[17 June 2003]
DVD technology affords the opportunity to immerse oneself not just in the best films, but the near misses and the mixed bags (and, if you so desire, the colossally terrible). Consider Star Trek: Nemesis. It is the least of the three Next Gen-only movies, and received a mediocre response from both moviegoers and critics when it opened last December. Yet for fans of science-fiction adventure films, it isn’t half-bad, and the DVD allows for exploration of why it wasn’t better.
The plot of Nemesis is fairly straightforward: Enterprise commander Picard (Patrick Stewart) believes he is entering negotiations for a peace treaty, but encounters his evil clone Shinzon (Tom Hardy), who wants, of course, to destroy the Earth. Meanwhile, Data (Brent Spiner) has an encounter of his own, with a sort of a rough draft of himself called B4 (also Spiner). Both characters grapple with their sense of self, and, essentially, the nature-versus-nurture debate, standard sci-fi pontificating. The real story is that this may be the last Star Trek movie to feature only the Next Generation cast, although not the last Star Trek movie, period.
This is actually where Nemesis falls short. It only approaches the feeling of a “final journey” about 10 minutes or so before the film ends, as if someone faxed the filmmakers poor tracking numbers at the last minute. The film is so intently focused on Picard’s bolded-and-underlined Main Plot and Data’s circled-in-pen Subplot that it barely registers as a real mission, let alone a final mission.
I can’t blame the filmmakers for focusing on Picard and Data, as they’re the sharpest characters in the crew, but the best Star Trek films resonate with enjoyably hokey teamwork. You may wonder, for example, why I have yet to mention Worf (Michael Dorn), Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), or even Riker and Troi (Jonathan Frakes and Martina Sirtis), whose wedding opens the film; it’s because they’re barely in the movie. Watching the DVD’s deleted scenes, you catch glimpses of small character moments that were excised from the final cut; individually, they are negligible, but together, they speak to a larger sense of separation throughout the Trek crew.
It’s this detachment that mars the movie, much more so than the typical anti-Trek points. I’m not a hardcore TV Trekkie, but watching the last few Trek films, I’ve grown accustomed to their numerous minor charms. Chief among these is the series’ conviction, the confidence in its own dorkiness. Sci-fi played with conviction has a way of rendering its flaws endearing. So yes, Star Trek‘s comic relief is always cornball; no, the special effects will never be cutting edge, and yes, the actors get a little doughier each go-round (the latter strikes me as particularly believable; given all the time these characters spend sitting around talking future-philosophy and space-shop, it’s no wonder none of them have stunning biceps). Somehow, it adds to the fun.
There are, then, pleasures in Star Trek: Nemesis, such as the aforementioned wedding scene, a winning mixture of goofy jokes and humanity that displays Trek‘s awkward allure. Sometimes the film functions as an exciting space opera, too. Most of the action stuff is better than usual, especially a bleached-out scene on a desert planet where Picard, Data and Worf locate pieces of B4 in a spacey all-terrain vehicle (a chase follows, of course). Yet there are missed opportunities: Picard’s climactic fight with his younger clone may be the lamest mano a mano, existential or otherwise, in recent sci-fi history.
Director Stuart Baird brings a slick professionalism to the series, but lacks, well, the engaging directorial touch of one Mr. Jonathan Frakes, who made First Contact (1996) and the vastly underrated Insurrection (1998). In fact, watching the DVD bonus materials, I found myself wondering why Frakes didn’t again take the reins. On the audio commentary track, Baird speaks with a soothing British voice; he could easily find narration work if the film director thing doesn’t pan out.
But his commentary is a bit doddering and repetitive, as he mumbles about how various moments of levity add a “bit of whimsy” to the proceedings. When he’s not repeatedly explaining the function of comic relief, he notes when scenes originally ran longer and how he composed certain shots. It’s pleasant enough, but, for the most part, singularly uninformative. Baird also seems oddly convinced that the sense of finality largely missing from Nemesis is, in fact, present in almost every scene (if only this were the case). His observations mirror the film itself: dedicated, workmanlike, and ultimately missing a spark. Baird seems to be chasing the glory of Wrath of Khan (1982), generally considered the finest of the original Trek films, but those parallels leave the newer film feeling sort of like a cover band.
Several making-of featurettes repeat much of the same information from Baird’s commentary, with an over-reliance on clips, but the seven deleted scenes are worth watching. The reasons behind their deletion are, more often than not, self-evident, but for an “almost” movie like this, they can hold the key to how close the filmmakers came to producing something significantly better.
In the case of Nemesis, there is a long dialogue scene between Picard and Data that is shockingly relevant to the film’s supposed purpose (to send off the Next Generation crew); it begs to be restored into the official cut. Like a lot of Star Trek dialogue, it’s broad and obvious in the way it presents its themes (in this case, growing older and making life choices), but it’s also bittersweet and thoughtful. There is also what looks like an alternate final scene, with Picard being introduced to new members of his crew. In the final cut, the last scene is quietly satisfying, but the extra minutes displayed on the DVD would’ve gone a long way toward ending the series on the right note.
Restoring these scenes wouldn’t make Nemesis a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it would help the film stand up better to its predecessors. First Contact is a busy action-adventure and Insurrection is mostly a lighter romp; Nemesis more reflective drama only half materializes. It has the goofiness and the action of a typical Star Trek picture, but it seems its ultimate reason for being was left on the cutting room floor.