Pros:Stewart, Spiner, Cromwell; smart & witty writing; Frakes' strong direction
Cons:The Borg are visually creepy.
The Bottom Line: ~ "Live long and prosper."
My family has been in Star Trek mode recently. Not long ago, we introduced our nine year old daughter to some episodes from the original series, and she appears to have all the makings of a major fan! But while looking forward to more Trek fun to come, my husband and I have been wanting to see some of the great Trek moments we missed – and we suddenly realized we’d never seen First Contact.
First Contact was the eighth feature film made in the Star Trek universe, but it holds the distinction of being the first film to feature only cast members from Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), the first sequel to the original series that ran from 1987-1994. The fact that the show had only been off the air for a couple of years when this film was released may have had something to do with how well it was received by its audience. On the other hand, it could just be the audience was smart. This is a terrific film: well-written, fast-paced, funny and poignant (in all the appropriate moments). It was directed by TNG cast member Jonathan Frakes, who also reprises his role as Commander Riker.
The major conflict in the film comes between the Enterprise, mostly particularly Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the frightening cybernetic aliens known as the Borg. If you remember your TNG, Picard was once assimilated into the Borg collective but was rescued. He still has nightmares about it, which is one reason the Enterprise is at first held back from being part of a Federation effort to engage and fight the Borg when it becomes clear the Borg are attempting to go back in time and change Earth history. Their ultimate goal, as always, is total assimilation (remember their tag line is “resistance is futile”). They want to swallow up other races and plug them into the Borg hive mind. In this particular case, they’ve apparently decided that the easiest way to assimilate humanity is to disrupt earth history at a very crucial point.
The point they choose is “first contact” – the day in 2063 when a human being made the first warp flight, drawing the attention of a nearby alien race, thus ultimately opening the door for intergalactic space travel. The human being who makes the first warp flight is Zephram Cochran, an historic/iconic figure in the Star Trek universe. The filmmakers did two tremendous things with the Cochran character: they wrote him in a way that defies all the historical trappings (including the trappings they might have felt mired in given the character’s role in a second season episode of the original series back in the 1960s) and they gave the role to the brilliant actor James Cromwell. Cromwell seems to have a wonderful time playing Cochran as a very smart but very earthy, eccentric man who has no sense of his ultimate rendezvous with history and literally runs away from it, in a near panic, when it finally confronts him.
While part of the TNG cast is on earth helping Cochran repair his warp-drive ship and face up to his destiny, the rest of them are on the orbiting Enterprise battling the Borg. They’ve taken over several decks and are infesting the entire ship. This is particularly bad news for Data, the delightful android-fascinated-by-all-things-human (Brent Spiner) who has been taken hostage by the Borg but is proving to be a rather fascinating challenge to their assimilation efforts since he has no organic parts.
The “back on earth” and “up on Enterprise” scenarios lend themselves well to a back and forth pace that really keeps the plot humming along. Frakes does a great job of balancing the two story-lines. The on-ship battle against the Borg is appropriately creepy, filled with lots of scary visuals of the cybernetic aliens and especially their queen (Alice Krige) and a few really cool ones, like the time we see the Borg advancing like a robotic army down one of the ship’s darkened corridors, the red lights on their visored eyes playing an eerie sort of laser tag in the darkness. The Borg really are creepy, though they’re adaptability and invincibility make them feel a little derivative of other zombie-like sci-fi and fantasy creatures.
Set against the futuristic things going on up on Enterprise, it’s almost a relief every time we cut back to 21stcentury Earth, especially because the filmmakers have such a delightful time playing with the whole Cochran legacy. You have to be willing to suspend your disbelief and overlook some potential time-space continuum messes, but it’s still a heck of a lot of fun to see Riker (Frakes) and engineer Geordi (LeVar Burton) along for the ride on the first warp flight.
To up the ante, one of Cochran’s 21 century assistants, a woman named Lily (Alfre Woodard) ends up wounded and has to be transported back to the Enterprise. She’s not only surprised to wake up in the future but in a future where the people around her are battling for their lives, and she ends up having to gamely enter the battle herself, bonding with Picard as they adventure onward. This sub-plot had the potential to be the most ungainly bit of the storyline, but Stewart and Woodard give it appropriate emotional gravitas and levity, as needed, and somehow it all works. Picard’s emotional tight-rope in this film is especially fascinating to watch, as he battles his Borg demons and his desire for revenge and tries to hold those things in tension with his need to be a good captain. I liked the way he comes into conflict (and then later resolution) with Lt. Commander Worf (Michael Dorn) one of my favorite TNG characters.
Star Trek: First Contact is an extremely well-crafted, fun ride for Star Trek fans. It’s easy to see why this was one of the top-grossing films in the Star Trek franchise.
Fans of the later prequel show Enterprise will enjoy the fact that this film was mined for at least two important storylines/story moments in that show – an altered first contact in the mirror universe, and a very early 22nd century conflict with the Borg that inadvertently comes about because of the battle in this film.
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