film series. The remaining characters are
      supporting players in the tradition of TNG as a TV series. That's fine; it's
      a big cast and we need a clear focus on a couple storylines.

      The movie's villain, Dr. Tolian Soran (Malcolm McDowell), a 300-year-old
      El-Aurian, is set up in the movie's prologue on the Enterprise-B and is then
      found by the Enterprise-D crew in the wreckage of the Amargosa observatory,
      which was attacked by Romulans. Here the movie throws up a smokescreen to
      give the plot more "plot"; the Romulans are in fact irrelevant to the movie.

      Soran is not one of the Trek films' best villains, but he's also not one of
      the worst. He's not evil so much as obsessed and unbending in his goals
      (even if it means destroying entire planets and their populations as a side
      effect, which I guess qualifies as an evil byproduct). McDowell is good at
      dispensing ominous lines as personal philosophies, such as, "They say time
      is the fire in which we burn," which points toward his quest against his
      mortality. Later, on the planet surface, Picard and Soran will share some
      worthwhile dialog about mortality. "If there's one constant in the
      universe," Soran says, "it's death."

      The central plot device revolves around Soran's obsession with the Nexus,
      the aforementioned energy ribbon, in which "time has no meaning." Soran has
      allied himself with Lursa (Barbara March) and B'Etor (Gwynyth Walsh) in a
      scheme that would give the two Duras sisters a powerful weapon and give
      Soran the opportunity to get back into the Nexus, which Guinan describes as
      a place of eternal bliss. As a sci-fi concept, the Nexus provides both the
      film's biggest success and worst failure. I'll explain.

      It's a success in that I really liked the idea of an energy ribbon traveling
      through space (which looks cool) and Soran trying to alter its course using
      the shock waves from imploded stars. This is something that is portrayed
      plausibly, is interesting, and fairly original.

      The best scene in the movie is the Data/Picard scene in stellar cartography,
      which works as plot advancement, character development, and convincing
      science. The analysis of all the data and evidence is intriguing and
      believable, demonstrated both visually and with dialog. The cartography
      graphics are impressive and yet straightforward. They convey what's going on
      clearly and with visual flair; this looks like what a futuristic stellar
      cartography room might actually look like. Meanwhile in this scene, Data's
      struggle with his emotions -- and Picard's tough-love approach to the
      situation -- is good dramatically. The balance of all these plot and
      character elements is right on, acted and directed with precision.

      Of course, in terms of scale and perspective, the movement of the Nexus is
      ludicrous. It must be traveling much faster than light in order to get from
      one solar system to the next in such a short amount of time, and yet when it
      gets to the planet, it slows waaaaaaay down to subsonic atmospheric speeds.
      Obviously, this is necessary for logistic and dramatic reasons for scenes
      involving the Nexus' approach. But I never understood the rules for how you
      can or can't get inside the thing. (It destroys ships and yet doesn't
      crumble a mountaintop or rip your body apart?)

      Soran's plan is to implode the Veridian star so that the Nexus will shift
      course to the surface of the planet Veridian III, where he will be waiting.
      The resulting shock wave, unfortunately, will also destroy all the Veridian
      planets, including Veridian IV, which has a population of 230 million. Soran
      isn't much concerned about that. The Enterprise, obviously, must stop him.
      This leads to the requisite battle sequence with the Klingons, in which
      Lursa and B'Etor die in a scene that wants to be as satisfying as when Chang
      got blown up at the end of "Star Trek VI," but no such luck.

      From an action standpoint, the film tops out with the Enterprise's
      evacuation to the saucer section and the separation of the ship -- half of
      which explodes, and the other half crashing on the planet's surface. During
      the evacuation, I always laugh and shake my head at the shot of the girl who
      loses her teddy bear; oh, come on. (It's further evidence that TNG's concept
      of civilians on starships that routinely go into battle is slightly silly.)
      But the crash sequence is long, loud, intense, and exciting. If you're going
      to blow up and crash a starship, this is the way to do it. On top of that is
      the destruction of the planet itself, which is a chilling image. This is
      some pretty good stuff, and signifies film's visceral high point.

      But then things start to misfire. Picard is pulled into the Nexus, leading
      to the film's most tedious sequence, in which everything about the plot is
      explained to us -- often in ways we're unwilling to believe.

      For starters, I just didn't much care for the overly idyllic Christmas
      setting with all those cloying kids. I see what they were going for here,
      but on an entertainment level, this is the sort of scene that the chapter
      skip on a DVD player was invented for.

