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Star Trek Nemesis is a trashy fun vampire movie

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2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise — and the release of Star Trek Beyond, the 13th feature film in the series. To celebrate this big year, and ponder the deeper meanings of Trek’s first half-century, the Entertainment Geekly column will look at a different Star Trek film each week, from now till Beyond. This week: Tom Hardy as Picard’s vengeful alien clone brother-son. Last week: The one where age is just a number. Next week: Jeffrey Jacob Abrams.

Dune buggies and clones and colliding spaceships, oh my! Nemesis isn’t trash, it’s a trashcan fire. It’s also the only Next Generation movie I ever want to watch again.

Where else can you find Tom Hardy, unrecognizably 25 but already inventing accents, bald and preening and slithering through spaceship shadowlight in skintight purple-glam body armor. His name is “Shinzon,” he’s got exo-skeletal shoulderpads, he talks in a petulant stage whisper, and he generally gives off the particular vibe of a prep-school cult messiah whose big religious idea is hosting Alien 3-themed orgies in the watchtower.

Hardy’s flanked by Ron Perlman, our Karloff, still recognizably himself despite a mountain of bat-creature makeup. Perlman is “The Viceroy,” a Reman. Screenwriter John Logan invented the Remans, because the Romulans weren’t even cool enough to be the bad guys in the Romulan movie. Remans live on the dark hemisphere of a non-rotational planet, and they look like what would happen if Max Schreck in Nosferatu wore a ski mask carved from crocodile skin.

The Remans hate light but love assault-coded telepathic invasion. They never appeared before Nemesis, and maybe their existence is an assault on continuity. (Oh, so there’s another race, right next to the Romulans, sort similar but twice as evil?) But that assault is the point, I think. Nemesis isn’t a Star Trek movie. It’s what happens when Star Trek getting invaded by a movie, the way Stoker’s Dracula invades Whitby.

And here’s a weird secret about the Viceroy: Perlman is supposed to be the henchman, but director Stuart Baird shoots him like the master. He’s the source of Shinzon’s power: See Perlman’s monster hands cradling Hardy’s head…

And see how, as Shinzon slowly disintegrates from Clone Disease, the Viceroy grasps his heart.

Baird loves his slanted angles — one of many reasons why Star Trek Nemesis feels so much like J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek  — and there’s a graceful story being told in this shot about the devil on Shinzon’s shoulder.

Shinzon is a clone of Picard, though it would be more scientifically accurate to describe him as a cosmic joke. Somehow, the Romulans got ahold of Picard’s DNA. (That’s the explanation, really. Says Shinzon: “The Romulans had somehow gained possession of your DNA and I had been created.”) They grew Shinzon out of a blood cell or a hair follicle; they had a bold Manchurian Candidate scheme to body-swap the real Picard with a sleeper agent. You could counter-argue this plot with, well, logic. (Why Picard and not an Admiral? Hell, if you can body-swap one clone agent, why not do that twice, thrice, a hundred thousand times?)

But Shinzon’s glorious destiny ran up against something much worse than logic: bureaucracy. “As happens frequently here on Romulus, a new government came to power,” Shinzon explains. That new government worried that the Shinzon plan could lead to war — that even the mere existence of a Starfleet officer’s clone would be an unforgivable incursion, like stowing nuclear weapons 90 miles from Miami.

(ASIDE: Shinzon is the Trek world avatar of a familiar nemesis from the ‘90s: The dormant Cold War superweapon unfrozen into peacetime. This was a remarkably popular idea in the first couple years post-Sept. 11 when Hollywood looked nostalgically backward toward more familiar political villains. Nemesis arrived six months after The Sum of All Fears, a movie where a British actor plays an Austrian Nazi who uses a Cold War nuke to blow up a football game.)

Somehow, we’re told, the Viceroy is keeping Shinzon alive. How? Why? Is the Viceroy somehow assuming Shinzon’s pain into himself, removing his pain? Or is the Viceroy somehow empowering Shinzon – granting him some immunity from his own death? Is that immunity somehow corroding Shinzon from within; is the cure worse than the disease? If you watch Nemesis a second time – and most people barely manage a first – you start to notice that the Viceroy is maybe hurting Shinzon more than he’s helping him. The bad guy in Nemesis corrodes before our eyes, becoming pale, sallow-eyed, his veins popping out of his bare cranium.

