‘Star Trek: Insurrection’ at 25: When Picard and the Enterprise crew found the Fountain of Youth (Image Credit: Space.com)
Often unceremoniously relegated to the lower-gauged tiers of “Star Trek” feature films, “Star Trek: Insurrection” deserves a respectful place at the table this holiday season as the Jonathan Frakes-directed installment in the sci-fi franchise celebrates its milestone 25th anniversary.
Released by Paramount Pictures on Dec. 11, 1998, “Insurrection” was the third film to showcase “The Next Generation” cast and came just two years after the unqualified critical and commercial success of “Star Trek: First Contact,” which is still considered one of the best entries in Hollywood’s long association with Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the Stars.” Check out our streaming guide for Star Trek on where to watch all your favorite Trek shows and films.
Fortified with a lighter-toned “fountain of youth” screenplay written by Rick Berman and Michael Piller and starring the full complement of crewmembers returning to the USS Enterprise-E including Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Marina Sirtis, Michael Dorn, LeVar Burton, and Gates McFadden, its story was somewhat light on action and instead went for a cerebral tale focusing on mortality, family, colonialism, forced resettlement, and the ills of human vanity.
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Paramount’s budget allocation for Insurrection was $70 million and the movie earned a respectable $117 million worldwide during its theatrical run. That’s not a staggering sum for today’s stratospheric box office expectations but a decent return based on 1998 dollars.
Despite solid direction by Frakes, after cutting his teeth helming “First Contact,” its reliance on a more old-fashioned storyline probably makes it better suited to the small screen as an extended episode of “Star Trek: The Original Series” or “The Next Generation.” Nevertheless the plot does have its merits in a sillier side that includes a semi-cringey romantic subplot for Picard, pimple jokes, Will Riker having his beard shaved in a bubble bath with Deana Troi, and Picard, Worf, and Data singing a rousing Gilbert and Sullivan tune from the classic “H.M.S. Pinafore” musical.
Story-wise, “Insurrection” employs a well-meaning script loaded with a prominent social justice theme that begins to wear out its welcome after the first hour. Within a region of the Alpha Quadrant known as the Briar Patch, a humanoid race called the Ba’ku lead a utopian existence devoid of advanced technology until a clandestine Federation-fronted observation team called the “Duck Blind” mission intervenes for nefarious purposes. Data, a member of the survey crew, goes haywire and ends up revealing himself and the observers to the peaceful agrarian society.
Picard and his crew arrive to try to disarm Data without further escalation and unwittingly uncover a controversial scam concocted by the Son’a alien race and approved by Starfleet’s Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe) to relocate 600 Ba’ku off-world to steal their planet’s life-extending substance.
Academy Award winning actor F. Murray Abraham (“Amadeus,” “Scarface”) is perfectly cast as Ru’afo, the imposing leader of the Son’a, a rubbery, skin-stretched species whose master plan is to commandeer the planet’s metaphasic radiation for personal salvation as well as significant future financial gains by exploiting the magical cosmic elements. “Insurrection’s” multiple flesh-tightening sessions and dental implants do demand a strong stomach and sci-fi aficionados will recall similar scenes in director Terry Gilliam’s wild dystopian sci-fi flick from 1985, “Brazil.”
The subplot of Worf going through Jak’tahla, the Klingon equivalent of puberty, is played to mostly amusing effect, with Worf suffering a severe acne outbreak and uncontrolled greasy hair growth, but the minor narrative device remains a shallow diversion that never truly hits its potential stride.
Other amusing yet unintended consequences are sprinkled throughout the film’s runtime as a result of Picard and Co. being exposed to age-defying surface radiation and its libidinous, puberty-inducing, boob-firming side-effects provided by those blessed metaphasic particles cast from the planet’s rings.
Picard’s Ba’ku love interest, Anij (Donna Murphy), stirs up a modicum of sexual chemistry that only hints at carnal knowledge but thankfully never strays down that prurient path. An onscreen kiss WAS filmed but ultimately deleted from final cut.
Tempted by the promise of perpetual youth, the Son’a have developed a technology to collect the precious rejuvenating particles which would subsequently destroy the biosphere. The Federation has partnered with them to share the cosmic wealth and justifies the relocation plan due to the Ba’ku not being naive to the planet, so the Prime Directive technically does not apply. But Picard believes this to be against the principles from which the Federation was conceived and sadly recalls all the cultures that have been destroyed via that same line of thinking.
Ruminating over history’s soiled record of the forced relocation of small groups to satisfy the demands of a larger, technologically superior aggressor, Picard disobeys Federation orders and aids the Ba’ku in a battle against the Son’a to preserve their mystical home and its Zen-like harmony.
Picard and his posse finally lead the Ba’ku through a cave system during surface bombardment to prevent their extermination or being beamed off planet by the Son’a. Before Ru’afo is killed after being tricked and transporting to the activated harvester ship, it’s discovered that the Son’a are actually the same species. They’re a faction that broke off from Ba’ku society a century ago, resulting in a touching reunion finale between several aged Son’a and their younger immortal parents.
Following a placid, drama-drenched buildup, the final 15 minutes do provide some stimulating space dogfights presenting elegantly-designed Son’a battle cruisers amid the twisted red haze of the Briar Patch nebulae to elevate the flick further.
While certainly not exactly a low water mark in the “Star Trek” feature film roster (that honor goes to “Star Trek: The Final Frontier” with all due apologies to director William Shatner!), “Insurrection” is a light-footed rendezvous with “Next Generation” heroes that might feel somewhat familiar to longtime fans of “The Original Series.”
However, its playfully-paced spirit, focused storytelling, humorous tone, and brilliant cast chemistry make it a solid choice to revisit in honor of its 25th anniversary.