If I were to re-title the third Next Generation film—Star Trek: Insurrection—I’d call it Insurrection: The Search For Star Trek. And that’s because this movie is the embodiment of Trek’s ongoing identity crisis. Is this Star Trek thing all about thoughtful ethical dilemmas in a science fiction setting? Or does there need to be a bunch of shooting and explosions to get everyone else to care? In the case of Insurrection, Star Trek tried to split the difference, but this time with a little bit more philosophy, and a little bit less killing.
In almost every way that matters, I unabashedly love Star Trek: 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 The Next Generation.
And yet, this movie won’t work for a viewer without that person already being into this weird touchy-feely Star Trek crap. Indeed, if you’re not down with the humanist themes of what fans like me would call “real Star Trek,” you’ll hate this movie. And the opening scenes won’t help a non-believer one bit. Am I really going to watch a movie about a bunch of outer space Amish people getting screwed with by Star Trek people? Is this really what this movie is about? Yes, poor Trek lay person, this is what this movie is about. Because it’s basically just a mashup of two previous episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
In “Who Watches the Watchers,” we’re presented with a situation where future anthropologists study primitive cultures from inside a fake mountain with a cloaking device. In that episode, accidental exposure to the Federation team ends up causing the culture to believe that Captain Picard is a god. In another episode called “Homeward,” Worf and his wayward brother figure out a way of transporting a bunch of similarly less-advanced homesteaders from one planet to another similar planet by using the holodeck to make them think they were always in the same place. Both of these premises collide in Insurrection with a little bit higher stakes.
This time, corrupt aspects of the Federation/Starfleet are observing a primitive culture called the Ba’ku who live on a special planet with conditions that allow the residents to essentially live forever. The Federation/Starfleet has teamed up with some bad guys called the Sona, who are trying to steal away the people so they can harness the material that allows for immortality. When the scheme to relocate the Ba’ku using holograms is deduced by Data, he goes crazy and tries to stop the bad guys from messing with the nice village filled with the 600 peace-loving immortal people.
Having Data revert to his almost Asimov-like robot code of ethics is a great touch, and a nice way to open up a Star Trek story. The idea that Data has gone on a crazy rampage turns the notion of robots-running-amok on its head by having Data be the guy with the moral high ground. This is just one small example of what makes Star Trek “real Star Trek.” Robots only run amok when they’re trying to fulfill their Isaac Asimov humanist programming. Data is a great character in the annals of science fiction not because of his foibles, but because he’s basically a better person than any of us and attempting to imitate us is how he became that way.
But Data can’t carry a Star Trek story alone, which is why TNG has Captain Picard, a character who is awesome at giving speeches about why future humans do things the right way and how he will never be down with turning a blind eye to random immoral shit just because it’s convenient for some space politicians. Here, he gets one of his best (and one of my favorites) when he lectures his superior—Admiral Dougherty—on the relative morality relating to the forced relocation of the planet’s population. “How many people does it take before it becomes wrong?” Picard chastises with the Patrick Stewart I’m-a-good-person-and-you’re-not bravado that truly defined his version of Star Trek.
Also, its notable here that the bad guys are initially plotting to relocate 600 people, not kill them. When Picard and company decide to go rogue and defend the planet’s population, they’re mostly shooting at remote-control robots which are designed to capture the Ba’ku, not murder them. In fact, other than Riker blowing up some of the Sona spaceships, and Picard letting Ru’afo die horribly in a fire, there are very few deaths in Star Trek: Insurrection, making the conflicts in the movie about its themes and subject matter, and not about a body count.
And yet, because this was the follow up to First Contact, the film tries to recreate some of the action scenes of that film in a way that comes across as well, un-cool. In short, the kind of violent shoot-em’-up stuff that worked in First Contact was an isolated incident. Star Trek temporarily Hulked-out in that movie, and here, reverted to its regular “phasers-on-stun” mode. Star Trek is usually out to get you talking and thinking, not put you on the edge of your seat. When it’s managed to do that in the past, it’s honestly a weird day for Star Trek. As a film and as a long-form episode of the TV show, Insurrection is actually more representative of what Star Trek is like most of the time, pimples and all.
Full of awkwardness seemingly designed to scare “normal” moviegoers, Star Trek: Insurrection represents a time when Star Trek seemed halfway unconcerned with what everyone thought of it. Picard, Data and Worf sing a selection from H.M.S Pinafore (Raider of the Lost Ark reference?) and later Picard dances around to Latin music in his quarters. And let’s not get into how totally corny the slowing-down-time-let’s-look-at-the-hummingbird stuff is. How is this in the same movie as Picard shooting at a guy on a raised platform while attempting to stop a James Bond-style super weapon?
With perhaps the exception of The Motion Picture, and aspects of The Final Frontier, Insurrection is the most representative of what an episode of TV Star Trek would be like if translated to the big screen. But 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 Star Trek fan would ever claim Insurrection as the Trek movie they hate the most, and that’s because despite it being weirdly slow, awkward, and kind of low-stakes, there’s very little that is offensive about this movie. This time out, Star Trek showed its true colors: it’s an awkward and often-preachy mode of storytelling with an occasionally less-than-confident voice.
But maybe that’s okay. Because love is all about liking something because of it’s flaws. And in most ways, Insurrection is one big mess that makes me think awwww that’s the Star Trek I know and love. Because it’s not cool. It’s not focused. And some of it doesn’t make sense.
But that’s why we love it, right?
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.