How can such a foul creature survive? What is Shinzon’s plan? Here is another Next Generation movie overflowing with technobabble, cascading biogenic pulses, thalaron radiation, temporal RNA sequencing. (When Shinzon’s flagship suddenly appears in front of the ship, Geordi positively moans over the readouts: “His cloak is perfect. No tachyon emissions. No residual antiprotons.”) And so there’s a dark, silly gag when you figure out just what, precisely, Shinzon wants. “He needs your blood to live,” Dr. Crusher tells Picard. This isn’t a Star Trek movie; it’s a vampire movie.

And so we should not mince words: Nemesis is also the brain-rape movie. Deanna Troi is, at the beginning of the movie, a happy bride. The film takes time establishing the grinning delightfulness of the Troi-Riker union. They are glorious, yet demure. He wears his dress whites; she wears a pink dress.

Their future is bright. They’ve got another wedding on Betazed — it’ll be nudist, as is tradition. (Oh, how I miss Next Generation’s PG-rated hippie sensuality!) After this final mission, Riker’s off to the Titan, his first command. What will Troi do? Nemesis reminds you that she’s fourth in line to run the Enterprise. Has she been promoted to executive officer? (Wouldn’t that be quite the spirit of Next Generation, whose Enterprise-D radiated Silicon Valley family values with an onboard grade school and a neighborhood pub for Mom-and-Dad date nights?) Or is she giving up her work, settling down, raising a family? (I refuse to believe that — but maybe my family values aren’t your family values.)

Through a series of curious contrivances, the Enterprise is called to Romulus. There’s been a coup d’etat; the new man in charge is seeking peace. Shinzon’s first scene is shot in backlit darkness. This is one of the least subtle bad-guy introductions in movie history. And keep in mind, we’re coming off movies where the villains were a fascist cyborg and a nightmare vision of plastic surgery run amok.

Shinzon notices Troi. “I didn’t know you were so beautiful,” he tells her. “May I touch your hair?” In any other movie, this line would read as a bit of pervy character-building — a throwaway line, meant to further establish just how bad/weird the weird bad guy is. But soon enough, Nemesis takes us into Riker and Troi’s quarters. See the happy newlyweds, him working late, her ready for bed.

They begin to make love — and then the horror begins. Troi looks in a mirror — and the man she sees above her is not Riker, but Shinzon. And then Shinzon becomes the Viceroy — another horror, rendered in glowingly bat-faced nakedness.

“It was a violation,” is how Troi describes the telepathic assault, and the scene pushes Nemesis over the edge for plenty of people. This movie wasn’t supposed to end the 15-year-saga of the Next Generation cast, but even as far as accidental endings go, Nemesis is a wild bummer. (Death comes to the Enterprise-E, suddenly and with little fanfare.) The most common perception about Nemesis is that it was a work created by outsiders. The writer was new to the series; the director thought Geordi was an alien and digitally lowered Worf’s voice in post-production.

Never mind that terrible Trek movies like Generations and Insurrection and Search for Spock were made by some of the franchise’s greatest minds. Never mind that Nemesis is so obsessive in its Trekno-babble that Worf’s biggest line is a porn-y tactical analysis of Shinzon’s flagship. (“Fifty-two disruptor banks, twenty-seven photon torpedo bays, primary and secondary shields.”) Never mind that Brent Spiner receives a “story by” credit; never mind that Spiner and Patrick Stewart both give fascinating, deeply internal performances. The perception of Nemesis has always been that that it’s not Trek enough — a complaint that echoes forward to the Abrams movies.

“Not Trek enough,” “Not really Star Trek,” “Not true to Roddenberry’s vision,” “Completely misunderstands the franchise.” I hope it’s become clear over these last couple months that I respectfully believe that whole line of complaint is a hot load of bulls—. There is enough Star Trek to make anyone’s case for what Star Trek is supposed to be: It can be hard science-fiction, soft science-fantasy, a Western with rayguns, a workplace sitcom with Ferengi. Before Nemesis, Baird directed Executive Decision and U.S. Marshals, two of the finest B-minus movies ever made; they played great on USA and made excellent last-minute video rentals if Blockbuster was all out of Air Force One and The Fugitive.

