Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ethics Violations

I saw Star Trek: Insurrection (1998, directed by Jonathan Frakes) the day it opened, but I remembered almost nothing about it when I sat down to re-watch it. It's only been--oh, wow, 13 years. Time does fly. Anyway, I get the feeling that I'm not the only one who has kind of forgotten about it. Netflix doesn't have it, for one example, which is kind of a shock given that it's an entry in one of the key movie franchises of the last forty years. I almost never hear anyone talk about it. And no wonder. As I've been grinding through the Star Trek movies over the last year, I've been dreading the end films because my memory of them is that they suck. This dominant thought has drowned out every other thought I may once have entertained about them. This is not the best way to approach them, but fair or not, it's what I have to work with.

Insurrection, it turns out, is not as bad as I remembered it being, but it's bad enough. It's not Star Trek V bad. It may even be better than a couple of other installments, though I won't swear to that. What it IS, though, is conflicted.

The set-up finds a group of Federation agents watching the Ba'ku, an agrarian society on a planet in an unruly part of space called "the Briar Patch," where communications are difficult. The beginning of the movie finds Commander Data going berserk and revealing the presence of the observers in defiance of the Prime Directive. Data takes the research team hostage and Picard and the Enterprise quickly remove themselves to the Briar Patch to see what's got into him. What they find is a shady operation being masterminded by the weaselly Admiral Dougherty and the repulsive Son'a, a race of plastic surgery freaks who are deteriorating after years of pursuing extended life. The home of the Ba'ku, it seems, is the Star Trek equivalent of the fountain of youth. The Ba'ku have some surprises up their sleeve, too, in so far as they have all the technological capability of a space faring race, but have chosen, instead, to turn their home into a luddite commune. With greatly extended lives, they have moved beyond technology. The Son'a want to relocate the Ba'ku, forcibly, and extract the secret of the their environment to disseminate with their allies in the Federation. They have darker motives, too, of course, which the movie reveals in due time. Meanwhile, the crew of the Enterprise reacts to the environment in a fit of misplaced youth. Riker and Troi get on like rutting teenagers, Worf has the Klingon equivalent of an acne problem, and La Forge's eyes grow back.

The ethical dilemma here is one that Star Trek has dealt with before: do the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many? The movie weighs the idyllic lifestyle of the Ba'ku, who number only 600, against the lives of billions, and frames it in terms sure to rankle anyone of Native American ancestry: how big does a population have to be before it becomes immoral to expell them and steal their land. In America, the numbers involved would equate to a mid-sized eminent domain action. The movie muddies things considerably, though, by making the Son'a truly repulsive. The freakishness of their lifestyle is only the tip of the iceberg; the movie also has them using banned weapons of mass destruction against their "allies," and notes that they engage in slave taking among conquered races and manufacture narcotics. Their liaison with the Federation is shown to be lacking in any kind of moral compass, willing to accede to any means necessary. He's the embodiment of an opportunistic politician. In other words, the way this is framed is totally slanted news. And it's stupid, too, given that it's so unnecessary. If merely being on the planet has regenerative properties, and if the Baku only occupy their one little corner, why can't they share? Nobody even broaches the subject, though the movie covers its tracks with a blood feud subplot.

It doesn't take a genius to suss out that our heroes might be on very shaky moral ground. It drains some of the fun out of the movie and I think the filmmakers know it.

This is a pretty good-looking movie, even if the depiction of the Ba'ku seems kind of a hippie fantasy filtered through a theme park architectural sensibility. The location work is generally pleasing to the eye, and the film takes further advantage of the then-accelerating CGI revolution. It's also nice to see Picard have a romantic interest. But while these are all niceties, the rest seems like an overcompensation. Like Star Trek IV and V before it, this movie has an insufferable case of the cutes, whether it's Picard's tactic of overcoming Data's positronic malfunctioning at the beginning of the movie with Gilbert and Sullivan--with Worf and Data singing along--or Riker turning into a horn dog or Worf's dermatological crises, Insurrection is chock full of cringe-worthy "character" moments. These, unfortunately, overwhelm the movie. It's a pity, too, because occasionally, there are moments of great beauty here, whether it's the scenery or a fleeting shot of a humming bird suspended in time like it was suspended in amber. These are suggestive of a group of totally game filmmakers undone by the screenplay. Jonathan Frakes was clearly ready to make a pretty good movie. Patrick Stewart and Donna Murphy were totally ready to make an unabashed romantic epic. You can sense this in the interstitial spaces between the rote of Star Trek. But instead, they got this. They got a muddle of low comedy and an ethical problem with a cinematic solution not even the filmmakers endorse with much enthusiasm.


Jaye Schmus said...

Now that you've covered Insurrection, that only leaves Nemesis and the 2009 reboot. I don't think anyone would be upset if you skipped the first. It's a horrible film, and I like Star Trek.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Jaye.

I'm going to see this through to the bitter end. Nemesis is the only one I have left. I've already written about the reboot.