Star Trek isn’t so much a series of movies or TV shows as it is a pop-culture phenomenon — and one that you either get, or you don’t. If you’re a fan of the series, chances are you’re going to be perfectly happy with this latest entry in the Trek-movie canon. If you’re not, you’re apt to find yourself nodding off with some frequency.
I have to admit that I never really “got” Star Trek from the onset; I never got into its esoterica. I know who the main characters of both Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation are. I know that Klingons are the fellows with foreheads that look like walnuts and Vulcans have pointy ears and odd eyebrows, and that William Shatner wore a wig, but that’s about where it ends. I understand that the original show was groundbreaking for American TV. I understand the series’ appeal as one of the few positive depictions of the future, since most science fiction tends toward a bleak take on tomorrow. I understand that the shows tackled — and continue to tackle — some fairly weighty issues. And that’s all well and good, and I have no trouble with any of that and no desire to rain on anyone’s parade. If you get the good out of these movies, that’s great. But for the rest of us, it can be pretty tough sledding: One man’s profundity is another man’s heavy-handed sermonizing.
If you’re not already a fan, what you’re most likely to experience are generally chintzy costumes, cheesy makeup, cute jokes, pages and pages of indigestible dialogue and tepid action scenes bolstered by a lot of shaking the camera to make it appear that the bridge of the Enterprise is suffering untold damage (by this point in the series, the ship must be held together with chewing gum and bailing wire). The characters are trotted out with clockwork precision to do their various shticks, while Patrick Stewart is there to try to ground the whole thing into some kind reality. Stewart is a good enough actor that he can very nearly pull it off — making even the most appalling pseudo-scientific, Cabbalistic mumbo-jumbo sound authoritative. And that’s pretty much the order of the day here.
The somewhat convoluted plot — damned if I can tell exactly what’s up with the Romulans and Remusians (I know that’s wrong, but it’s close) — is essentially an excuse to have Stewart’s chrome-domed Capt. Jean-Luc Picard square off against his evil clone, Shinzon (Tom Hardy). It’s not a bad idea, but I do have to question the wisdom of having it suggested that Shinzon was possibly cloned from one of Picard’s hair follicles! Quite the most interesting aspect of this plot is the fact that either the writers, or else director Stuart Baird, decided to approach this as a fairly obvious imitation of Arthur and Mordred in John Boorman’s Excalibur. It’s a reasonable concept, and it provides the film with its greatest emotional resonance — certainly more so than the calculated sentimentality of the scenes involving Data (Brent Spiner, who also co-wrote the screenplay).
The problem is that Star Trek: Nemesis lacks the courage of its borrowed convictions. Even though the film sets up a climactic scene between Picard and Shinzon that is identical to the one between Arthur and Mordred, it pulls back at the last moment as a sop to series fans. Such an approach might keep the faithful happy, but it lost the film the possibility of creating something powerfully mythic outside the realm of the series itself. The character of the villainous Shinzon is a definite plus — one of the most interesting and believable of all Star Trek villains, and splendidly played by Tom Hardy. Stewart is, of course, good as Picard. It’s hard to fault Baird’s direction — which often shows evidence of his talents as an editor — but he’s so constrained by the conventions of making a Star Trek movie that it’s impossible to fairly judge his cinematic achievement.