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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Star Trek: Generations (1994)

February 13th, 2013
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Well, a few months ago I reviewed the newly-released complete soundtrack to Star Trek: First Contact, and that immediately made me want to go back and re-watch the film, which I did.  After reviewing the soundtrack to Star Trek: Generations last month, I had the same compulsion!  It was fun to go back and re-watch Star Trek: Generations.

First of all, let me say that I cannot believe that this movie is already almost twenty years old.  That is insane!!

It’s all the more disappointing to consider that almost two decades have passed since the release of Generations because I feel, looking back on it, that the powers-that-be totally screwed up the Next Generation film series, and what began with such promise really fizzled out.  The Next Gen gang never got their truly great big-screen adventure.  I wrote in my soundtrack review that I think that Star Trek: Generations — flawed though it most certainly is — just might be the best of the four Next Gen films.  Perhaps First Contact is better (that film is far more action-packed and intense, though it too is chock-full of problems), but certainly I think the hour-long middle-section of Star Trek Generations — the section after the Enterprise B prologue and before Picard enters the Nexus — is the best representation of the Next Generation TV show on the big screen.  First Contact is fun, but it doesn’t really reflect the tone or style of the Next Generation TV show (not to mention the fact that with a whole new Enterprise, new sets, and new uniforms, it LOOKS very different).  But that middle hour of Star Trek: Generations is Next Gen realized on the big screen in a glorious way, full of exciting new twists and flourishes but very faithful to the TV show, and I love it.

OK, buckle up, let’s dive into my analysis.

The film gets off to a terrific start with a 20-25-minute prologue set at the christening and launch of the Enterprise B. Although I never thought it was necessary for the first Next Gen film to in any way cross over with or even acknowledge Classic Trek adventures — after seven successful years on TV, I felt Next Gen could more than handle its own feature film all on its own — I absolutely love this lengthy prologue section on board the Enterprise B. First of all, it’s very cool to finally see the “missing” Enterprise realized on-screen.  The Enterprise A was in Star Trek IV-VI, the Enterprise D was the Enterprise of The Next Generation, and we saw the Enterprise C in the classic Next Gen time-travel episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise.”  So we’d never before seen the Enterprise B. Fans had long-speculated that the B was an Excelsior-class starship, so it was very cool to see that realized on-screen (and I was thrilled that they didn’t just use the old Excelsior model from Star Trek III to depict the Enterprise B, but that they created a slightly redesigned version that was new but still clearly Excelsior-class).

More importantly, that opening sequence is a rip-roaring sci-fi adventure of the best kind, with exciting new sci-fi phenomena (the energy ribbon), starship jeopardy, and some gloriously beautiful visual effects (that still look dynamite twenty years later).  There is some great interplay between the characters (my favorite moment is when Scotty spends a while telling us and Kirk how hopeless their situation is, pauses, and then adds “but, I do have a theory,” to which Kirk replies with a grin: “I thought you might.”) and it is undeniably great seeing Captain Kirk having one more adventure.  It’s a really exciting way to begin the film.

The sequence is slightly weakened by how obvious it is that it was originally written for Kirk, Spock, and Bones to have been the three classic Trek characters present, but when Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley declined to participate, they just swapped in Chekov and Scotty without changing a thing.  What happens after the Enterprise beams aboard the El-Aurian survivors?  Chekov barks to some of the reporters: “You, you, you’ve just become nurses, let’s go” and he heads down to sickbay to take charge.  Um, can’t you see how that would have been McCoy?  And how it would have been Spock analyzing the energy ribbon and coming up with the techno-babble solution to save the ship, rather than Scotty?  Once you know that, it is hard to look at this opening sequence the same way.

