As a clone of Captain Picard, Shinzon was not the most popular Star Trek villain of all time. Today, despite all the canon that derives from Nemesis, its reputation among other Trek movies is not good. The plot is messy, the drama is forced, and ultimately it’s not hard to see why Trek movies were put on ice for seven years after its release.
And yet Nemesis, which came out 20 years ago and just hit HBO Max, is also the most underappreciated Tom Hardy movie ever.
If Tom Hardy were announced as the next James Bond (or the next Bond villain), people would freak out. If Hardy were cast in a Star Wars movie or TV series, our heads would explode. And, if Tom Hardy were suddenly cast in a new Star Trek project, that too should be considered exciting.
While hardcore Trekkies remember his Nemesis role, most casual moviegoers do not. If Star Trek wanted to recast Tom Hardy in a different role in a new movie, it would be a little like when Peter Weller played the evil Admiral Marcus in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, despite already playing a similar villain, John Paxton, in the final season of Star Trek: Enterprise back in 2005. Twenty years ago, Tom Hardy’s Tom Hardy-ness was not defined by his Nemesis role, to the point that it’s easy to forget he was even in it.
Which is a shame. Back in 2002, Star Trek: Nemesis was only Hardy’s second big movie following Black Hawk Down, which credited him as Thomas Hardy. In Nemesis, Hardy was given the nearly impossible task of not only playing a villain who could defeat Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard, but also a character who was a clone of Picard, and thus an evil, younger version of the beloved captain. The fact that Hardy’s character is named Shinzon makes this even more confusing, and you have to wonder how the movie might have gone had his character just insisted on also calling himself Jean-Luc Picard.
But on paper, Hardy as a young Jean-Luc Picard works. While the casting of James McAvoy as a young Professor X worked splendidly in X-Men: First Class, that’s mostly because McAvoy seems like a similar type of actor as Patrick Stewart. Tom Hardy is nothing like Patrick Stewart, even if you squint until you’ve convinced yourself that he does kind of look like him.
What’s jarring about Hardy’s performance as a young and evil Picard is also what makes it compelling. In his youth, Jean-Luc Picard was, as TNG writer Ronald D. Moore once described, “a wild man.” As a cadet and young Starfleet officer, Picard had a harder edge, got into bar fights, and once nearly got himself an early grave thanks to his recklessness.
Tom Hardy captures that energy. Big time. If you watch his excellent screentest with Patrick Stewart he looks more dangerous, and much more complex, than he did in the actual movie. Nemesis director Stuart Baird must have believed in Tom Hardy’s subtle yet seething performance as this shadowy version of Picard.
But Hardy’s performance is lost in a muddled film that should have focused on him more. He doesn’t do anything wrong in Nemesis, it’s just that the movie seems edited in such a way as to make anything interesting about Shinzon barely matter. Underneath the film we got a great idea: What if a younger, darker version of Picard was the ultimate bad guy in the universe? Unfortunately, the movie barely seems interested in its own concept.
John Logan — who also worked on the scripts for Gladiator and Skyfall — collaborated with Rick Berman on the Nemesis script, and when you rewatch it you can see hints of something complex and original. Only in science fiction could an older hero meet a younger, twisted version of himself. And only in Star Trek could they align that person with one of the Federation’s greatest enemies, the Romulans.
If you focus on everything in Nemesis that’s not about Picard and Shinzon, it will get dizzying and frustrating. But Tom Hardy did a wonderful job. He understood his task, even if the movie didn’t. If the Trek franchise ever decides to go back into Picard’s past, here’s hoping they remember that Tom Hardy is, canonically, the young Jean-Luc Picard. And, if he ever gets another chance to prove it, fans should rejoice.
Star Trek: Nemesis is now streaming on HBO Max.