Big things were expected of Star Trek: Generations prior to its 1994 release. The Next Generation’s first big-screen outing, coupled with appearances from Kirk and original cast members, had fans expectations at fever pitch. It did not live up. Sara Century warps back in time to reassess the much-maligned movie and see if it has improved with time.
Star Trek: Generations saw its 25th anniversary in 2019, which led to a series of thinkpieces either mildly defending the film or critically eviscerating it. Still, does Generations really deserve its designated status as “worst Star Trek movie?” The answer is “no,” but it’s still a bit of a mess.
The villain of the story is an El-Aurian named Soran. El-Aurians were nearly driven to extinction by the Borg, and Soran is unable to reconcile with the loss of his family and his home planet. Though this would seemingly put him on a similar plane of thought to Kirk (who, in the past, is experiencing retirement depression) and Picard (who, in the present, is mourning sudden deaths in his family), but that isn’t explored enough in-script to tie it all together. Soran plans to assimilate to the Nexus, which is loosely explained as a place of false joy. This would unfortunately wipe out an inhabited planet, so the Federation has to step in. Picard enters the Nexus to prevent Soran from fulfilling his plans and finds Kirk, who is experiencing an illusion of his past and who desires to start his life over and celebrate his relationships rather than sacrifice his life to his career. This is not to be, but this does yet still turn out to be Kirk’s final mission.
The two great Star Trek captains on screen together
Generations had an ingenious marketing campaign, including the first ever website built specifically to promote a film at a time when internet access was comparatively rare. There were also toys, a rad soundtrack, and an EW feature magazine. Regardless of where you stood on the film, 1994 was still a pretty good year to be a Trekkie in regards to schwag. Unfortunately, the downside of this was that leaked scripts were fairly rampant, so Kirk’s pending death had been spoiled for a major part of the audience before the film premiered.
It is also important to note that this film almost directly correlated with the production of the series finale of the show, which was written by the same creative team and fared much better for critical review. Unfortunately, stretching the writers too thin had its downside. One of the most promising concepts for a Star Trek film yet has to be the merging of the classic and current casts in a time-traveling extravaganza, but the script is low on character interaction outside of the standard dynamics of the shows. The humor is wedged in and a mission with Geordi and Data zaps almost as much screentime as the Picard and Kirk scenes for as little payoff. The Enterprise crashes and is destroyed, and two and a half ships full of people explode in deep space causing thousands of deaths, and there are almost no repercussions for these events.
Generations was widely criticized for working too hard to appease various threads of fandom, but the true issue is that it doesn’t actually appease any corner of Star Trek fandom. Important TNG cast members have next to nothing to do in the film, and the sparse original cast members outside of Kirk that do appear only do so in the first sequence. Nimoy passed on the script because he felt that Spock would be extraneous to the story, and, unfortunately, he was 100% correct about that. Even Kirk’s story in this film is as a b-plot to a movie that otherwise reads like a standard episode of TNG.
This film correlated with the production of the series finale of the show, which was written by the same creative team. Unfortunately, stretching the writers too thin had its downside.
From a critical standpoint, this film is easy to like but difficult to love, not necessarily because of the plot holes or the faulty science, but because much of the cast is completely out-of-character. James T Kirk goes out a hero, but much of the film is a gloss-over of his feelings around aging and regret but with none of the substance required to make the commentary work. Picard mourns a quiet family life, but that seems antithetical to what we know of him. An incoherent plot is not necessarily a dealbreaker in the Star Trek universe, but lack of meaningful character beats is.
That said, despite its failings, this is a movie you can still have a lot of fun with, because, in the end, it is still a very Star Trek movie. The quips might be out-of-place, but they are generally funny, and the commentary on regret and duty does allow for some memorable moments. Soran is an interesting villain, and even his extravagantly melodramatic dialogue is still believable when delivered by Malcolm McDowell. With almost no screentime to delve into his character, the sense of desperation and true weariness we get from him is still tangible.
In the end, Generations might not be your jam, and lord knows it’s disjointed, but it’s still not a bad movie. It certainly could have done better as a farewell to the original crew, and a better introduction to the TNG films, but 25 years later it’s a lot easier to view in context of a greater universe that continues to grow.