Spoiler Warning: This review reveals details of the story of Star Trek: Nemesis. If you have not seen the film, and don't want the story spoiled for you, please don't read any further!
Not long ago, a friend of mine argued that one should always forgive a story its premise, since that's the "what if" from which it works. I'm not sure I always agree (some stories are so weakly based that they probably shouldn't have been told in the first place), but for any reasonably serious effort at storytelling that seems like not such a bad idea. So I went into Star Trek: Nemesis with this thought in mind.
The premise of Nemesis is fairly simple: About 20 years ago, the Romulans cloned Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), and this clone, Shinzon (Tom Hardy), has effected a coup and taken control of the Romulan Empire. However, having been abused by the Romulans who created him for most of his life, what he really wants is to throw the Romulans and the Federation into war, and to destroy his progenitor and Earth. Thus he confronts the Enterprise, who along the way have discovered an android prototype of Commander Data (Brent Spiner) which they've taken aboard the ship.
Nemesis' problem is that which has dogged Star Trek films since Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: It doesn't make a lot of sense, and it doesn't have much heart. Neither of these is necessarily crippling on its own; a story can be befuddling, but moving nonetheless (there are many fine films from the golden age of Hollywood which fit this standard), or it can be kind of soulless, but a gripping adventure film. Nemesis clearly wants to be a gripping adventure film which also moves you by what happens to its characters, but it doesn't really work on either level.
Nemesis commits a cardinal error in the first half of the film: It's boring. That's because after the rousing opening scene (albeit one which makes you wonder why the Romulans apparently employ complete morons for their internal security), the film swiftly bogs down. The wedding reception for Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) is reasonable, but then our heroes spend the next 40 minutes or so going around waiting for something to happen.
First stop: The retrieval of Data's predecessor, B-4, from a low-tech world. This includes a perfunctory chase sequence and winds up with our heroes standing around figuring out what B-4 is. Then learning that the Romulans want to talk peace, and heading to Romulan space where they... stand around waiting for Shinzon to contact them. Shinzon invites them over to his ship where they stand around and talk (in the dark!) for several minutes, at which point he reveals himself. After which our heroes... return to their ship to confirm the truth of Shinzon's nature, while Shinzon confers with his allies in the Romulan military. At this point we've spent most of the first hour waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The redeeming feature of the first half is the dinner between Picard and Shinzon, about which more below.
Nemesis still shows the NextGen creators' unfortunate tendency to want to shoehorn a "B" and a "C" story into a two-hour film, which suggests that they don't have enough confidence that their "A" story will hold our interest. In Generations we had to deal with Data and his emotion chip. In First Contact it was Zephram Cochrane's mission and discussing human nature with Lily Sloane. Here we have Data and B-4, which is made acceptable since B-4 turns out to be a trojan horse for Shinzon, and also Shinzon's attraction to Troi, his Viceroy's telepathic ability, and Riker's defense of her, which is all almost completely superfluous and is just deadly dull. It gives them a magic way to penetrate Shinzon's cloaking device, but even that just felt like a cheap gimmick.
Picard vs. Shinzon
Much of the film rested on Patrick Stewart's shoulders, as usual. His duel with Shinzon required someone to make a convincing opposite number for the hero, and Tom Hardy does a pretty good job. Although his main task involved sneering and sounding like a working-class Brit compared to Picard's rarified accent, his triumphant moment came with the dinner between the two, where Shinzon details his background and Picard explains where they both came from. Shinzon manages to seem human here, actually enough so that his desire for revenge at all costs and against (seemingly) everything doesn't entirely ring true. We're supposed to see him as insane, of course, but he seems too capable, too self-aware, for me to entirely buy into that.
Stewart, top-tier actor that he is, of course managed to sell his surprise and horror at who and what Shinzon was. It's too bad the material eventually turned into a fairly straightforward physical conflict since a lot of the nuance of their dinner conversation evaporated and Stewart's meaty material mostly dried up.
