Star Trek (VIII): First Contact (1996) – Directed by Jonathan Frakes – Starring: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, James Cromwell, Alfre Woodard, Alice Krige, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis, LeVar Burton, Gates McFadden, and Neal McDonough.
I wanted to call this reaction to STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT, “Repetitive But Awesome,” but it’s not really awesome movie and, “Repetitive But Very Good” just doesn’t ring loud enough. To be plain, FIRST CONTACT is a very good movie, despite going back to the Star Trek movie bag o’ tricks a few too many times. Another new ship? Another time travel story? Even more potentially damning is that we’re harkening back to Trek 1 and Trek 2 in that this is undoubtedly the Captain’s movie and everyone else has a secondary role.
And yet, FIRST CONTACT works. From start to finish, this is a highly engaging, expertly paced science-fiction movie that is completely accessible to new fans (or newish fans, maybe) while still apparently rewarding to long-term fans, drawing on the television show to help layer the contextual complexities. I’m guessing on that, since I’m not a long-term fan (I watched the first season and a half of The Next Generation before it stopped holding my interest), but there appears to be several nuggets in there for the TV fans: the nod to a Borg episode, the gesture to a relationship of some kind between Riker and Troi, the inclusion of actors from other programs, and the inclusion of the crazy guy from the A-Team who had a bit part on the show are just the things I picked up. There’s probably more for people who actually care.
This is clearly Picard’s movie, however. From start to finish, it’s the Captain who’s front and center in this film’s vision and that’s a wise choice since Patrick Stewart is the best actor of the lot. (This is not to say the others are terrible, merely that he is the best.) The film basically gives everyone else just one or two signature scenes, but they’re all important to furthering the overall plots of ship and Earth, and not just to furthering Picard’s plot.
The plot is blessedly straight-forward. The Borg are headed for Earth, the Federation blows up their Big Cube Ship, which spits out their Golf Ball Ship, which heads back in time to stop James Cromwell from taking the first warp drive flight into space, which will prevent the First Contact with an alien species. Which, lucky for everyone except for people who like to see fighting in movies, means Vulcans.
There are three separate plots going on, but the script from Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, and the direction of Frakes keeps it all going swimmingly. I’m never lost in this film, nor am I left wondering what happened to that other plot thread.
The main plot is Picard’s. The Enterprise stops the Golf Ball Ship, but somehow the Borg get aboard the Enterprise and start assimilating it. There are two sub-plots: one on Earth where Riker’s away team is getting Zefram Cochrane’s rocket ship into space, and one where Data is strapped to a table and measured up by the Borg Queen to be a mate.
The movie opens with Picard dreaming about his time with the Borg and then he wakes up to find that a Borg ship is headed for Earth. Clearly and succinctly, he tells us what this means: “The moment I have dreaded for nearly six years has finally arrived. The Borg, our most lethal enemy, have begun an invasion of the Federation, and this time, there may be no stopping them.”
The line is a bit melodramatic, but Stewart puts just the right quiver in his voice to pull it off. Which is critically important with a script from Moore and Braga, who do seem to have a penchant for overwrought melodrama and cheeseball lines. In the hands of a good actor, the line can often be salvaged; in the hands of lesser talents, or with lesser characters, it comes off pretty dreadful.
Here’s just a sampling of the stink bomb lines delivered in FIRST CONTACT:
From Data: “Captain, I believe I speak for everyone here sir, when I say….To hell with our orders.” A cheese line delivered by a lame-ass character. We’re supposed to go, “Hooray!” because it’s the formerly emotionless robot being emotional, but Leonard Nimoy did the same bit better in an earlier film. Plus, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it, but Data is a lame-ass character. I think the line would’ve worked better coming out of Troi’s mouth, because she seems like the meekest person on the bridge.
From Cochrane: “And you people, you’re all … astronauts … on … some kind of star trek.” Ha! It’s funny, right? Because he said the name of the movie? No, it’s not. We’ve already got everyone saying “First Contact” every other Earth scene. That’s enough.
From Picard (proving not even a good actor can save a crap line): “Reports of my assimilation are greatly exaggerated.” First, Mr. Ego Pants, no one was talking about your assimilation. Get over yourself.
From Worf: “Assimilate this!” as he blows up a beacon.
From Data: “Resistance is futile!” as he betrays the Borg Queen.
Remember, I liked this movie.
