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Star Trek: The Next Generation Motion Picture Collection
As I suggested in my review for Star Trek: The Original Motion Picture Collection, this boxed set of the four Next Generation pictures seems to have been assembled by Paramount more out economic expediency rather than an attempt to improve upon the previous two-disc special editions. It would have been nice to see each of these films receive its own box, along the lines of a definitive, multi-disc Ultimate Edition. However, Paramount has provided new transfers and new - if limited - bonus material (none of the previously-released bonus content is repeated here). Fans of these films will be annoyed by the lack of expansion, but pleased by the quality of the presentation, and the packaging.
It has always been a great sadness to me - and no doubt to many fans - that Paramount and the creative team behind The Next Generation were not able to make more of the film franchise they inherited in the early 1990s. The Next Generation was wildly successful on television, which assured Star Trek's place on television and in film for years to come. An aging cast and inconsistent box office results (especially those of The Final Frontier) - along with The Next Generation's blockbuster reception - confirmed that The Undiscovered Country would be the final cinematic voyage of the original crew. In effecting a transition to the big screen, the series stumbled a bit with Generations, regained its footing on rock-solid ground with First Contact, continued with the interesting Insurrection, and slit its own throat with the mishandled Nemesis. Taken together, The Next Generation films, while mostly a good time, left minimal impact on the Star Trek universe - at least compared to the parallel television series, or the films featuring the original crew.
I would argue that the cast is better as a group of actors than the original crew. Their character dynamics are more broadly-ranged than those of the original crew - the romance of Riker and Troi, Data's involved and constant struggle to comprehend humanity and his own "growth" as an android, Picard's efforts to balance wisdom and diplomacy with action-oriented heroics. The production values of these films are very high - their budgets being far larger than their predecessors' - and they look terrific. But the cast and production crew are too often sabotaged by haphazard scripting and stories marred by large, unavoidable plot holes. In Generations, the final twenty-five minutes feels gimmicky and forced. Insurrection feels stage-bound and lacks suspense. Nemesis also suffers from scripting issues - although it's well-known that a lot of footage was cut, and may have ameliorated some of this.
These are not bad films. First Contact remains excellent, while the others are entertaining. Yet, as a group, they do not entirely live up to their promise as the big-screen spin-off of an outstanding television series.
Star Trek: Generations
As the "crossover" feature meant to bridge the cinematic gap between Kirk's crew and Picard's, Generations offers a solid adventure based on a decent story. However, the part of the plot that actually connects Picard and Kirk is the film's weakest element; Kirk's apotheosis comes across as jokey and lifeless, mainly due to Shatner's obvious disinterest in his character's fate.
Aboard the USS Enterprise-B, piloted by Captain John Harriman (Alan Ruck), Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov, are along for the ship's ceremonial maiden voyage with members of the press. Although the ship is not yet fully equipped, Harriman responds to a distress call to rescue passengers of two ships caught in an unidentified band of energy (the Nexus). Following the rescue operation, the Enterprise is struck by a tendril of the Nexus, which destroys a section of the ship - and takes Kirk with it. Jumping 78 years into the future, the crew of the Enterprise-D, led by Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), respond to a different distress call and discover that everyone onboard the Amargosa solar observatory has been killed except Dr. Soran (Malcolm McDowell), who was also one of those rescued by Captain Harriman in the prologue. Soran is obsessed with the Nexus - a time- and space-altering band of matter that turns individual existence into a living fantasy or dream-state. Picard learns that Soran has plotted to effectively destroy a solar system in order to gain access to the Nexus, and sets out to stop him. In the course of doing so, he himself becomes trapped inside the Nexus, where he enlists the assistance of Kirk, who wound up there in the aftermath of the events in the prologue. Together, they defeat Soran and avert disaster, but Kirk pays with his life.
Generations starts off with the spectacle of a puffy Kirk, a positively obese Scotty, and a fragile-looking Chekov boarding a sleek ship whose technology we know has outpaced our heroes' experience. Well past their prime, these three cause the kind of discomfort we feel when one of our stooped elders has trouble negotiating his way toward a seat on a crowded bus. Fortunately, our pain is brief, and once Kirk is "killed" on the Enterprise-B, Scotty and Chekov disappear forever.
The main action of the film is consistently engaging. A subplot concerning Data's "emotion chip" provides much interest; Brent Spiner gives a good performance that embraces the comical possibilities of the situation, as well as the unexpected emotive outcomes of such a modification to Data's programming. There are countless direct tie-ins to events and characters on The Next Generation, setting the feature firmly in the established continuity. Whoopi Goldberg makes an appearance as Guinan, providing Picard with background information on Soran. McDowall makes an excellent villain, of course, enjoying every moment of it, even though his character's background is a bit perfunctory, lacking the depth of Khan, for instance.
