Can one bad concept, executed poorly, scuttle an entire movie?
That's the primary question to ask regarding the seventh feature film to boast the Star Trek name, 1994's Generations.
As Trekkers no doubt recall, Generations offers the irresistible lure of combining two generations of franchise characters and two exceedingly popular casts. The film's prologue is set in the 23rd century days of Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and crew (in this case meaning Scotty and Chekov), while the movie proper is set some seventy-eight years later, in the era of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his stalwart crew (Riker, Data, Worf, LaForge, Crusher, and Troi). The film's climax stirs the ingredients together and brings forth both Kirk and Picard to double-team the film's nefarious villain, Dr. Tolian Soran (Malcolm McDowell).
It is, perhaps, until you consider the mechanism by which the two generations are combined. While all Star Trek films feature flaws of one type or another, Generations endures seismic contortions to bring together two captains from disparate eras, in the process creating a narrative sinkhole from which little emerges unscathed.
That sinkhole is called "The Nexus" or "the energy ribbon," and the script -- in true TNG techno-babble fashion -- generically describes the outer space phenomenon as a "conflux of temporal energy" that passes through our galaxy every thirty-eight years or so.
In addition, the screenplay by Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga feels schizophrenic. The book-end scenes involving Captain Kirk are filled with wit, nostalgia, pathos, and real humor, but the middle sections of the film are slow, tedious and lugubrious. Brent Spiner's delightful Data is transformed into a clown and a coward by the addition of an emotion chip, and the script badly mishandles the noble Captain Picard too, making him seem emotionally unstable and a sexist prude. As a feature film introduction to these beloved franchise characters, Generations serves both heroes poorly.
In terms of its cinematic appeal, Generations re-uses the familiar TV sets, but cinematographer John Alonzo does a brilliant and beautiful job of up-fitting them for the silver screen. The cinematic lighting of these familiar sets lends a beautiful and affecting sense of melancholy to the dramatic proceedings. Some scenes are literally bathed in apricot sunlight, as though a golden age is burning out, coming to a rapid end. This too fits both the movie's narrative (which witnesses an end to Enterprise-D) and the thematic drive, which suggests that "time is the fire in which we burn."
I've re-watched the first five seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation in the last year or so as part of my continuing retrospective of the series, and discovered a new appreciation for the series...one I didn't expect to find, but did. Yet love The Next Generation or hate it, Generations is not a high point in the franchise, rather a testament to the difficulty of moving beloved characters from one format to another.
The New York Times' Peter Nichols noted that Generations is "flabby and impenetrable in places, but it has enough pomp, spectacle and high-tech small talk to keep the franchise afloat." I largely agree with the reviewer in terms of the movies flaws and strengths. Generations really is flabby (feeling overlong and confusing) and impenetrable (largely because of the Nexus), but the film is also, often, quite spectacular in visualization.
"A quick run around the block..."
In the 23rd century, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Captain Scott (James Doohan) and Commander Chekov (Walter Koenig) board the U.S.S. Enterprise-B for its maiden voyage, a short sojourn around the solar system.
Unfortunately, two El-Aurian ships carrying refugees to Earth have become caught in "The Ribbon" -- a dangerous space phenomenon -- and require rescue. The Enterprise, under Captain Harriman (Alan Ruck) is not prepared to meet the challenge, but Kirk and his team step in. Several El-Aurians are rescued, including Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) and Dr. Soran (Malcolm McDowell) but during the rescue attempt, Captain Kirk is lost and presumed dead.
Seventy-eight years later, the crew of the Enterprise-D celebrates the promotion of Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn). Even as Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) receives grave news regarding his family on Earth, the android Data (Brent Spiner) attempts to become "more human" by installing and activating his emotion chip.
The Enterprise receives a distress call from a nearby Federation facility, and discovers that it has fallen under attack, apparently by Romulans. A lone survivor is Dr. Soran, who is now working on a powerful Trilithium device -- a weapon that can destroy stars -- to shift the path of the Ribbon.
As Picard learns, Dr. Soran actually wishes to return to the Ribbon, so that he can enter into an alternate dimension called "The Nexus," a world of fantasy and bliss where his family still exists. Allied with Klingon renegades Lursa and B'etor, Soran hopes to destroy the sun in the Veridian system even though it means the deaths of millions of intelligent life forms, and thus rendezvous with his loved ones.
Picard attempts to stop Dr. Soran on a desolate planet surface while Riker battles the Klingons in orbit. After Picard enters the Nexus, he realizes he must enlist the help of the legendary Captain Kirk...
"Time is the fire in which we burn..."
Star Trek: Generation's problems begin with the concept of the Nexus. It is a ribbon of energy that travels the galaxy. If you happen to be touched by the Nexus, you are transported to an alternate reality without time in which your thoughts dictate reality.