      Then there's the whole business with Guinan's "echo" in the Nexus, who
      explains to Picard (and us) how the Nexus works. How you can go anywhere,
      any time. In this case, Picard can go back and save 230 million lives if
      that's where/when he wants to go. (Apparently, the Nexus doesn't have the
      same effect on humans as El-Aurians; Guinan -- the real one, that is --
      earlier told Picard that once he was in the Nexus he absolutely wouldn't
      want to leave, but that's not at all the way it ends up working here.)

      The problem with the Nexus is that it can do whatever the plot requires and
      therefore is nothing more than a fantasy device that is too consciously
      driving the plot where it must go. Then we find ourselves asking: Why, if
      Picard can go anywhere, does he choose to go back in time only a few minutes
      instead of going back further and simply throwing Soran in a cell until the
      Nexus has passed?

      There are contrivances in most movies. A good contrivance is one you aren't
      aware of or thinking about; a bad contrivance is one whose rules and
      loopholes clang loudly to the floor and provide a distraction from the
      story. This is of the latter variety.

      So, Picard decides to recruit Kirk, who was sucked into the Nexus at the
      beginning of the movie. The resulting scenes are reasonable but somewhat
      anticlimactic. Picard must convince Kirk to leave the Nexus, there's some
      dialog about duty and making a difference, the performances are relaxed and
      pleasant, and there are scenes of horseback riding (which frankly strikes me
      more as a benefit for William Shatner than the movie).

      The final act, in which Kirk and Picard go back to stop Soran, is workable
      but probably not what most people had in mind when they heard that Kirk was
      going to meet Picard in a Star Trek movie. There's plenty of action and
      cliche going on here, and it's always odd to see the conflict of a Star Trek
      film whittled down to three guys in a fight on a steel bridge in a desert.
      Personally, I prefer space battles. Kirk's death in this process is merely
      adequate (some would argue that it's less than adequate). If the movie is
      asking me to be moved by the passing of a legend and the passing of the
      torch -- well let's just say that I'm glad they filmed it happening, and it
      was pleasant enough to watch, but I wasn't all that riveted by it.

      As a production, the film is solid, but finds itself in an odd transitional
      phase. It was shot on all the original TV sets with only minor modifications
      (reportedly there were only 10 days between the last day of shooting on
      series finale "All Good Things" and the first day of shooting on
      "Generations"). The film employed one of its TV directors, David Carson, in
      his first direction of a feature film. New uniforms, originally redesigned
      specifically for the film, were scrapped, and instead the cast switched back
      and forth between the TNG uniforms and the DS9-style uniforms, something
      some viewers found confusing.

      The most dramatic changes were in the special effects (which were naturally
      amped up to suit the story and the big screen) and the improvements in the
      lighting of the existing sets (the bridge of the Enterprise-D never looked
      better).

      Not so dramatic is Dennis McCarthy's adequate but underwhelming score, which
      sometimes feels too restrained, like a TV score. In particular, the main
      theme lacks oomph (and features too many similarities to the DS9 theme) and
      feels like a major step backward after Cliff Eidelman's memorable "Star Trek
      VI" theme.

      The special edition DVD contains a commentary track by screenwriters Ronald
      D. Moore and Brannon Braga. It must be one the best commentary tracks yet
      recorded on a Star Trek DVD. Moore and Braga's comments lend great insight
      to the strengths and weaknesses of the storyline, in detail and with
      surprising forthrightness. I was nodding in agreement with their assessment
      of many aspects of the film. It's the sort of incisive look that has
      especially benefited from a decade of distance. They can critique the movie
      objectively.

      I don't dislike "Generations" (it has several good scenes and generally the
      right feel for what TNG was all about), but it doesn't completely satisfy
      me, either. It serves its purpose in fulfilling all the franchise
      requirements that were expected of a passing-the-torch story. It's just that
      it doesn't fulfill all those requirements particularly well.

      Picard says at the end, "What we leave behind is not as important as how
      we've lived." Honestly, I'm not sure what that's *really* supposed to mean;
      it's one of those vague philosophical lines that would be more enlightening
      if the thematic content of the movie were stronger overall. But the film
      itself doesn't have much to say; it's more about itself and what happens. On
      those terms, it's a pretty okay movie.

      -----
      Copyright 2005, 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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