In reviewing any "Star Trek" movie you're grading on an exceedingly generous curve. This is because Trek fellow travelers -- viewers fondly disposed toward one or all of the "Star Trek" TV shows, a far larger universe than the hardcore Trekkies and the loyal but less obsessive Trekkers -- will find some reason to enjoy virtually any major product of the Paramount/Roddenberry empire, no matter how risible it may be. (The preview audience with whom I watched "Star Trek: Insurrection" cheered lustily when the words "A Jonathan Frakes film" appeared on the screen, signifying that the actor who plays Commander Riker has followed Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner into the director's chair.) The rest of humanity, on the other hand, may find themselves dragged to this movie under relationship duress or because "The Waterboy" is sold out, but would basically prefer to see anything else, short of a Psychic Friends infomercial or the impeachment hearings.
That said, "Insurrection," the ninth Hollywood film generated by the Trek franchise and the third to feature the "Next Generation" crew of the Starship Enterprise, is a satisfactory deal for both parties. Outsiders will find this schtick-laden, mildly exciting adventure yarn an inoffensive triviality, while fans will savor one more encounter with Picard, Riker, Data, Worf and the gang, replete with all the well-worn character tics and platitudinous parables about the contemporary world they expect. But as crew 2.0 moves deep into middle age, a certain sweetness and sadness now enfolds the whole, er, Enterprise. If Captain Kirk's intergalactic tomcatting stood for the confident, expansionist liberalism of the original "Star Trek," the tender yet standoffish romanticism of Patrick Stewart's Captain Picard, who endures yet another chaste midlife love affair in "Insurrection," represents the restrained masculinity of a far cagier era.
As a leather-faced alien named Ru'afo (onetime Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, chewing the scenery in one of the Trek villain roles traditionally awarded to aging character actors) observes early in "Insurrection," the Federation has grown old. Hemmed in by the faceless minions of the Borg and the Dominion, and constrained by internal divisions and opinion polls, the once-intrepid warriors of Starfleet are reduced to running diplomatic errands and policing territorial disputes. (Geez, where do they come up with this stuff?) So a just providence draws the Enterprise to the world of the Ba'ku, a blissed-out humanoid race who emigrated to a distant planet 300 years earlier, where the ambient "metaphasic radiation" has ensured that they grow constantly younger.
Ru'afo and the Son'a, his dying race -- along with some corrupt Federation bureaucrats -- plan to cleanse the Ba'ku off the planet and steal their fountain of youth. Of course, the only righteous thing for Picard and his crew is to try to thwart their evil plan. As the captain solemnly intones, those who forget the lessons of history, yada yada yada. (I'm paraphrasing.) But virtue has its fringe benefits: After landing on the magical planet, Picard notices his wrinkles fading and his physique tightening. The luscious Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) observes that her "boobs have started to firm up" and rekindles her long-dormant romance with Riker, who loses his Mephistophelean beard but finds his dessert-enhanced waistline curiously unaffected by the planet's healing powers.
If the Ba'ku civilization is the best notion of paradise that director Frakes and screenwriter Michael Piller can come up with, I'll take the inferno, please. An oppressively wholesome commune of hacky-sack-playing Caucasian Luddites growing organic veggies in what is obviously a rural California valley, the Ba'ku are the perfect society as represented in a New Yorker cartoon. Donna Murphy glows sweetly through her role as an earth-mother type who entrances Picard with her low-rent psychic powers, but this entire area of "Insurrection" feels like a feeble effort to recapture the naive idealism that underpinned the original show. Once "Star Trek" was rooted in boundless optimism about a multicultural, technologically liberated human future; now it is rooted in nostalgia for the era when we could imagine such a future.
In the wake of "The Truman Show" and "Pleasantville," 1998 has now produced three major films more or less based on the Eden fable (I smell an earnest film-critic essay in the works), and "Insurrection" is easily the goofiest of them. But if high spirits and energetic computer graphics are all that Frakes' film has going for it, both are in abundant supply. Deadpan android Commander Data (Brent Spiner) has evolved into the Enterprise's class cut-up, singing an impromptu trio from "H.M.S. Pinafore" with Picard and Worf (Michael Dorn), or helpfully announcing, "In the event of a water landing, I am designed to serve as a flotation device." Ru'afo may not be among the most memorable Trek nemeses, but the story has enough plot switchbacks, space battles and gizmo wizardry to ensure that most viewers won't forget the film until at least the next morning.
Whatever genuine pathos "Insurrection" possesses doesn't come from the intertwined histories of the Ba'ku and the Son'a, which, in classic "Star Trek" fashion, seek to echo both Biblical narrative and events in contemporary Eastern Europe. Thankfully, this movie has too much good-natured vaudeville in its soul for such portentous significance to amount to anything. But I did feel a twinge of sadness at what might be called the movie's meta-narrative. As the still-magnetic Stewart leads his graying cast and their fans away from the planet of eternal youth and toward the unexplored galaxies that lie past middle age (where Kirk, Spock and the rest of the original crew have already disappeared), you get the sense that pop culture's first and greatest sci-fi empire is entering its twilight.