In some respects, the tone of Nemesis reflects the vibe of those movies: grunty yet paranoiac action thrillers where straightforward plotlines (captive plane; man-on-the-run) get supercharged with hysterical sociopolitics. (The plane’s carrying a senator and a nerve-gas bomb! The fugitive’s a rogue government agent fleeing a Chinese double agent in the State Department!) We aren’t yet equipped to feel nostalgic for these movies, and maybe we never will be. They’re as gloriously dumb as any ‘80s beefcake Reaganite bulletfest, but they’re also as self-important as any bleak ’00s Homeland Security fable. This makes them simultaneously too goofy to be taken seriously but too barely realistic to watch for laughs. And so just when you want to laugh outright at Nemesis, it coughs up something disturbing, or genuinely tense, or sad.

But it’s easier to understand Nemesis when you factor in John Logan. Logan’s a Shakespeare fanboy, which means he understands the power of retelling an old story with new clothes. Any Given Sunday was originally King Lear in the NFL. His script for 2011’s Coriolanus translated one of the Bard’s least-loved plays into a savvy meditation on political power and public madness during neverending wartime. He wrote the final screenplay for Rango, which cleverly integrated a couple dozen ideas about the “Western” into a very American story about faking it till you make it. He co-wrote Skyfall, which is best understood as a matriarchal-Freudian reimagining of Paradise Lost. (Logan’s also been accused of doing all the weird stuff in Spectre, a movie which is only fun if you treat the weird stuff as gospel.)

And so even though I have no idea if it was intentional, I have to assume it was at least partially purposeful that Nemesis occasionally and specifically follows the structure of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The bad guy wants Picard’s blood. He preys upon a happy newlywed — with Troi taking the place of Mina, plucky marital helpmate to Stoker’s bland protagonist Jonathan Harker. In Stoker’s story, Dracula’s assaults on Mina have much more devastating and vastly less coherent effects: She kind of become a vampire, she’s kind of mentally linked to Dracula, she uses that barely-defined mental link to help the anti-Dracula squad track the Count down.

Nemesis barely has any time for the Enterprise crew. Baird was an editor before he was a director, and he was an editor after Nemesis ended his directing career. (Oddly enough, he edited Skyfall.) Producer Rick Berman later said that there were around 50 minutes of scenes deleted from the movie, many of them focused on little grace moments for the supporting cast. Those grace moments are banished from the final cut: This movie is a Picard-and-Data movie, and there’s little time for everyone else. (Hi, Wesley! Bye, Wesley!) For this reason, pretty much no one involved in Nemesis has nice things to say about Nemesis.

But, to give the movie a bit of credit: It does pick up on the triumphant part of the Mina Harker plotline. Troi uses her “Mental Link” with the Viceroy to turn the tide of battle. It’s a gas-leak riff on Troi’s powers — and I understand why a fan might scream “SHE’S AN EMPATH NOT A TELEPATH!” when Troi goes full Jean Grey in the climax. But Baird shoots her vengeance with a bit of poetry. When she hunts for the Viceroy, a single spotlight falls over her eyes — the kind of impressionistic effect that mostly departed Hollywood in the Sound Era.

The camera cut to the Viceroy, suddenly terrified, undone by his own powers — and then back to Troi, in a tearful and desperate close-up. She guides Worf’s hands over the weapons guidance system — an image which has its own unexplored resonance, since Worf and Troi were lovers for a hot second.

The Viceroy screams, “No!” Troi whispers, angrily triumphant: “Remember me?” It’s a stupidly powerful moment in a stupid, powerful movie — a sequence whose beats you may recall being played to much greater effect in Mad Max: Fury Road, right down to Charlize Theron as feminist avenger Furiosa whispering “Remember me?” to rape-culture patriarch Immortan Joe right before she ends him.

