The second Trek film to be directed by Johnathan Frakes (riding off the success of First Contact), Star Trek: Insurrection brings in most of the standard film and television team: Michael Pillar and Rick Berman took on the script; Herman Zimmerman and Michael Westmore return for set design and makeup, respectively; and Jerry Goldsmith returns for the score.
Although the work of long-time Star Trek veterans (like Greg Jein) is largely absent from the final film, Insurrection delivers on most of the expectations for a Trek film; from the strong and atmospheric visuals to the orchestral soundtrack (even if it doesn’t always feel as emotionally weighty as it necessarily should).
If Insurrection has anything, it’s visual style. Built on the backs of elaborate settings from TNG, the TOS movie series, and the phenomenal First Contact—the set design, costumes, makeup, and special effects for Insurrection had to meet some very high expectations. Luckily, the film hits (almost) all of these points with the expertise of a team that made eight Trek movies over two decades; all while making shockingly few major blunders along the way (considering what kind of a movie its sequel, Nemesis, turned out to be).
The movie’s opening immediately sets the less-than-grand tone with a heavy reliance on visual atmosphere, utilizing a to-scale village to breathe life into the small scale plot of the movie, as well as injecting visual interest into the interior of the bland and monotone Federation sets, with great costumes and unique aliens.
The sets in the film are, by and large, fantastic, shifting from the peaceful Ba’ku village to the magitek labs of the Son’a (the main antagonists) ships to cramped and dimly lit caves that would feel at home in a Farscape episode. The weak point quickly becomes the Federation sets being the least interesting scenes in the movie (most disappointingly the Enterprise, which feels like endless corridors of bright, cascading, and very boring yellow light) compared to the geometric stained glass of the Son’a sets or the beautiful Sierra Nevada filming locations.
To pair with the set design is an ensemble of some of the best costumes of the TNG era. The main casts’ outfits seamlessly blend the simple and utilitarian Deep Space Nine and Voyager uniforms with new bold, white-on-black dress uniforms to make the Federation flagship’s crew look like they mean business (which, contrasts well with the drab robes and metal plating of the Son’a costumes). However, while the clothing of the Ba’ku does look convincing for a pre-industrial village on an Earth-like planet, they quickly seem pretty boring compared with the rad-as-shit Son’a, whose prosthetic design gives them even more of a boost.
Star Trek, more than other science fiction shows on-air before the turn of the century, had a serious problem with the makeup and prosthetics for the alien characters being primarily defined by funny-looking foreheads (there’s even an excellent sci-fi podcast named after the phenomenon). Insurrection, however, moves past the copy-paste head ridges with three of the four new alien species introduced in the film having absolutely stand-out designs.
The minor species of the Evora have wonderfully goofy fish-like faces, and one of the colonized peoples of the antagonists, the Ellora, have some of the silliest and most memorable forehead adornments in the modern Trek era, sporting massive dinosaur bones connected by bumpy and concerningly-moist frog skin. Although already rocking some excellent character design, the real stars of the makeup department in Insurrection are the Son’a.
Their stretched skin and extensive on-screen surgical body modifications are extremely metal and add dimension to the characters and their Hellraiser aesthetic (notably, the occasional face-bleeding that the main villain, Ruo’fo, experiences when he gets in too bad a mood), intensifying the villains’ cruelty with decadent vanity.
The mediocre-at-worst visuals, though, end with post-production. Insurrection was the first Star Trek movie to feature entirely computer-generated space scenes, and it is very not good.
Removing ship models from Star Trek is like removing puppets from a Jim Henson production; not only do both the TV and film series have an illustrious history of excellent model making, there are huge swathes of the fanbase who pore over official ship guides and behind-the-scenes footage for decades, memorizing every detail of a six-foot-long chunk of aluminum and resin.
Cutting the physical model aspect from the movie, if nothing else, makes it feel less like Star Trek.
Unfortunately, an unfamiliar creative direction wasn’t the only consequence of the CGI-heavy special effects. Although the Enterprise is mercifully cloaked in space dust for most of its appearances, many of the ships look so plastic-y, it’s distracting.
While the contemporaneous Phantom Menace got away with its early CGI usage due to the very dynamic and tense action sequences, the ship battles in Insurrection aren’t any more visually interesting than in the show—something that wouldn’t have been a problem if highly detailed miniatures were used. On the bright side, the goofy 1998 special effects gifted us with the villainous Starfleet admiral being “stretched” to death in what is one of the most memorable Trek deaths.
On paper, the Insurrection soundtrack should be excellent—Jerry Goldsmith brought his best, mixing in orchestral interpolations of old Star Trek scores with new tracks for both the planetside and space portions of the movie. With some notable exceptions, most memorably the Ba’ku theme, whose woodwind and string number are more reminiscent of the fairylike Willow score than a TNG mystery episode, the soundtrack is disappointingly understated in this movie.
What feels like a score that should be a perfect balance between nostalgia and intrigue, is undercut by the less-than-bombastic mixing and distracting visuals, leaving a soundtrack that, despite being excellent in isolation, is entirely forgettable once the credits finish rolling. The score still manages to punctuate the best scenes of both the lovable TNG crew and the villainous Son’a, but ends up falling short of bringing more drama or stakes to the movie; luckily, it’s still a pretty fun addition to the Star Trek OST line.
The plot of Insurrection is, unfortunately, a microcosm of its swinging pendulum of quality. As mentioned before, it has a very personal and small-scale tone, with the film’s story and central moral question revolving around the Federation collaborating with the Son’a to forcefully relocate the Ba’ku from their space-magic planet that gives them eternal youth.
Supposedly based loosely on Heart of Darkness, Insurrection half-asses its way through an hour-and-a-half of wet noodle ideology that fails to even address the essential capitalist core of colonialism. It feels so horrible because DS9 was still on air when the film was released, a show that has its central premise firmly based in criticizing Clinton-era American Imperialism and American reactionary rhetoric. The crux of Insurrection rests on the notion that the Federation will intervene on the behalf of the oppressed people, just eight months after we had seen the horrific crimes of space-CIA on DS9.
It isn’t all bad, though. The very personal nature of Insurrection gives the script and characters space to breathe, and the TNG cast gets some extremely heartfelt moments. Every time I’ve watched this movie I’ve teared up from Geordi seeing the sunrise, and I suspect I will continue to do so every time I see it in the future. The performances in some of these touching moments are fantastic, and the chemistry the cast had developed from seven years together on TNG is apparent in this movie.
Ultimately, Insurrection is a decent watch for pretty much any fan of The Next Generation era; it has beautiful aliens, some cool locations, a good soundtrack, and hit or (mostly) miss post-production effects. The story is slow and relaxing compared to First Contact at best, and insulting and spineless at worst, landing it somewhere between the classics like Wrath of Khan and the less-than-ideal entries like Nemesis.
I’d watch it for the prosthetics, but when you’re in the mood to see how an honorable and moral leader like Picard would react to the vile injustices of colonialism, read up on some anti-colonial socialist theory instead.