I also wish they’d made a different choice with Captain Harriman.  I hate it when, in Star Trek, the Enterprise officers are depicted as the only competent officers in Starfleet (I feel the same way about the Bond films, when Bond is often shown to be the only MI6 or CIA agent who knows what the hell he’s doing).  I feel it is stupid and needlessly discredits the organization our good guys are supposed to be representing — and I think our heroes look more heroic when they are surrounded by smart, competent people, rather than by buffoons.  Harriman isn’t quite movie-ruining incompetent, but he comes awfully close.  When you cast Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as your new captain, it is clear what you’re going for.  (This is not to knock Alan Ruck, who really is a very fine actor.)  I think it’s a dumb choice, as it’s silly to think that Starfleet would choose any less than their very best captain to helm the new Enterprise. And, again, if it was a really GREAT captain who needed to ask Kirk for help, wouldn’t that make the situation even more intense and dire?  As it is, it feels like the whole situation could have been avoided had a less shrinking-violet of a captain been in charge.  (The Star Trek novels, at least, have redeemed Captain Harriman by turning him into a complex, intelligent man.)

There are other bits in the opening that don’t work (Kirk and Scotty’s exchange in which Kirk tells him he’d make a lousy psychiatrist is poorly written, poorly performed, and otherwise wince-inducing) but, as I wrote above, I think those moments are far outweighed by everything that works like gangbusters.  And I must confess that I am always affected by the moment after we learn of what happened to deck 15, when Scotty says “Bridge to Captain Kirk… Captain Kirk, please respond,” to which he hears only silence.  That’s a powerful beat, there.

Then the film shifts to the Next Generation crew, eighty years later, and let me say I adore the playful notion of shifting from the Enterprise B to, not the Enterprise D, but the HMS Enterprise, a sailing ship (depicted on the holodeck of the Enterprise B). That’s such a clever notion, it really tickles me every time I watch the film.

The next hour is, as I wrote above, absolutely terrific, as the Next Gen crew investigates the mystery of the attack on the Amargosa observatory and Picard deals with a devastating personal loss.  There are some nice big-screen adjustments made to the familiar look of the show.  There are new consoles added onto the sides of the bridge, and the new stellar cartography set is terrific.  (I love the zooming-in visual effects as Data manipulates the star-charts.)  It’s a little funny to see more theatrical lighting on the familiar sets, like Ten Forward (now a bright yellow rather than the blues we always saw on TV) and Picard’s Ready Room, but it works for me.  It’s a testament to the designs of the Next Generation sets — – particularly the Enterprise bridge — as well as the design of the Enterprise D herself, in terms of how well everything looks on the big screen.

After the action-packed Enterprise B prologue, Generations becomes a very talky movie — just like the Next Generation show always was.  But I don’t mind the talkiness as long as it’s interesting, and to me Generations definitely is (at least until Picard gets to the Nexus).  There are also some terrific action beats.  The two-minute sequence after Soran detonates the Amargosa star, in which Riker and his away team attempt to rescue Data and Geordi while the shock-wave races towards them is a terrific little beat-the-clock action sequence, one that thrills me every time I see it.  As does the Enterprise’s brief but vicious battle with the Klingon bird of prey, in which the Big-E takes a terrific beating.  ILM’s visual effects of the space battle are extraordinary, and the whole sequence is very well directed and edited.  And then, of course, there is the Enterprise saucer’s crash-landing on Veridian III.  That extended sequence absolutely blew my socks off when I first saw it in the theatre.  The sequence has never again had quite that effect on me (it’s obviously most effective on the big screen, and when you are not expecting the huge amount of damage and destruction suffered by the Enterprise), but it’s still one of the highlights of the film.

What I love most about Star Trek: Generations is the way it digs deep into Next Generation lore (referencing Data’s emotion chip, the holodeck, the Farpoint mission, Romulans, the Borg, Data’s cat Spot, Picard’s brother Robert and nephew Renee, Guinan’s longevity, bringing back Lursa and B’Etor, and much more) while also really moving forward the over-all Next Generation story-line and changing the status quo in a way the show almost never did (Worf gets promoted, Data gets emotions, the Enterprise-D is destroyed, Lursa and B’Etor buy the farm, etc.)