The film's final two sequences - Picard recruiting Kirk in the Nexus, and their fight against Soran on Veridian III - are slow, jagged, and lacking in narrative conviction. Shatner's listless, distracted performance makes us feel like we are watching a pale imitation of Kirk, or some bored doppelganger. The sequence inside the Nexus is far too long, lingering lazily on Picard's fantasy family and Kirk's cabin in the woods. The scene on horseback smells like a Shatner addition and serves no purpose. The fight with Soran involves stunts by Kirk rendered unlikely by Shatner's physical condition. In all, it's twenty-five minutes that would have left a better impression if cut to half that length.
Generations is an entertaining Trek picture, missing out on greatness by a fairly narrow margin. Although the narrative builds and character moments are plentiful throughout, the lengthy foray into the Nexus and a careless performance by Shatner weigh down the final act.
Star Trek: First Contact
The undisputed gem of the four films in this box, First Contact brings back rousing adventure of the Hornblower variety - which is part of what made The Wrath of Khan such a classic. Also like Khan, the plot of First Contact directly follows that of an episode from The Next Generation, in this case the two-part classic "The Best of Both Worlds," in which Picard is assimilated into the Borg collective. The Borg are probably the most fascinating alien "civilization" dreamed up within the context of Star Trek, making the story effortlessly absorbing.
After awakening from a dream recalling his prior assimilation, Picard receives a call from Starfleet Command informing him of a Borg attack on Earth. Defying orders, Picard directs the Enterprise to fight the Borg cube, which it destroys, but not before an escape pod from the cube hurtles toward Earth. The escape pod creates a temporal vortex around itself and the pursuing Enterprise; as the pod travels through the vortex, the Earth's surface visibly alters, reflecting a Borg-dominated future. The Enterprise follows the pod through the vortex in order to prevent the Borg from taking over the planet. After arriving on Earth about 300 years in the past, the crew tracks down Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell), the inventor of the warp drive. They must prevent the Borg from disrupting his first warp flight, which will lead to humanity's first contact with alien life. Meanwhile, a group of Borg has infiltrated part of the Enterprise, and they begin assimilating the ship. Picard refuses to abandon his craft, forcing a final confrontation with the Borg.
First Contact offers many pleasures, the key of which is Picard's memory of and continuing struggle with the Borg. Haunted by his experience of assimilation, Picard is tortured by the thought of Data - who is abducted by the Borg here - sharing a similar fate. Late in the film, his obsessive determination to destroy them is compared to Ahab's quest for Moby-Dick. Stewart's performance is a convincing, impassioned portrayal of a driven man trying to mask his own worst tendencies. Picard's dilemma provides a deeply character-based core for the entire narrative - certainly the strongest since The Wrath of Khan.
The new supporting characters provide some new shades of color that enliven the regular cast. As Cochrane, James Cromwell's drunken lout belies the Einstein-like reputation that was passed on to future generations - the crew all grew up learning of Cochrane as a visionary pioneer. As Cochrane's assistant, Lily, Alfre Woodward checks Picard's single-minded self-destructiveness - his willingness to sacrifice himself and his crew in order to save the Enterprise from the Borg. (She also plays a part in the great holodeck sequence set in a Roaring '20s-era cocktail lounge in which she and Picard outwit the Borg.) The post-apocalyptic Earth that Cochrane and Lily inhabit is far from Mad Max; it's really an idyllic combination pine forest and Depression-era hobo encampment, where, by the way, Cochrane has built a cutting-edge rocket that will surpass the speed of light. It's a funny combination of elements, but thanks to the story's swift pace and constant narrative suspense, it's not too distracting.
First Contact is directed by Number One himself, Jonathan Frakes, and he displays a confident finesse with the visuals, which are often pervaded by the greenish light of the Borg. Photography and visual effects look more refined than previous Trek outings. The accomplished actors - a cast comfortable with their characters, along with Cromwell, Woodward, and Alice Krige as the unsettlingly sexy Borg queen - all acquit themselves admirably. The film is a sleek, well-packaged, fast-paced adventure that embraces several key features of The Next Generation series, expanding that world appropriately for the big screen both narratively and visually.
Star Trek: Insurrection
Again helmed ably by Frakes, the next Star Trek adventure recedes a bit from the ambitious, broad scope of First Contact, with a more intimate, philosophical story that takes place in a very few locations. Most critics contend that the film feels like a widescreen version of an episode from The Next Generation series, and they are right. Even the look of the film - particularly the central set for the Ba'ku's planet - appears to be a better-lit version of a television stage set. Still, the story is intriguing, the film is solidly crafted, and it remains an entertaining experience.