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Nemesis does to Trek continuity what graffiti artists do to burned-out buildings: Defaces it, debase it, but maybe also make it more colorful. The plot depends on everyone getting a lobotomy before the movie begins, and also depends on the universe being the size of a football field. The Enterprise-E picks up a positronic signature on a distant planet, so they land a dune buggy and discover a sibling-android to Data, thus finally letting us see what it would look like if Brent Spiner held his own head over his crotch.

Suddenly, the Enterprise is off to Romulus, and to the space vampires and the clone son. Aside from an opening CGI zoom, Romulus is played by a couple sets that make the whole planet look like a Rosicrucian student council, complete with stained-glass windows and a senate chamber with bathhouse walls.

The two plots are linked, though it requires several leaps to figure out why. Data’s android brother was “bait” that Picard “couldn’t refuse,” and he hacks into the Enterprise’s databanks. Except Picard figured the android brother (placed randomly on a non-spacefaring planet) was a ruse all along, and double-crosses Shinzon. Except none of that really matters, because all Shinzon wants to do is blow up Earth with “thalaron radiation.” And actually everything that happens in the first 3/4 of the movie is just a way to get the Enterprise into a spacefight — a spacefight that reaches its inevitable climax when Picard rams the Enterprise straight into Shinzon’s ship.

The space battle in Nemesis might be the best of its kind. It has the cat-and-mouse tension of the Nicholas Meyer movies, but also the special effects budget to just smash ships together onscreen. It gets the macro sci-fi stuff. A hole gets blasted in the Enterprise bridge, and the invisible force field gives everyone a direct view of Shinzon’s ship, an insectile monster lurking outside.

But the Nemesis finale is thrill-drunk enough to demand a final one-on-one showdown. “This time it’s personal” is one of those phrases that was invented as self-parody, and surely the idea of giving both Picard and Data their own mirror-image clone-sons counts as personal-stakes overkill. But Nemesis does feel closer to these characters, on a purely cinematic level. Baird likes to shoot Stewart in close-up, in the geometric middle of the frame, his face positively Mount Rushmore’d with lines of gravitas in shadow.

It’s a strategy he uses again, to devastating effect, in a later scene. Data has to shut down his android brother.

 “I have to deactivate you,” says Data. “For how long?” says his captured brother, naive and maybe just a little stupid. “Indefinitely,” says Data. “How long is that?”

Data shuts the android down. “A long time, brother,” he says, so poignantly deadpan that it brings a tear to your eye. Data was central to Next Generation fandom, and I’m still not sure Brent Spiner gets the credit he deserves. In this scene, he basically plays George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, with face makeup and vomit-yellow contact lenses.

Data dies in this movie. He jumps through space to rescue his Captain, and dies pointlessly firing a phaser at an exploding whatever. Very little of Nemesis stands up to plot scrutiny, which is why the film has such a bad reputation. So I have no clear idea why Picard beams over to Shinzon’s flagship for a final showdown, but it produces one of the most unforgettable images in any genre movie. How else do you kill a vampire? You put a stake in him.

It’s easy to watch Nemesis now and spot all the spiteful fun that Hardy is having. He has become such an essential part of our moviescape; you can appreciate his method-y affectations as deep character work. Sometimes, as in The Revenant, Hardy plays horrifying and funny at once. That’s the vibe you get from the final climax of Nemesis. Stabbed through the midsection, Shinzon pulls himself closer to Picard, until they’re breathing on each other.

There’s a nature-vs.-nurture theme running through Nemesis, the half-baked idea that Shinzon somehow is Picard, or some far-flung variation of Picard, raised in a mad world to become a mad man. This mostly plays out with a lot of talk about “mirrors” and the existential difference between the “voice” and the “echo.” (“What am I while you exist?” ponders Shinzon. “A shadow? An echo? I’m afraid you won’t survive to witness the victory of the echo over the voice.”)

But in this moment, you feel all those ideas. The look on Stewart’s face is magnificent: scared, astounded, horrified by what he has done and by what Shinzon has become.

But Shinzon is ecstatic. “I’m glad we’re together now,” he says. “Our destiny is complete.” And with that, Shinzon dies, falling forward onto his “father.” You can despise Nemesis — hell, you can hate Star Trek — and still get drawn into the goofy cosmic terror of this image.