I give them some credit for not aging Shinzon all the way to Picard's years, since having an actor play two roles which are closely linked like that is a hoary old cliche at this point. Plus, Brent Spiner was already doing it.
I'm glad Stewart was able to have some fun with the action bits of the film, and he did a fine job. It's not his fault the material couldn't quite live up to its promise.
Data and B-4
B-4 is an interesting concept. I wish his background been explored in more depth. He is, of course, only a child compared to Data, and is probably the most sympathetic character in the film.
However, when Data is having is engrams and memories transferred to B-4 and Picard asks if he's all right with that, one must wonder, "Hey, Picard! Do you think maybe Starfleet might not be all right with that? Maybe they want a little more say in which androids have access to Starfleet codes and secrets!" Dum-de-dum-dumb.
Still, I was pleased that B-4 wasn't a dangling plot thread, but in fact bait laid by Shinzon to ensure that the Enterprise would be the ship to come to Romulus, and could give him a leg up on the Federation (assuming that Picard and Data were basically morons, which they were for giving B-4 access to Starfleet information, though they redeemed themselves by figuring out who was behind it and taking advantage of that).
B-4 is clearly an escape hatch to allow Spiner to return to Star Trek if he wishes, although it's long been rumored that Spiner wanted to retire Data before he became too old to convincingly play the part. It's a pleasant thought that B-4 will be embarking on his own life, maybe not as storied as Data's - but who knows? The final meeting between Picard and B-4 was one of the film's highlights.
Riker, Troi and the Viceroy
This whole plot thread seemed superfluous. The marriage of Riker and Troi was pleasant enough, with the undertone of duty pushing happiness aside for a while. But injecting Shinzon's lust for Troi into the picture seemed silly, especially since Shinzon seemed so focused on destroying Picard and humanity. Giving his viceroy (Ron Perlman, criminally over-made-up and underused in this film) telepathic powers was entirely uncalled for, and was clearly just a lame solution to the problem of finding a perfectly cloaked vessel.
I do give them some credit for making me jump during Riker's fight with the Viceroy. But that's cold comfort, I think.
The Enterprise vs. Shinzon's Ship
Although visually quite striking, I spent most of the extended battle between the Enterprise and Shinzon's "predator" vessel thinking, "Well, that doesn't make a lot of sense." Other than star Treks II and III, the franchise has always had trouble staging believable space battles, apparently more interested in contriving tension than actually playing it out. The battle pointed out plenty of problems with other parts of the film as well. For instance:
The battle here never gives us a feel for the relative power of the ships. Shinzon's ship manages to knock out the Enterprise's warp drive pretty handily (how is unclear), and then struggles to take it the rest of the way. It seems like the Enterprise manages to just hang on long enough to build some dramatic tension - not because it's particularly well-built or well-crewed. It all feels contrived.
- Isn't it kind of stupid, when you know you might be being followed, to fly your ship through a field of space which cuts off your long-range communications?
- Where did Shinzon and the Remans get such powerful cloaking technology, and why don't the Romulans have it? Weren't they slaves?
- Ditto the Remans' doomsday device.
- In fact, the Romulan ships which showed up to help the Enterprise seemed amazingly wimpy.
- And why didn't the Romulans show up with more ships?
- For that matter, why did they show up at all? The Romulan military seemed all gung-ho to go to war, and now that Shinzon is acting, they turn on him? What hogwash.
- Can't you triangulate a cloaked ship's position based on where its fire is coming from? Isn't this why they have targeting computers? Or, for that matter, wouldn't this be a fine job for Data?
- Having battered the Enterprise's shields into near-oblivion, why didn't Shinzon simply transport Picard off the ship? He was able to do it before. If not, why didn't he just knock down the shields the rest of the way and just take what he wanted?
- Let me get this straight: The Enterprise's phasers were unable to penetrate the Reman ship's shields, but they were able to penetrate it with ease by ramming the other ship? That makes no sense at all.
