At an hour long, in black and white, and starring a miracle-fiber toupee with an actor attached, the material that ultimately became "Star Trek: Nemesis" might have entered the canon as classic TV.
At twice that length, realized at Paramount's most exquisite level of technical excellence and starring a bald guy who can actually act, "Star Trek: Nemesis" is an ordeal for all save the most ardent Treksters. It's a phaser set to stun.
The idea is vivid enough and full of enough intellectual vibration to have been provocative back in the '60s. Our hero is facing diplomatic maneuvering and ultimately mortal space-battle combat against . . . himself. Literally. The Remans (natives of Remus, doncha know) have acquired a DNA strand from Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Godard -- Jean-Luc Picard, I always make that mistake -- and cloned a mini-him. Why? Because, as we all know, the captain of the Starship Enterprise is the world's coolest dude, so this second version will by genetic destiny be high class in the capability department. Alas, Verne Troyer of "Austin Powers" wasn't available to take the role, so they hired someone named Tom Hardy, last seen toting an M-60 through Mogadishu as a confused soldier in "Black Hawk Down." Yes, Troyer is small and, yes, Hardy is big: Such are great comedy opportunities squandered.
Anyhow, mini-Picard -- whose shaven head provides the only real resemblance to Picard -- has engineered a coup to take over Remus's brother planet, Romulus, and now is expanding outward to take on Starfleet and eventually the universe. And who is there to stop him but Picard and the big Frisbee with the two flashlights attached?
Clever, no? See how neatly it tracks with an actual social issue, which is the eternal debate over nature vs. nurture? The original Picard, well raised and possessed of healthy self-image, has become the champion of order and decency and good judgment. That same genetic package, raised brutally on Remus (they seem to have trilobites for faces and the dispositions of agitated tarantulas), has grown up evil and ambitious.
But the movie is slower than molasses on the dark side of Uranus. Worse, it's tacky. I know it's supposed to be tacky, for the essence of classic "Star Trek" is its tackiness, but somehow tacky on the big screen isn't the same as tacky on the small. Tiny and blurry on the tube, it's cute and adorable. Blown out to 36 feet by 18 feet, and, worst of all, in actual focus, it just seems depressing.
I feel a rant coming on. Sorry, folks, this isn't going to be pretty. You might want to look away, or at least send the children to their rooms. But . . . really, can't they hire a decent costume designer? To my eyes, those double-knit two-tone sweatshirts with their slight shimmer and complete inability to wrinkle or drape like actual clothes, and those little dweeby badges, and all that short hair and all those freshly scrubbed faces . . . I CAN'T STAND IT! MAKE IT GO AWAY, PLEASE!
And the command bridge of the Enterprise? Give me a break. Does it have to look like the control room of low-wattage Midwestern TV station? All those little blinking lights? What, is there a fly-into-space knob that has to be set to ON to get the thing to move? Then the fly-into-space light lights up, so we know we're in space. And there must be a cool-sounds knob, too, and a what-Third-World-airport-did-they-loot-to-get-all-those-freakin'-plastic-lounge-chairs knob, too, and that one's set all the way up to 10. Then there's that ersatz techno-yammer. "Sir, aft shield down to 40 percent efficiency. And we've fired all our photon torpedoes!"
Damn the photon torpedoes, I say, full rant ahead. The waxworks sense of it is cloying. It's like visiting an old folks' home when none of the old folks have any connection to you. Demographically, the whole "Star Trek" shebang must skew toward the Alzheimer's generation. We ain't in a country of young men. The movie is almost utterly devoid of youth; the two babes (Marina Sirtis as Counselor Deanna Troi and Dina Meyer as Commander Donatra) could be your grandma, and most of the guys look like they need oatmeal twice a day because their teeth and gums hurt and they want to stay regular. I kept waiting for Norma Desmond to walk in as Miss Space Station, Stardate 10002.
And the sparks. For some reason, dating back to the TV years when special effects were hardly advanced and the budgets minuscule, the "Star Trek" action sequences all involved sparks falling from pipes. That squalid tradition continues, so that in the oh-so-frequent space and phaser battles, rogue phaser blasts and other rays of destruction always bring showers of sparks raining down. It's like the worst kind of sensible suburban Fourth of July.
Then there's the sparseness. For all the size of these big ships, the movie has a small cast and even fewer actual characters. There's no sense of bustle, or teeming activity; it's just a few actors, most of them bad, on big, bad, empty sets. Was the Extras Union on strike or something? There must be seven speaking roles in the whole damned thing.
Even the big effects payoff -- the Enterprise vs. a Romulan attack vessel conceived as a giant bird of prey -- looks disconcertingly dead. It's just empty imagery, computerized visions of machines whizzing around cyberspace; there's nothing human in it, nothing emotive or resonant.
In the rubble, certain graces should be noted. Stewart, as ever, is utterly professional and always believable. While all about him people like Hardy are overacting and people like Jonathan Frakes as Riker are underacting (possibly because he has almost nothing to do in the film except bark "Retro-designate the photon torpedo attack module!" and fistfight a guy in a rubber mask that somebody left on the radiator overnight), Stewart is acting. It's an actual performance -- elegant, crisp, entirely committed. Then there's Brent Spiner as Data, the adenoidal android; I hate the silver goo they paint on his face to signify his mechanistic endo-soul, but he always seems the most human of the characters, and in this film he's the only one to project recognizable emotion.
Rarely in the 10 previous "Star Treks" have the movies transcended: that is, widened beyond the narrow scope of the TV cult and all the Trekkie wannabes and reached out to grip a nondenominational audience. Frakes himself directed the best of the second-generation films, "Star Trek: First Contact," in 1996, just as Leonard Nimoy did the two best first-generation films, "The Voyage Home" (1986) and "The Search for Spock" (1984). The two of them were able to tell tales that had some reach and narrative power. This film, directed by a British yeoman of no particular distinction named Stuart Baird, lacks both. It's for people in costumes, Starfleet Academy graduation rings and no one else.
Star Trek: Nemesis (116 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and a scene of sex between human beings not wearing funny ears.