Speaking of Guinan, I love that she has such a central role in this film, and that we get more tantalizing hints about her past without being told everything.  Re-watching Generations makes me lament all-the-more that Guinan never again appeared in a Next Generation film.  (OK, she is seen but not heard for two seconds in Nemesis, but that hardly counts.)  Guinan was a huge part of The Next Generation, and I really lament that she was ignored by the other movies.  Another missed opportunity.

But on a brighter note, can I say how much I love that we get to see a dead Romulan on the Amargosa observatory?  I remember when I saw Generations for the first time, I was stunned when we saw that Romulan.  “Whoa, there are Romulans in this film??  I didn’t know that!”  Of course, that’s a red herring that goes nowhere, but I love it because it shows that the filmmakers were not afraid to hint at the larger Star Trek continuity.  I could see them having been scared that would confuse movie-goers, so I love that they kept that bit in there.

So things are going really well and the film is zipping along.  Unfortunately, then the film hits the skids once Picard gets sucked into the Nexus.  Oh, where do I begin?

First of all, Picard’s fantasy is a) stupid and b) WAY too easy for him to walk away from.  It would be an interesting revelation about Captain Picard to learn that the things he has always disdained, kids and family, are the things that secretly he most desperately wants.  But the film doesn’t sell that.  Instead, the over-dressed happy Christmas dinner with his twelve kids seems preposterous and totally NOT what the character we have grown to know over seven years of the show would really want.  And, indeed, it clearly ISN’T what he most desperately wants, because after two minutes, and despite Guinan’s having told him that if he goes into the Nexus nothing else will matter and he will NEVER want to leave, Picard easily walks away from his fantasy.  For this sequence to have really worked, it needed to have been like Alan Moore’s classic Superman story “What Do You Get For The Man Who Has Everything?” in which Superman finds himself trapped in a fantasy world of a perfect life together with his family on a Krypton that never exploded.  Superman eventually realizes that it is a fantasy and that his friends are in danger in the real world, but it is EXCRUCIATINGLY difficult for him to walk away from this perfect-but-fake life and from his not-real son.  We needed to see that degree of anguish in Picard’s choosing to leave the Nexus.  As it is, it seems to hardly matter at all.

Then we get to the whole reason for this movie existing: the meeting between Captain Kirk and Captain Picard.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but the two men bickering over scrambled eggs was not it.  The whole tone of this scene is way off.  Kirk comes across as whiny and self-absorbed, not seeming to care a whit about innocents in danger, and Picard seems petulant and brittle.  I never imagined that the meeting of these two great heroes would be Picard begging and cajoling Kirk to come on an adventure with him.  The whole sequence was ill-concieved, through and through.

Things get even worse once the two men leave the Nexus.  First of all, if, as Guinan tells Picard, when he leaves the Nexus he can go anywhere and anywhen, that he chooses to wait until AFTER the Enterprise has crashed and there are only minutes remaining before Soran launches the missile seems asinine.  Hey, here’s an idea, how about you go back to a day earlier when Soran was still aboard the Enterprise and everyone is safe, and just have him thrown in the brig?

But, OK, that doesn’t happen, and Kirk and Picard emerge on Veridian III and attempt to stop Soran.  And so we get to see an extended running-jumping-hand-to-hand combat sequence between three old men.  This is hardly the action climax this film deserves.  Again, the whole thing was just very poorly conceived.  Fat Kirk is hardly the prime physical specimen he used to be, and Picard is worse than useless, getting beat up and thrown around by Soran.  Hey, here’s an idea, wouldn’t it have been great if the meeting between Kirk and Picard actually involved both men using their strengths (Kirk’s fearless heroism and physicality and Picard’s great intelligence and calm rationality) to somehow work together to stop the bad guy?  If maybe they had a chance to learn from one another and grow to respect one another’s different styles and approaches to command?  But, no, we get none of that, just a lot of running around the Vasquez Rocks.

