Archive for Thursday, December 12, 2002

Star Trek: Nemesis charts familiar course

(PG-13) **

December 12, 2002

Do you believe in the curse of the "Star Trek" movies?

The common perception is that all even-numbered Trek films are good and all odd-numbered are stinky. Luckily, "Star Trek: Nemesis" is flick number 10. And though it falls comfortably into this pattern of relative quality, it doesn't exactly knock one out of the solar system on an artistic level, either.

"Nemesis" lacks the imminent drama of "The Wrath of Khan" or the brooding menace of "First Contact" (episodes 2 and 8), yet it is more engaging than either the sterile "Generations" or forgettable "Insurrection" (7 and 9). What ultimately redeems it is a great villain (played by English newcomer Tom Hardy) and a strong central performance from Patrick Stewart as Capt. Picard, an actor who makes his craft seem so easy that it's tempting to overlook how crucial he is to the fabric of the Trek universe.

This 10th installment finds the crew of the Enterprise sent to the home planets of the Romulans in order to listen to a peace proposal made by the race's new leader, Shinzon (Hardy). When the Federation away-team comes face to face with the Romulan ruler, they discover he has a peculiar genetic connection to Picard. They also begin to deduce his motivations for amity are part of a ploy to launch a terrible new weapon against his enemies. Or as Shinzon cryptically states, he desires "the victory of the echo over the voice."

Individual episodes of the "Next Generation" TV series (1987-1994) were always clever at addressing social issues, even if they were cloaked in the hardware of futurism. Yet the movies have routinely devolved into one-dimensional battles of good vs. evil, with little of the philosophy that made creator Gene Roddenberry's original vision so enduring.

At least "Nemesis" attempts to bring some depth to the story. A notion of dualism is present in most of the key relationship of this tale: the planets Romulus and Remus, Picard and Shinzon, the android Data (Brent Spiner) and his prototypic twin. But even with this thematic quality, the film eventually becomes a showdown between two captains commanding rival ships, much in the vein of "Wrath of Khan."

"Gladiator" screenwriter John Logan does establish an intriguing setup; the origin and motivation of the main villain are unusually clever. And the action sequences, while somewhat formulaic are at least absorbing. Where the film seems most clunky is during its lighter moments. Sometimes these stabs at levity breeze by unnoticed and other times they clang like a "Facts of Life" episode.

It's painful watching the group try to ham it up during speeches following the wedding between Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis). (Although Data does deliver the great opening line, "Ladies and gentlemen and invited transgender species.")

I've always felt the "Next Generation" cast had the superior actors but the original 1960s bunch were the better comedians.

"Nemesis" is particularly negligent about spreading around "the good lines" for its troupe. Regulars like Worf (Michael Dorn) and La Forge (Levar Burton) are relegated to firing phasers and falling down when the ship is hit. It's pretty much the Picard and Data show, and the rest of the gang is only there for compulsory reasons.

Perhaps that describes the last few "Star Trek" sequels in general: They continue to make appearances even when they're not necessarily needed.

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