The continuing flight of the Starship Enterprise has become moviedom's biggest holding pattern. Each new entry in the "Star Trek" series seems designed to keep the franchise aloft by delivering no more or less than what its audience expects. With any hopes of an "Independence Day"-style blockbuster long ago relegated to the trash heap, the only apparent prime directive is for the quality level to remain somewhere above that of "Attack of the Crab Monsters."
The humble agenda continues in "Star Trek: Insurrection," the ninth installment in the saga and the third to feature the cast of TV's "Next Generation" spin-off. Here again are Capt. Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his space-hopping crew, balancing their instructions not to interfere with alien cultures against their audience's need to witness breathtaking phaser shoot-outs. This time, the conflict centers on the Ba'ku, a mysterious race of technology-shunning aliens (think an interstellar Amish) whose fountain-of-youth homeworld bestows eternal vitality upon its inhabitants. The planet's life-enhancing properties make it irresistible to both the Federation and the Son'a, an untrustworthy, considerably uglier band of extraterrestrials who dupe the Feds into abetting their plan to hijack the planet and forcibly "relocate" the nonviolent Ba'ku.
In true "Trek" fashion, the story's analogies to Hitlerian Germany and the decimation of the Native American are so belabored that they're ultimately innocuous. More fun is the appearance of F. Murray Abraham as the Son'a's leader, a nifty gargoyle whose body is in a constant state of decomposition. When he isn't undergoing frequent cosmetic surgery to rewrap his unraveling face, he's agitating himself into a state of excitation that causes bloody wounds of angst to appear under his eyes.
That's about as grim as the film gets. The rest of the script does its best to lighten up the "Next Gen" cast via injections of the humor that made the original, Shatner-led crew a crossover success with non-sci-fi audiences. The attempt is only moderately successful, reaching its nadir in an exchange that has Picard and the android Data (Brent Spiner) bonding by trading melodic lines from the score of "H.M.S. Pinafore." A funny bunch this is not.
They're also not aging well: A mere three episodes into their big-screen voyage, Stewart et al are showing as many crows' feet and bulging waistlines as it took the original team a full two decades to develop. The atrophy is most apparent in a love scene that sees Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes, who again directs) climbing into a sudsy tub with Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) for a little between-missions R&R of the libidinous kind. The encounter serves no function except to titillate the pubescent and the pubescent-at-heart, giving them fresh "Sirtis nude (almost!)" pics to post on their unofficial websites. Don't count on them to realize that what they're experiencing is the cinematic equivalent of watching their parents get it on, but count on Jay Leno to have surefire monologue material into the new millennium.