The “Worst” Star Trek Movie is Still a Fun One-Off Adventure
Was Star Trek in decline in 1998? Or is that just how we remember it now?
When you look at the history of Star Trek, there’s a tendency to diagnose trends after the fact. For pundits who only write about Trek when it’s on the ropes, you often hear phrases like “franchise fatigue.” This idea — that people were sick of Star Trek — is generally cited as why Enterprise was canceled in 2005, even though much of that had to do with the shifting nature of Paramount and TV in general.
From Star Trek Beyond’s trailers to Discovery’s rollout in 2017 on CBS All-Access, the Trek franchise has weathered its fair share of muddled marketing, but history has proven over and over again that Star Trek has fewer post-1969 flops than we think. In fact, 25 years ago, what’s now considered one of the most meh Star Trek films ever — Insurrection — actually did well at the box office. The cultural memory of Star Trek: Insurrection is wrong, and a quarter-century later, this quieter, more subtle Star Trek film is still very much worth your time.
Released two years after the 1996 mega-hit Star Trek: First Contact, the third Next Generation-centric Trek film was also the second feature directed by Jonathan Frakes. Of all four TNG films, Insurrection is the only one that doesn’t have some kind of call-back or stunt central to its storyline: Generations had Kirk and Picard meeting, First Contact brought back the Borg and rebooted the entire history of Trek by revealing the moment humans met Vulcans, and in 2002’s Nemesis Picard fought a younger clone of himself (Tom Hardy) while the Romulans were brought back into the fold.
But Insurrection was a brand-new story featuring new antagonistic aliens, the Son’a. Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-E go against Federation orders to protect the Ba’ku, a group of quasi-immortals living on a low-tech, agrarian planet. The planet contains natural properties that result in a sci-fi version of the fountain of youth, and a corrupt Starfleet Admiral named Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe) aligns himself with the leader of the unscrupulous Son’a, a shadowy figure called Ru’afo (F. Murray Abraham, brilliant as always) to seize it.
At the time of its release, supporters and detractors of Insurrection tended to say the same thing: the story wasn’t feature-worthy, and played out more like a two-part episode of The Next Generation. Among Star Trek films, this kind of stand-alone adventure is rare. Other than Star Trek Beyond in 2016, few Trek features have this big-screen planet-of-the-week vibe. Saying Insurrection has stakes closer to a TV episode is true, but that’s not necessarily bad. When watched today, in the context of all the Star Trek that came after it, Insurrection feels old-fashioned in the same way certain episodes of Strange New Worlds feel old-fashioned. There’s a charm to it, like it’s a throwback rather than a stagnation.
Picard may think Starfleet is going too far by trying to extract the secret of youth, but he’s also breaking the rules because he’s in love with Anij (Donna Murphy). In-universe, Star Trek has recently made light of Picard’s mixed motivations in Insurrection. In Episode 5 of Picard Season 3, “Imposters,” Captain Shaw (Todd Stashwick) jokes about the time “someone threw the Prime Directive out the window so they could snog a villager on Ba’ku.” But even though Insurrection is now a punchline, it debuted as a legitimate hit. It made $22.4 million in its opening weekend, topping the American and British box offices, and went on to handily beat out its budget.
What hurt Insurrection in 1998 is what hurts its reputation today: the paradox of what a Star Trek movie should be is often at odds with what a blockbuster movie must deliver. The TNG cast gets to perform some requisite phaser-firing, while the ending pits Picard against Ru’afo John McClane-style. Some of these moments seem shoehorned in, as though Insurrection was trying to be a big Hollywood action movie when everyone would have been fine with it just doing Star Trek. Today, the movie holds up better than fans might remember simply because the TNG cast is all at the top of their game. We never saw them this good again until 2023, when Picard Season 3 rolled around.
Following the success of Picard, Patrick Stewart has made it clear he’s still pushing for one more big-budget TNG movie. If you watch Insurrection now, you’ll see why. In 1998, we were lucky this movie existed at all. We’d be even luckier to get something this pure and straightforward again.