The “Star Trek” feature franchise continues apace with a ninth installment aimed primarily at an audience of faithful fans. Latest entry is a distinct comedown after its immediate predecessor, the smashingly exciting “Star Trek: First Contact,” which marked the feature helming debut of series regular Jonathan Frakes. Even though Frakes is back, “Star Trek: Insurrection” plays less like a stand-alone sci-fi adventure than like an expanded episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Still, new item strikes a deft balance of predictable heroics and quirky humor to ensure respectable if not spectacular theatrical biz. Down the road. pic should live long and prosper in ancillary venues.
Even longtime Trekkers may be confused by the frenetic opening sequence, which has the android Lt. Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner) inexplicably running amok during a Federation-sponsored cultural-survey mission. Very soon, however, “Insurrection” reveals the method behind Data’s seeming madness.
The Ba’ku, the peaceful inhabitants of an idyllic planet, are in clear and present danger of forced relocation, thanks to an ends-justify-means alliance between Federation leaders and their new allies, the aging Son’a. Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) leads the Enterprise crew to the Ba’ku planet, hoping to capture his android ally before Data is eliminated by the combined Federation and Son’a forces. This cues the film’s funniest sequence, in which Picard tries to regain Data’s trust by prompting a Gilbert & Sullivan karaoke sing-along.
Once on the Ba’ku planet, Picard discovers that the 600 or so inhabitants are sweet-natured Luddites who rejected advanced technology centuries ago and, thanks to the metaphasic radiation permeating their planet, remain eternally youthful. Picard and his fellow officers begin to enjoy the same benefits from this natural phenomenon as they stay on the planet.
The age-reversal magic is a mixed blessing for the Enterprise crew. Cmdr. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Lt. Cmdr. Troi (Marina Siritis) are inspired to get frisky in a candle-lit bath, while Lt. Cmdr. La Forge (LeVar Burton) finally develops the ability to see without high-tech enhancement. On the other hand, Lt. Cmdr. Worf (Michael Dorn), the Klingon officer on temporary reassignment from Deep Space Nine, develops a nasty case of Klingon pimples. And Picard is briefly seized with an uncontrollable urge to mambo. No kidding.
Ru’afro (F. Murray Abraham), the seriously hideous leader of the Son’a, wants to remove the Ba’ku from their planet so his people can gain control of the metaphasic radiation. In this, he has the tacit support of the Federation, represented by Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe). Dougherty has agreed to violate the Prime Directive of the Federation — a time-honored rule against interfering with the natural development of other civilizations — to gain a little bit of that metaphasic stuff for a few million Federation members. But Picard, a First Directive purist, isn’t so easily swayed. Defying direct orders, he leads the Enterprise officers in a defense of the Ba’ku.
Working from a serviceable script by Michael Piller, Frakes maintains a brisk pace and generates a satisfying amount of excitement. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to make sense of what people are doing — and, more important, how they’re able to do it — during the frenzied hurly-burly of the final half-hour. The picture makes warp-speed leaps from one locale to another, from the Ba’ku planet to the Enterprise to the Son’a spacecraft to the planet again. In the process, tension is sustained, but clarity occasionally is obscured.
Even when things get most confusing, however, the lead players manage to easily carry the audience along. Stewart reveals more of Picard’s romantic side in this outing, in scenes that pair him with the subtly sensuous Donna Murphy as an extremely well-preserved 300-year-old Ba’ku. (“I must warn you,” Stewart announces in his most deliciously plummy tone, “I’ve always been attracted to older women.”) Spiner, Dorn and the other regulars go through their usual paces with appreciably undiminished flair and gusto.
As Ru’afro, whose face has the look of ancient parchment stretched tightly across a skull, Abraham indulges in just the right amount of scenery chewing. Zerbe artfully implies some minor pangs of conscience as Dougherty. It’s worth noting that there’s a conspicuous cut-away from the specifics of his character’s grisly demise.
Here and elsewhere, it’s obvious that — unlike the darker and edgier “First Contact,” which received a PG-13 — “Insurrection” has been scrupulously crafted for a PG.
Tech values, including Matthew F. Leonetti’s lensing and Michael Westmore’s fanciful makeup — are in keeping with the franchise’s high standards. As usual, though, there’s a conspicuously (and deliberately?) cheesy touch to the high-tech trappings. At one point, Cmdr. Riker announces he will assume “manual control” of the Enterprise. Up pops a device that looks like a computer-game joystick. Yeah, right.