Few of the universe’s physical laws are known for sure, but one that gets proved time after time is that the odd-numbered
Star Trek movies are lame and the even ones are big events. Actually, I enjoyed the last, odd-numbered feature, Star Trek: Insurrection (1998), which was like a pokey but pleasant episode of the TV series (crew beams down to idyllic agrarian planet where people knead dough and dress like Stevie Nicks … impassioned debates about the Prime Directive … phasers and the photon torpedoes blow things up real good …), but the non-Trekkies (and even some diehards) found it ho-hum. So, it was time for another Big Deal Trek picture, Star Trek: Nemesis (Paramount).This tenth feature is a big deal, indeed—at least the third-best, and maybe even a notch above the previous runner-up, Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), the last to feature the entire original starship Enterprise crew. Of course, nothing approaches Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), which was not only a crackerjack space adventure in itself, but which virtually saved the franchise from the dustbin of TV history. Meyer purged much of Trek’s lugubriousness; gave the flabby, liberal-humanist intercourse a dash more militaristic pep; and contrived the fabulous space duels between Kirk (William Shatner) and the muscled-up, Melville-spouting Khan (Ricardo Montalban) that serve as a template for franchise’s best action sequences to this day.
I mean no disrespect to the screenwriter of Nemesis, John Logan (Gladiator, 2000), when I say he cribs his best effects from Meyer’s two Trek pictures: Short of reinventing the warp drive, Meyer’s work is the best place to turn. Logan doesn’t just recycle, though: He devises a brilliant, roof-raising feminist-revenge variation on one of Wrath of Khan’s biggest moments (as Troi, Marina Sirtis has the best acting moment of her career); and he weaves the philosophical issues through the action instead of confining each to its own sphere. Logan also has, on the whole, a richer group of characters (and a much better group of actors) with which to play.
The conceit of Nemesis is that both Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Data (Brent Spiner) discover doubles. In Data’s case, it’s a flawed prototype found dismembered on a planet in the dangerous Romulan neutral zone; in Picard’s, it’s a literal clone (Tom Hardy) at a much younger age, and with (thanks to a hideously abusive Romulan upbringing) a more volatile temperament. The doubling allows the characters to ruminate on nature-versus-nurture: to speculate on what separates our two heroes from their simpler or crazier genetic counterparts.
In the case of Picard and his Romulan-sired double, Shinzon, the idea works better on paper than in the flesh: No matter how much we try to see Hardy as a kid-incarnation of Stewart, it’s hard to get past his air-mattress lips, which give him an air of greasy voluptuousness that Stewart’s Picard would never have—no matter how manhandled he was as a youth. Hardy does fine, creepy work, but Nemesis would have been even better if its makers had gone the whole way and just cast Stewart as a sort of Bad Picard: The actor might have used his phenomenal instincts to bridge the two personae in a way that Logan can’t.
With its blind, arrogant supervillain and his grisly weapon of mass destruction (it petrifies its targets, then reduces them to ash), Nemesis is eerily in synch with the current landscape of war: Some of our heroes’ declarations about lack of trust and pre-emptive strikes seem designed to bolster the nation’s Iraqnaphobia. My abhorrence of Saddam notwithstanding, I can’t help thinking that Gene Roddenberry would have been pissed off to see his beloved liberal/détente franchise hijacked by the martial politics of Gladiator. On the other hand, if left to Roddenberry, Meyer might never have been allowed to take Star Trek in its more militaristic, action-oriented direction to begin with.
With the exception of an overlit (near radioactive) desert sequence that owes something to Three Kings (1999), Nemesis is physically darker and colder than its predecessors. The actors are lit from below, the palette dark blue, purple, and charcoal-gray. The futuristic-industrial-subterranean hues recall Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and help to compensate somewhat for the characters’ too-joshy repartee. You know in your bones that this installment won’t have a cheery wind-up, and it doesn’t: It ends with a Wrath of Khan-like shocker—as well as a suggestion of a Star Trek III: The Search for Spock-like corrective. (Memo to Paramount: Watch Search for Spock a hundred times to learn what not to do in your next, odd-numbered installment.)
The director, Stuart Baird, doesn’t appear to know how to stage big action scenes, but as a former editor he knows how to cut to conceal his inadequacies. The spectacle is often rousing, and composer Jerry Goldsmith has done a bang-up job weaving Alexander Courage’s original Star Trek horn-call, his own splendid Next Generation theme, and a disco-y new action motif into an irresistible pastiche. Nemesis has some clunky moments and howlers (and, once again, too little of Michael Dorn’s Worf), but it also has moments of sci-fi poetry—especially Data’s final moments with his android “brother,” and the tender, loving rapport between the decaying Shinzon and his alien father-figure (Ron Perlman, under more pounds of latex than he had in Beauty and the Beast).
Whenever studios attempt to translate a TV series to the cinema, fans have a lot riding on the outcome: Will their beloved living-room obsession look good on a grander scale? Will a wider audience go for it, or will they be publicly shamed? It’s often touch and go with the Star Trek movies, but Nemesis reaffirms the faith. And the universe’s physical laws are intact.