'Generations' has gaps, but Picard and Co. are stellar

November 18, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Just when you thought that at last the campaign season was over, along comes "Star Trek Generations," which asks you to declare loyalty to either the Shatnerocrats or the Stewarticans.

Well, call me a Johnny-come-lately and a traitor to the cause, but I'm voting a nearly straight Stewart ticket, not only for the man himself, but also his cabinet, particularly Jonathan Frakes and Brent Spiner, who give the film, respectively, toughness and a comic sense. (I could do without the guy in the funny sunglasses, however.) But the best thing about "Star Trek Generations" is Stewart, as Captain Picard, and the way the movie allows this powerfully charismatic Englishman to swagger the center and take command of one of America's most cherished fables.

In fact, Stewart and Shatner do represent different generations -- that is, different theories of stardom. Shatner is definitely a nostalgic relic of the time when American stars had to be white-bread handsome; they had to have regular faces, square jaws, broad shoulders and a manly, Dudley Do-Right visage.

Their eyes gleamed with conviction but never intelligence. They had to have great hair, no matter what their DNA had ruled, and think of the poor innocent polyesters that died to provide camouflage for the Shatner dome. That's why he's so totally uninteresting. He's from the American star cookie cutter, circa 1965, and he was almost Jeffrey Hunter and he could have been Troy Donahue or Ray Danton, and no one would have noticed the difference.

Now Stewart: He's lanky, bony, has no petty vanities (as about hair). He projects force and intelligence and, although irregularly featured and boasting a schnozz that even the mighty Durante might admire, manages to dominate all the scenes he's in by sheer force of presence. He pretty much wipes poor, saintly old Shatner off the screen.

The plot is pretty dim stuff, what little of it I could follow. It begins with the death of Shatner in some typically bogus space emergency that is explained in blurts of technobabble so intense and without meaning as to be painful. (The movie is full of urgent speeches along the lines of, "My God, man, if the strato-ionizer indicator dial torques into the red zone, the refusion-powered dyno-energy generators will turn us into refried beans!" That's not an exact quote, but it could be.)

Shatner happily martyred, we flash forward 78 years into the future, where the Stewart team is busy rescuing people or whatever it is Starfleet does, when suddenly there's another crisis involving a mad scientist, a riptide in time, a star-destroying bomb and a rogue Klingon Bird of Prey that seems to have the Enterprise's number.

The cognoscenti will no doubt follow the plot permutations a little bit more easily than those of us on the outside. But even we of the uninitiated will appreciate the cleverly escalating tension, the enigma at the center of the mad scientist's plot (Malcolm McDowell is uncharacteristically modulated in his performance) and Captain Picard's cool stewardship of it, while fighting his own grief over the death of relatives.

I particularly enjoyed a battle between the Enterprise and the Bird of Prey that recalled the sub movies of World War II, as the two lob space torpedoes as each other. Actually, it's Frakes' steely exec officer who wins this fight, in the very best tight-lipped John Wayne tradition. Then, in a nice bit of comic relief, Spiner's Data receives an "emotion chip" implant and has to fumble through 241 separate human emotions.

But the movie deconstructs itself with a stunning bolt of bad judgment at the end. Just when the plot is at its most tense, it cuts away to "Nexus," a poorly conceptualized state of bliss that appears to place people in a virtual reality of their most passionate subconscious desires. There, thanks to a warp in time, Picard and Kirk, that is, Stewart and Shatner, at last meet.

If only the union of these two icons had some force! Director David Carson, a definite "Next Generation" sort, lets Shatner ham out in kind of wistful irony, trying to play light comedy against Stewart's tougher professionalism. The whole sequence doesn't work, and it yields, in turn, to a goofy climax on some rocks in the desert as Stewart and Shatner punch it out with McDowell, a villain who hardly seems worthy of their iconography.

At that point I was thinking, "Beam me to the parking lot so I can get out of here, Scotty."

"Star Trek Generations"

Starring Patrick Stewart and William Shatner

Directed by David Carson

Released by Paramount

Rated PG

** 1/2

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