In a confusing and not entirely explicated prologue sequence, Data appears to go berserk while invisibly observing a peaceful race known as the Ba'ku on their home planet. In the course of this, Data reveals to the Ba'ku the presence of a research team (a co-operating between the Federation and the Son'a) on the planet. The Ba'ku environment prolongs life, and its inhabitants - who originally came to the planet from elsewhere - are hundreds of years old. Although capable of commanding advanced technology, they avoid it, and attribute this to their peaceful existence. The Federation and Son'a partnership is revealed to be a conspiracy to relocate the Ba'ku and take control the life-enhancing properties of the planet. Picard and the crew wind up defending the Ba'ku against the Son'a. In the course of things, Picard develops a tentative romance with one of the Ba'ku, Anij (Donna Murphy).
As I mentioned, the prologue is odd; Data's behavior is never satisfactorily explained. But it provides an interesting beginning for this strange but involving movie. The Ba'ku homeworld is a lush green paradise, much of it looking like the meadows and valleys of the Sierra Nevada. The set design is inspired by ancient Roman villas, with agrarian surroundings. The peaceful Ba'ku have no ambition because they have uncovered one of the great secrets of the universe - eternal life. The Son'a (another apostrophe-ed race), on the other hand, greedily hunger for the Ba'ku's life-sustaining resources - a need embodied by the Son'a's obsession with genetically prolonging their own lives and constantly re-stretching the skin of their faces, making them look like Katherine Helmond in Terry Gilliam's Brazil.
The concept of invading foreign soil for the purpose of controlling natural resources would appear to have political and historical resonances that echo down through the ages, with particular relevance to the issues and wars of our own time. But Insurrection skirts this territory disappointingly and instead focuses on Picard's relationship to Anij. Picard's empathy leads the entire crew to nobly defend the Ba'ku from the avaricious - and jealous - Son'a, and this defense comprises key thematic material. But Star Trek has a tradition of grappling with contemporary subjects - the environment in The Voyage Home, and the end of the Cold War in The Undiscovered Country - and although Insurrection was made prior to September 11, 2001, matters concerning oil and colonization (now called "nation-building") have been at the forefront of public discourse for decades. The plight of the Ba'ku seems to have great contemporary relevance, yet the script does not draw the obvious links, leaving them implicit in the shadows of the story.
In the end, what is really surprising is that the studio approved such a low-key script. Not without its moments, the story lacks flash and action; a handful of good character moments are interspersed with some thoughtful ideas, even though none of it goes quite far enough. Frakes directs with a sure hand, and the result is attractive, engaging, and polished. Although below the high watermark left by First Contact, Insurrection is a better-than-decent Star Trek adventure - it's just not a classic.
Star Trek: Nemesis
This, unfortunately, is where The Next Generation cast ended its big screen run. Unlike the original crew, who had an opportunity to counter the flop of The Final Frontier with the rousing, well-written The Undiscovered Country, the new group struggles through this static, unemotional, oddly-stylized mess. Nemesis commits many sins, the chief of which is that it bears a mere passing resemblance to a Star Trek film. Generally, it feels like a manhandled studio project with an unprepared director at the helm and too much executive input.
Following Riker and Troi's wedding on the counselor's home planet of Betazed, Picard et al discover parts of an android on a planet near the Romulan Neutral Zone. Once it is put together again, the android is revealed as one of Dr. Soong's early models, B-4, a rather dim indication of the more advanced Data, although identical in appearance. The Enterprise is then ordered to the Romulan Empire, where a successful coup by the unknown Praetor Shinzon (Tom Hardy) has thrown the status of the empire into question. Picard meets with Shinzon, who reveals that he is a Romulan clone of Picard. The Romulans originally intended to use Shinzon as a tool with which to infiltrate the Federation; but Shinzon took his fate in his own hands and now appeals to Picard for peace with the Federation. Picard is tempted, but soon realizes that Shinzon's true intention is far more selfish. Shinzon's DNA was manufactured with errors. He is dying, and needs an infusion of Picard's DNA to survive and carry out his ambition to destroy Earth and expand the Romulan Empire.
The first half of Nemesis is, plot-wise, fairly solid. In fact, the general outlines of the picture's story, specifically the focus on doubles, feels very Trek-like. When we are introduced to B-4 and later to Shinzon, we sense the makings of a great story. But as things progress and Shinzon's motives seem both hazy and insufficient, we begin to feel let down. This unease is confirmed by a bizarre sex scene between Riker and Troi, a gnawing lack of character-building scenes, the unexplained relationship between Shinzon and his fish-like viceroy, and Data's abrupt death. The last 45 minutes of the film lags dreadfully; although the final sequence inside the Bassen Rift begins with a pretty fun space battle - with the Enterprise and two Romulan ships on one side, and Shinzon's Scimitar on the other - it continues with interminable, repetitious scenes of confrontation that cut all tension, reducing any remaining viewer interest to mere embers.