Maybe you remember how, a few movies ago, Picard was worried about his legacy. Maybe you imagine what he must be feeling, having just killed the closest thing he will ever have to a biological son. Maybe that explains the look on Stewart’s face. This is not a man who looks ready to die; this is a man in the act of pondering what the hell he even lived for.

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Nemesis is trash from a time when franchises could still cook up trash, before every deep sequel became a paragon to bureaucratic efficiency and assembly line oligarchy. We’re in a weird moment now, where a certain brand of continuity pedantry has become an operating filmmaking aesthetic and a chief fanboy demand. A film like Captain America: Civil War gets praised for all its smooth edges — every character gets a character beat! — even though nothing in Civil War looks half as interesting as the Quicksilver sequence in the nutty X-Men: Apocalypse.

There’s an oddly prudish elitism in contemporary geek culture, a sense that things need to be “Important” to be good. At the risk of oversimplifying, I trace this to the outcry in early 2009, when The Dark Knight didn’t get a Best Picture Oscar nomination. The Dark Knight invented the scene every genre blockbuster has now, where an imprisoned antagonist in a glass prison soliloquizes to the protagonist about how good and evil are two sides of the same coin.

This scene strikes me as the Original Sin of contemporary geek culture. In Skyfall, in Avengers, in Civil War, and in Star Trek Into Darkness, that scene is repeated with ever-more-inflated self-importance, as if the filmmakers are demanding you to witness the power of pure themes. Of course, Dark Knight excepted, the themes are always undercooked; to make a movie about how heroes and villains aren’t that different, you need to make us believe for like two seconds that Kirk and Captain America and James Bond are remotely villainous. Actually, those scenes always feel like the kind of unloved-but-important crap that tends to earn Best Picture nominations. (Batman v Superman feels less like The Dark Knight than like Frost/Nixon, no disrespect to Christopher Nolan, all disrespect to Ron Howard.)

And so there’s something lovely in the mess they made of Nemesis. The movie is slow and ponderous, and it’s a remnant from a time when you could get away with lighting half the sets in a movie with a green light, and if you come to this hoping for some sort of Next Generation closure, all your hopes will disintegrate in front of your eyes like Romulans disintegrating on the floor of their own senate chamber.

Really, the story of the Next Generation cast ended in their perfect series finale. Their four movies were ellipses, not exclamation points; even First Contact looks in hindsight less like an expansion than a sidequel, setting up the back half of Voyager and the whole run of Enterprise. But they got something right in this final film, which lands on the total bummer that Data’s death doesn’t even merit a full-scale funeral. Data explodes — and the Romulans call the Enterprise, letting Picard know that they’re dispatching shuttles to help the wounded. 

“Prepare the shuttlebay for arrivals,” Picard says. (Keep in mind: This is a couple minutes after he stared his own monstrous death in the face.) “They…they don’t know our procedures.” He walks off the bridge, emotional. “Just open the doors.”

Later, Picard and his crew toast to their absent friend. Riker tries to remember the song Data was singing, the first time he saw him. “What was that song?” Riker says. “I can’t remember the song.” While Riker ponders this, the camera moves in to Picard’s face. He can’t remember, either; he frowns, and you feel that something has been lost from his whole universe.

In the movie’s final scene, he talks to Data’s android brother. He tries to explain Data, but actually it sounds like he’s explaining much more:

His wonder, his curiosity about every facet of human nature allowed us to see the best parts of ourselves. He evolved. He embraced change because he always wanted to be better than he was.

Can we indulge ourselves for a moment? Can we imagine that Picard is trying to say something about the whole mission of Starfleet — about the very idea of Star Trek? Trek’s curiosity about every facet of human nature allows us to see the best parts of ourselves; Trek evolved; Trek embraced change, because Trek always wanted to look a little cooler than it could.

“I do not understand,” says Data’s android brother. It’s a lot to take in; maybe too much. But Picard promises to talk to him later. And then the android starts to sing a song: “Blue Skies,” the tune Data sang at the Riker-Troi wedding. Picard helps him with the lyrics. And then — at the end of this very dark and very hopeless movie — he smiles. Maybe there is hope, after all. Maybe every voice is just an echo. Maybe someone will remember our song, and sing it.

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