Star Trek Nemesis, released 15 years ago at this time of year, is the nadir of the entire franchise. The 1998 Trek instalment, Insurrection, was also very weak, but weak within the normal parameters of the show. All of the Next Generation films suffer from a bizarre obsession with making the TNG characters, especially Picard, into action heroes. None of the four (including 1994’s Generations, 1996’s First Contact) feel especially like an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In each case, the characters are off-model and the slow, intellectual, somewhat tame and politically correct tone of the TV series is nowhere in evidence. Insurrection would have made a mediocre two-part episode of the series, but ironically, of all the films, until the silly action sequence at the end, it feels like TNG. Nemesis, on the other hand, starts badly and then gets worse.
The problems with Nemesis go so deep that even beginning to discuss them takes us into critical quicksand. The premise, that a clone version of Picard has been created by the Romulans (who throw him away for some reason) has made an alliance with an alternate model of the Romulans (called “Remans” – get it?) and is seeking revenge on Picard (for some reason) is weak even by the standards of the TV series. So many illogical leaps are made, so many arbitrary twists are taken, so many scientific laws violated that it almost feels like Star Trek directed by Michael Bay.
Nemesis is also deeply inconsistent with the series continuity, a fact that tends to alienate the notoriously detail-focused Trek fans. Indeed, the film feels like it doesn’t care about its audience or their intelligence. It doesn’t pander to fans — if anything, it seems to want to attract the casual action movie fan. One small example: the evil Picard clone Shinzon, played by a young Tom Hardy, is bald. Even though we know from many flashback scenes in the TV series that Jean Luc Picard did have hair as a young man. Every fan would know this, and if the filmmakers really understood Star Trek’s audience, they would have given Shinzon hair and trust that even if the audience was confused for a moment, they would quickly realize that Picard has male pattern baldness and naturally a younger clone would have hair. But instead, the filmmakers seem to have decided that the audience is too unintelligent or unobservant (in other words, the antithesis of Star Trek fans) to comprehend basic biology and would be confused unless both Picard and his clone had the same bald head. (Even more egregiously, in one sequence Picard looks at a photo of himself as a younger man and despite all the times we’ve seen young Picard in flashbacks, in this photo he’s bald.)
The lack of respect for the audience is also evident in the notorious dune buggy sequence. The Enterprise is called by a mysterious signal to a barren planet where they find a duplicate version of Data and have to escape from an ambush in a dune buggy called the Argo. The action sequence feels like it was ripped from an entirely different film, and indeed a different franchise. Star Trek was never an action franchise in the first place, but one based on watching a group of appealing intelligent characters solving problems and negotiating their way out of situations using science and diplomacy. (Remember that opening narration about “Exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations…”?) There’s a major difference between that and a shaky-cam dune buggy race in the desert, especially when the entire sequence could have been 1/10th the length and established the same (ultimately ridiculous) plot point.
That plot point is yet another example of the film’s lack of intelligence, as it introduces an earlier version of Data, called “B4” (get it?), giving the filmmakers the opportunity to hammer home a parallel narrative theme with about as much subtlety as a boat horn. When Data sacrifices himself at the film’s climax, we end by considering B4 as Data’s “replacement”, much like Spock’s sacrifice and later return as a physically identical but mentally distinct copy in The Search for Spock. Those references and resonances with earlier films (especially The Wrath of Khan) come across as lazy and serve only to remind us of the film’s lack of original ideas. (This pale, obvious copying would also subvert Into Darkness, but in that case the film at least had some good action sequences.)
Action sequences have appeared in all Trek films, of course, with the possible exception of The Motion Picture. The action sequences in The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock are a high water mark for old-fashioned analog space sequences, with real models and computer-driven motion-tracking cameras rather than CG. But those sequences also knew how to build tension, and use emotion and character conflict to make them dramatically riveting. Also, they serve to enhance the story, rather than make themselves the centre of attention. Star Trek did feature action in The Original Series, many times involving Kirk getting his shirt off and punching people. But Picard is not Kirk, and was never meant to be. From the outset of TNG, Picard was imagined as a wise overseer of affairs on the Enterprise, and Riker was the man of action who could go on the away teams and get into fisticuffs. Those characterizations remained fairly consistent over the course of the TV show — Picard’s hobbies are tea, classical music, Shakespeare, literature, etc. He isn’t the sort of man who needs to run around a ship with a machine gun wearing a tank top. And yet, these are the things the film series constantly asks him to do, most egregiously here in Nemesis. Yes, Picard had a very visceral action sequence in First Contact, but that could be possibly justified by a personal vendetta (however out of character a raging Picard might sound). Insurrection was the beginning of the end, featuring a pointless fight scene and an almost shirtless Picard. By the time we get to Nemesis, Picard drives an ATV (this is a man who sips tea and plays the flute, remember) and, of course, has to get into a fight sequence on a generic spaceship set. The makers of this film simply don’t understand Star Trek: The Next Generation or what its audience liked about it.
Finally, the film obviously makes a great effort to adopt a “dark” tone, but there is such a thing as being unnecessarily dark. There is an actual rape scene in this movie. One has to ask at a certain point why that, or anything like it, is necessary in a franchise that represents itself as science-based humanist adventure. It’s tempting to think that the filmmakers were so craven and cynical that they looked over the box office stats of the previous films and decided that the last time they “went dark” (First Contact), it was a hit, so they decided to just copy that formula again. Whatever the reason, this film is a dark, violent, depressing mess, and it simply didn’t need to be this way. Star Trek is supposed to deliver a message of hope, at least that’s what Gene Roddenberry always claimed. On that basis, Nemesis is as far from a Star Trek film as it’s possible to get.