And then, of course, Kirk falls to his death and dies.  The actual death scene itself is pretty well done, though Kirk’s “it was fun” last line is absurd and childish.  But the idea that fat Kirk weighed too much and so caused the bridge to collapse is really not the ending I’d imagined for this great hero.  Frankly, I wish they hadn’t killed him off at all.  I don’t think it was necessary to end Kirk’s story so definitively.  As one of the great fictional heroes of modern times, I think Captain Kirk’s fate could have been left far more mysterious.  And if they did have to kill him off, there are ways to do it heroically.  Here it feels meaningless, in that he died not to save his ship and family (as Spock did in Star Trek II), but to save a bunch of people we’ve never met on Veridian III, a planet we’ve never before heard of.  Those people don’t mean anything to me the audience member, and so while intellectually that Kirk died to save their planet is heroic, there is no emotional power there.  And whereas Spock’s death in Star Trek II felt inevitable and unavoidable, the only way out of the no-win scenario, every time I watch the end of Generations, I can’t help but think that if only Kirk and Picard had been a little less incompetent in handling Soran, Kirk wouldn’t have died.  The whole thing is a big, big mistake, and that this is the re-shot ending makes me stunned to contemplate how bad the originally-filmed ending must have been.  (From what I gather, Soran originally killed Kirk by shooting him in the back.)

I do like the final scenes of the Enterprise crew walking through the wreckage of the crashed Enterprise D. The scene with Spot always gets me a bit.  And when Riker looks forlornly at the Captain’s chair in the wrecked bridge and says “I always thought someday I’d get a shot at that chair,” I always laugh and remember my college roommate’s comment that Riker should have just picked up the chair and slung it over his shoulder before beaming up.  The last shot of the film — of the three starships zooming away from the planet — is absolutely gorgeous, but while it’s a beautiful image, when I see it I always wish there had been more of that cool starship action in the film’s climax.

Other comments:

* Yes, that is Tim Russ (who played Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager) playing a human member of the Enterprise B’s bridge crew.  And yes, that is Glenn Morshower (probably best known as the heroic Agent Pierce from 24) also on the Enterprise B bridge.

* The film is extremely well-directed by veteran Next Generation TV-show director David Carson.  And as I wrote in my review of the soundtrack, the score by regular Next Generation TV-show composer Jay Chattaway is also top-notch.

* I know some people who don’t care for Brent Spiner’s mugging as the newly-emotional Data, but for me I think it works just fine.  His “ohhhh shit” line will never again be as funny as it was that first time I saw it in the theatre, but his “yesss!” is still a great end to the battle with the bird of prey, and his “lifeforms” song will always be a big hit with me.

* Malcolm McDowell is pretty great as the villain Soran.  He’s not the most memorable Trek villain ever, by any means, but he has enough screen time to be very memorable, he has a compelling motivation, and he presents a worthy challenge to our heroes.  I love his scenes with Patrick Stewart, they really crackle.

* I love the opening credits and the gradual revelation of the bottle being used to christen the Enterprise B. And I love the perfect use of Alexander Courage’s original Star Trek fanfare.

Star Trek: Generations has many flaws, and that I think it might be the best of the Next Gen films shows just how far the Next Gen film series missed the mark over-all.  Still, there is a great deal that I absolutely love about Star Trek: Generations, and when I put aside any disappointment I feel about the whole Next Gen film series and just consider this movie on its own, I find that over-all I feel extremely positive about it.  There is far more to like than to dislike.  It was a fine beginning to the Next Generation crew’s movie adventures, and that their future adventures disappointed is not the fault of this film, or the men and women who made it.  I have many wishes for what might have been, but they don’t stand in the way of my enjoying this movie every time I watch it.  And I have watched it many, many times, and I expect I will watch it many more times in the future.  Make it so.

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