- Doesn't Starfleet have any concept at all of how to arrange security to repeal boarding parties? Can't they seal off parts of the ship or fill them with gas or something?
- Why didn't the Enterprise's self-destruct mechanism work?
It's Wrath of Khan! No wait, it's Search for Spock!
Nemesis continually felt like it was trying to ape earlier - and sometimes better - entries in the Trek series. For instance:
These weren't story-crippling duplications, but it did make me wonder whether the writers are running out of even gimmickry.
- The science officer dies. (Star Trek II)
- The final battle occurs in a nebula ("rift") which dampens the ships' capabilities. (Star Trek II)
- One of the principals is rapidly aging. (Star Trek III)
- Our heroes must figure out a way to penetrate a cloaking device. (Star Trek III, Star Trek VI)
- The Enterprise isn't quite destroyed (Star Trek III, Generations), but does suffer heavy damage. And Starfleet still doesn't issue seat belts to its personnel.
- One of our heroes kicks one of the villains who's holding onto his leg, thus sealing the villain's fate when he falls into the abyss below him. (Star Trek III)
- The story centers around a peace mission to one of the Federation's traditional enemies. (Star Trek VI)
Heart and Soul
The Next Generation has always been very weak on having an emotional heart. The characters are mostly flat - propped up by a few good acting performances - and their interactions range from sketchy to generic. Characters didn't really develop or grow during the course of the series, and they've remained fairly static in the films.
The exception to this is Brent Spiner's character Data, who started off as almost a mockery of a man, and who developed into a responsible and nuanced figure. Among the series' worst episodes were the later ones which tried to show just how now-human Data is, which completely missed this subtle and satisfying development. Rather than the befuddled and annoying robot, Data gradually became someone who knew what he was doing, had friends who believed in him, and had a self-confidence and personality all his own.
Nemesis is Data's swan song, and he demonstrates that even if he didn't have truly human emotions, he was his own being and was admirable for that. And Spiner makes a final strong push to suggest that he, not Patrick Stewart, was NextGen's finest actor.
Nemesis' biggest problem, even more than its shaky plotting, is that it didn't put Brent Spiner front-and-center in the film. Rather than being about Data's good-hearted nature (giving his memories to B-4, saving Picard more than once, sacrificing himself for his friends) the film is about Picard and his mirror image, which isn't terribly convincing on a moral level because such pains are taken to establish the two of them as entirely different people.
The moral underpinnings of The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock are what helped those films overcome their flaws and be the best entries in the film series. Generations became the best entry in the NextGen set of films not because of it's cheesy premise, but because it got to the heart of Picard's desires as an officer and a man, and contrasted him with Kirk, an equally noble figure but one with a different and valuable outlook on life. These films are, at their best, about losing - and possibly regaining - something, and how our heroes react to that. By contrast, The Voyage Home is a silly little misadventure, while First Contact is a muddled, soulless shoot-'em-up.
In Nemesis, we say goodbye to the most nuanced character from The Next Generation, but we see in the end that although Data would surely have had something moving to say about a departed colleague, his friends don't quite know how to express what they've lost. Picard can't quite bring himself to cry (whereas Kirk was so moved by Spock's death he could barely speak), and Riker is reduced to trying to remember what song Data was trying to learn to whistle, 15 years earlier. At least B-4's presence helps us remember what's been lost.
Nemesis doesn't realize what it's got, where its emotional center is, so it mostly devolves into a ridiculous and implausible adventure yarn (with large stretches of boredom). There are worse sins, but mostly Nemesis feels superfluous, and often rather sloppy. It ties up a few loose ends for this Star Trek cast, but do we need a whole movie for that?
Rating (on a 1-to-10 scale): 5.
Ratings for all Trek feature films:
hits since 15 December 2002.
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture: 5
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: 10
- Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: 8
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: 4
- Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: 1
- Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: 2
- Star Trek: Generations: 6
- Star Trek: First Contact: 4
- Star Trek: Insurrection: Haven't seen it
- Star Trek: Nemesis: 5