The Nexus/ribbon is incredibly intriguing in concept, and I've always appreciated outer space mystery films that deal with altered realities, such as Solaris. Indeed, you get the sense that this kind of depth is precisely what Generations was aiming for.
In the film, Picard solicits the aid of Captain Kirk and opts to return to the point five minutes before Veridian III is destroyed, to stop Soran. Why would he choose this particular time, and not a day earlier, in Ten Forward, when he first meets Soran aboard the Enterprise? Worf's security men could thus arrest Soran, and two star systems would survive. There would be no casualties, either. The Enterprise wouldn't get destroyed. End of story. Why would any person in his right mind -- let alone an incredibly intelligent starship captain -- choose to return to a point in time wherein Soran already holds all the cards, and the die is cast, as they say?
The Measure of a Man: The depiction of Captain Picard in Generations.
What I appreciate so much about Captain Picard is that his character was conceived as a man and as a captain very different from Captain Kirk. We didn't need an imitator...we needed a successor with his own style, approach and personality. That's precisely what the writers and Patrick Stewart gave us in the TV series. That fact established, Captain Picard as he was in the series is not an easy fit for a Star Trek movie. He is introspective, occasionally morose, emotionally detached from his crew, and not at all the standard action hero type.
To top it all off, when at film's conclusion Riker notes that he never had the chance to captain the Enterprise, Captain Picard says, essentially, "don't worry...we'll get another one!" (Really: "I doubt this will be the last starship to carry the name Enterprise). Again, contrast Kirk's feelings of guilt and remorse over the destruction of his beloved starship in The Search for Spock with Picard's nonchalant, off-handed response in Generations. The impression is that Picard couldn't give a damn that the Enterprise is destroyed. He's lost ships before (the Stargazer), has done so again, and well, he certainly appears confident he'll get another shot at command, I guess. The script provides Picard not one word of regret that the Federation flagship has been destroyed. And he doesn't tell a soul, either, at least on screen, of Captain Kirk's noble sacrifice.
In the choice of fantasy mates for him, Generations transforms Picard -- the intellectual renaissance man of the future -- into someone who appears sexist to us, now, living here in the 21st century. It's a ridiculous choice of fantasy for the character, and one that suggests the writers -- after writing for him for so many years -- have no absolutely no idea who he is. The woman in Picard's fantasy should have been a woman that he respected: Dr. Crusher. She is a match for him in terms of intellect, opinion and physicality. Why wouldn't Picard imagine her as his dream woman, particularly after the events of "Attached?" More importantly, why wouldn't the writers think of Beverly Crusher, now that they were now longer constrained by the "no change" edicts of a weekly series, where you must keep everyone available for future dalliances with sexy guest stars? Frankly, in this Generations scene Picard comes off as infinitely more sexist than Captain Kirk ever did. Kirk may want to screw every woman that moves, but Picard apparently desires a chaste doormat for a life partner. Again, it doesn't ring true of the man we'd known for seven years and over a hundred adventures.
Again, this judgment is not a reflection on Brent Spiner or on the character of Data as seen in the TV series overall; just a comment on the quality of writing and decision-making that informs Generations.
"You know, if Spock were here, he'd say that I was an irrational, illogical human being by taking on a mission like that. Sounds like fun!"
I haven’t pulled many punches here regarding Star Trek: Generations. The film doesn’t work in terms of science fiction premise, in terms of internal consistency and logic, or in terms of the main characters, primarily Picard. But, the film does succeed on at least two other specific fronts: spectacle and commentary on human nature.
William Shatner and Patrick Stewart also prove delightful together in the film. It really is great to see these two men stand shoulder-to-shoulder, working together and playing off one another. I only wish the script didn't have to go through so many contortions of believability and logic to bring Picard to Kirk. People can criticize Shatner's acting all they like, but I find his final moments in the role -- his acceptance of death -- immensely moving.
Picard, meanwhile, has never devoted his considerable energies to family, and now he wonders if upon his death, he’ll be remembered at all, or if the Picard name will be consigned to dead (rather than living…) history. And Soran, of course, wants to escape the bounds of mortality and live forever with his loved ones in the nexus. His legacy is to be remembered here, in reality, as a monster. Each one of these characters must contend with life and death in Generations, and a viewer can see how that thread affects each of them. Again, I’ve been tough with the writers here, but in having three primary characters grapple with aging and mortality, Generations certainly aspires to be Star Trek at its best. The film has something meaningful and true to convey to all of us. How do we look at the passing of time? Are our lives burning up as the days and hours pass? Or are we building up a legacy that will inspire those who come after us?