Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Lost in Space

By Debbie Gilbert

DECEMBER 21, 1998:  Star Trek: Insurrection, the ninth Trek movie and the third to feature the Next Generation cast, is nothing more than an extended episode of the TV series – and not one of the better episodes at that. It has some bright moments, but in the end grows so tedious that on opening night in Memphis, several people walked out of a theatre that was only half-filled to begin with.

The main problem is that the writers couldn’t come up with a story worthy of the big screen. Here’s the plot: The Federation has found a planet colonized by the Ba’ku, a people who, 300 years ago, rejected technology and switched to a simple, peaceful, agrarian lifestyle. Thanks to unusual radiation around the planet, they haven’t aged. But now the Federation wants to harvest this fountain of youth, which could be worth a fortune. And a senescent race called the Son’a also wants it, to reverse their own decline. But this will mean removing the Ba’ku – 600 of them. Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) argues that it will be repeating a mistake made throughout human history: the displacement of indigenous people to serve the needs of those in power. (Think of Native Americans marching along the Trail of Tears – or, for that matter, Midtowners being forced out of the I-40 corridor.) Believing Starfleet is violating its own Prime Directive of noninterference, Picard defies his superiors and fights to save the Ba’ku.

This is hardly new territory. There have been any number of Trek episodes involving idyllic societies where no one ages, gets sick, or dies. And there have been countless occasions on which both Picard and Captain James Kirk have disobeyed direct orders from Starfleet. Kirk was court-martialed at least twice, and Picard seems to expend more energy battling his own bosses than fighting enemies like the Borg.

So there’s no compelling reason to see this movie, other than to be reunited with the familiar, likable cast (it does feel good to hear Picard say “Make it so” once again). There are individual scenes that are quite funny, though a lot of the jokes seem to involve body parts or functions. Director Jonathan Frakes, who directed the previous film Star Trek: First Contact and who plays Commander Riker, again does a competent job, but like most actor-directors, he is unable to monitor his own performance, and he turns in one of his worst.

Compounding the script’s deficiencies is the film’s lack of star power; the only guest of note is F. Murray Abraham, unquestionably a fine actor. But since he plays one of the decrepit Son’a, his face is buried in sagging-skin, mummy-like makeup, rendering him unrecognizable and muffling his performance.

It’s up to Stewart to carry the movie, and he does the best he can. In fact, the 58-year-old Stewart may be the most amazing thing you’ll see, because he seems to have tapped into the fountain of youth in real life. While other Trek actors grow paunchier and more wrinkled with each film, the lean-muscled Stewart looks like a cerebral version of an action hero.

Viewers who find the plot less than engaging can occupy their brains picking out all its inconsistencies. For example, on the Ba’ku planet, newcomers begin to notice their bodies are regenerating. The blind Geordi (LeVar Burton) is able to see normally for the first time, and the Klingon Worf (Michael Dorn) finds his hair growing several inches a day. So why doesn’t hair sprout like a Chia Pet on Picard’s bald head? And timeworn story devices are all too obvious. Worf is now stationed at Deep Space Nine and is no longer a member of the Enterprise crew, yet the writers contrive a way to get him on board temporarily, just as they did at the beginning of the last movie.

Visually, the film’s not bad. For the first time in a Trek movie, all the special effects are computer-generated, with no models used. They’re adequate, but nothing more exciting than what we see every week on TV’s Star Trek: Voyager. Some of the Ba’ku planet scenes were filmed 10,000 feet up in the subalpine Sierra Nevada, where the cast and crew had to be helicoptered in. This is lovely footage – familiar terrain to those who hike the backcountry, but perhaps startling to the majority of the audience.

Unfortunately, viewers have to spend far too much time staring at the hideous faces of the Son’a, and it’s time wasted because we don’t give a damn about them, or about much of anything else in this movie.

About midway through, there’s a lot of thoughtful, intelligent dialogue about respecting the rights of sentient beings and standing up for one’s beliefs, and you’re thinking, “Hey, this is good stuff.” But ultimately the story doesn’t fulfill its promise. And that’s a shame, because it’s not as if Trek hasn’t addressed such topics before in an entertaining manner. One of the very best Next Generation episodes was “The Measure of a Man,” which also dealt with issues of justice and human rights, but did so in the context of a riveting drama. With Insurrection, the writers wimp out and opt for the standard explosion-in-space conclusion.

Sadly, it appears that Star Trek’s creative well may have finally run dry. – Debbie Gilbert

Essentially a suspenseful character study, Insomnia is set in a small Norwegian town north of the Arctic Circle where the sun appears with only wan brevity for half the year and for the other scarcely sets. The most significant of the film’s many interesting aspects is director Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s evocation of the powerful effects of geography on human psychology. Insomnia affords international audiences a sense not only of a unique physical environment but of how one man’s psychological landscape ironically becomes a dark night of the soul in the land of the relentless, potentially maddening, midnight sun. Northern Norway, with its mountains, mists, and rugged shore, is gorgeous terrain; it also has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

Stellan Skarsgard (of Good Will Hunting and Breaking the Waves) is a noted Swedish homicide detective called to the far north to investigate the death of a 17-year-old girl. Tight-lipped, almost dour, Skarsgard’s detective has become almost inured to murder over the years. He says with little evident emotion to one of the local deputies: “The cases begin to run together” and “It’s important to separate your work from your personal life.” Nonetheless, the viewer is just able to perceive, beneath the chill exterior of this low-affect, postmodern hero, that the innocent beauty of this victim and the apparent twistedness of her murderer awaken his hibernating sense of moral outrage. Skarsgard is perfectly cast; with his huge frame, sagging slightly with worldweariness, his lank blonde hair, and his tortured, soulful eyes, searching reluctantly for the bad news of the world, he’s a sort of Gary Cooper as Viking or a Lappland Liam Neeson.

Through a fateful accident, the detective becomes both pursuer and pursued. Implicated himself and unable or unwilling to admit the facts, he tries to proceed simultaneously as a moral avenger and a moral subversive. Writer Nikolaj Frobenius subtly and compellingly delineates the man’s vertiginous descent; Skarsgard brings to it unsettling humanity; and Skjoldbjaerg’s direction ominously bleeds together the unnerving, constant sunlight and the detective’s eroding integrity.

The place sense is palpable. As the detective’s compunction gets the best of him, he is able to sleep less and less. The pallid but persistent sunlight manages, like his conscience, to leach through his nightly efforts to block it out. The effects of his sleep deprivation begin to function simultaneously as an emblematic manifestation of his inner torture and a giddy detachment, a physical and mental state that gives him what shred of distance he can sustain from his ravaging guilt. There are even occasional traces of very black humor in the situation, of that peculiarly mordant variety characteristic of the old Norse sagas.

Insomnia is a cool piece of Norwegian irony – hyperboreal noir. – Hadley Hury


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