Director Stuart Baird was a Star Trek neophyte when he took the helm. His choice as director remains baffling. Frakes did a more-than-competent job on First Contact and Insurrection; his familiarity with the Star Trek world would certainly have contributed much to the script during pre-production, and his considerable technical skill would have resulted in a more polished final edit. Baird, who is an editor by trade, directed one very solid action-thriller (Executive Decision, 1996) and one passable sequel (U.S. Marshals, 1998) prior to this. Certainly not dismissible as a director, Baird was likely over his head here, being absorbed into a huge studio-controlled Borg-like franchise about which he was apparently not conversant. Perhaps Baird was hired because he was not previously involved with Star Trek and the studio viewed him as pliable. Whatever the reason and whatever the circumstances, Baird proved unequal to the task of directing a movie with high studio expectations and a budget to match.
The critical and box-office failure of Nemesis is a great sadness. The preceding features are all entertaining, with First Contact rising to an even higher level of enjoyment; in them, a talented cast was able to successfully transition to the big screen in what was expected to be a long string of pictures. The producers here are to blame, hiring the wrong director and steering Nemesis toward self-destruction. I am sorry that this great crew - cast and technical hands alike - had to depart on such a low note.
Five slim keepcases are housed in a heavy card box. The box is adorned with a holographic image of the Enterprise, and the whole is embraced by a clear plastic slipcover printed with the set's title.
The enhanced widescreen transfers here are uniformly fine, although they suffer from the same over-bright sharpness that I mentioned in my review of The Original Motion Pictures Collection. Colors pop, blacks are solid enough without being depthless. In Nemesis, Data's yellow eyes look decidedly green. This led me to compare some scenes from the previous releases with the same scenes in this set. There has been some color tweaking here, as there was with the previous set. The differences, however, are not as major here as they were on The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock; still, Data should not have green eyes. It's a major distraction throughout Nemesis.
The new Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX transfers don't differ significantly from the previous releases, and are all excellent. There are lots of big surrounds on First Contact, noticeable early on during the battle against the Borg cube, and continuing throughout the feature. Insurrection features a more subtle, but no less lively mix, with ample pastoral surrounds as well as the occasional blast. These are all active, balanced treatments, with a strong musical presence.
Although Paramount has not ported any existing material over here, there are a handful of new features on each disc. Starting off with brand-new commentary tracks, each film has under an hour of featurettes, with the fifth bonus disc containing another 77 minutes of material.
Star Trek: Generations
Commentary by director David Carson and Manny Coto
Next Generation Designer Flashback: Andrew Probert
Stellar Cartography on Earth
Brent Spiner: Data and Beyond, Part 1
Trek Roundtable: Generations
Starfleet Academy: Trilithium
Star Trek: First Contact
Commentary by Damon Lindelof and Anthony Pascale
Industrial Light & Magic - The Next Generation
Greetings from the International Space Station
Spaceshipone's Historic Flight
Brent Spiner: Data and Beyond, Part 2
Trek Roundtable: First Contact
Starfleet Academy: Temporal Vortex
Star Trek: Insurrection
Commentary by director Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis
Marina Sirtis: The Counselor is In
Brent Spiner: Data and Beyond, Part 3
Trek Roundtable: Insurrection
Starfleet Academy: The Origins of the Ba'ku and Son'a Conflict
Star Trek: Nemesis
Commentary by Michael and Denise Okuda
Reunion with the Rikers
Today's Tech, Tomorrow's Data
Robot Hall of Fame
Brent Spiner: Data and Beyond, Part 4
Trek Roundtable: Nemesis
Starfleet Academy: Thalaron Radiation
Evolutions: Moments of Star Trek History
A somewhat mis-matched series of unrelated featurettes, this disc comprises an entertaining and informative 77-minute look at various aspects of the Star Trek experience. The featurettes are:
The Evolution of the Enterprise
Villains of Star Trek
I Love the Star Trek Movies
Farewell to Star Trek: The Experience
Borg Invasion 4D
Charting the Final Frontier
Although this release seems to have been inspired by bottom-line thinking alone, it is a solid set - three very good to excellent films (and a regrettable fourth), above-average packaging, high-quality technical presentation, and decent, interesting bonus content. Owners of the more thorough previous releases will want to weigh the relative importance of the new bonus content, but for everyone else, this comes highly recommended.