The Borg is headed for Earth and Picard has been assimilated and escaped in the past, meaning he has more experience dealing with these highly competent Cybermen than anyone, so of course they make him stay out in the Neutral Zone. It’s just such a stupid move. If they don’t want Picard near the Borg because they’re worried he’ll go techno on them, they should at least keep him out of the way but on the phone so he can help strategize.
Instead, they just ground him, but things go to crap so Picard channels his inner Kirk and disobeys orders to head for Earth to battle the Borg. It’s a good thing he does, because we get the best space battle scene of the franchise, so far, as a whole mess of ships go at it with the Borg Cube.
(Some of the ships are even from other movie franchises – not that I noticed it in the movie, proving once again that the internet is occasionally good for things other than people pretending to be a frog puppet and singing Radiohead songs.)
They end up going to the past as the very cool looking Enterprise-E follows the Borg through a time vortex and the film quickly segments into its three separate plot threads.
The Picard plot is the centerpiece of the film. He goes to Earth to look for Cochrane and then heads back to the Enterprise in time to be stuck there to deal with the Borg assimilation. If there was any doubt that this was going to be Picard’s film it’s that he even bothers to go to Earth for the cup o’ coffee on the planet’s surface. There’s really no reason for him to go down instead of Ryker, since this plot thread gets handed off to the ship’s Commander, except that the film wants Picard to be out front all the time.
All of the Enterprise scenes between the remaining crew (including principle characters Picard, Worf, Crusher, Data, and Neal McDonough) and the Borg are effectively done, despite the lameness of the Borg drones.
There’s really only one failing with Frakes’ direction and that’s with the Borg drones, who never come off as a real threat. They’re creepier when they’re half human, but once they’ve hit their final form and gone all grey and metal, they’re just sort of stupid, really. It’s like fighting an army of some weird love children of Dengar and IG-88, who fight with all the athleticism of C-3P0. They’re so slow, and slow sluggish, that they swarm like sleepwalking ants, and so what makes them effective is that, despite all that lameness, you can’t stop them. They march eternally forward, conquering and assimilating, and Frakes never finds a way to shoot them that makes them a threat.
There’s no sense that the Borg are conquering large sections of the ship. He should’ve taken his cues from a movie like Alien, where the main characters are given less and less room to operate. Instead, the action with the Borg is always far enough away from the bridge that except for a few scenes where there’s laser blasts going off, they’re a threat in the abstract more than in reality.
Picard eventually decides that he’s going to make a stand instead of abandoning ship and Alfre Woodard gets all up in his face about it. There’s a bunch of allusions to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, with Picard taking the Ahab role and the Borg taking the white whale role and no one taking the Ishmael role. (I find it funny that the producers were apparently hesitant to use it since there were Moby-Dick allusions in Wrath of Khan, but had no qualms about reusing time travel for the 85th time.) Picard decides she’s right and agrees to blow up the ship (for the 89th time) but then he stays behind to rescue Data.
The Data sub-plot involves him being coerced by the Borg Queen. It’s Data, so it’s lame, but she wins points with me for telling him he talks too much, just as Picard won points earlier for telling him to shut off his emotion chip so he’d stop acting like an anxiety-ridden nancy boy. There’s nothing else interesting here with Data, and it’s the least used of the three sub-plots. The Borg Queen grafts some real skin on his body and blows on it and then they talk about him being sexually functional and then they suck face.
When Picard comes to save him he’s all, “I’ll sacrifice myself to you, Borg Queen” and she’s all, “I’ve already got me a real man,” and Data’s all, “I’ll pretend to join the Borg and then pull a swerve and save the day.”
It’d be far more interesting if they actually turned him evil, had Picard defeat him, and then had the next movie concentrate on Data’s redemptive quest, but they didn’t, so all we get is a well-executed if totally predictable ending.
The third sub-plot focuses on the away team (Riker, Geordi, Troi) getting Cochrane’s ship ready to take its historic flight. This is the light-hearted half of the film. There’s apparently no knowledge on the planet about the Borg, which allows them to make jokes about peeing in the forest. Troi gets a scene where she’s drunk and it’s semi-amusing. Geordi plays all hero worship with Cochrane and it’s okay, but the best part with him all movie is that he finally got rid of that ridiculous eye gear in favor of super contacts. Riker is surprisingly absent from doing anything of value in the film, but he shows up now and then to be supportive and grin.
The scenes on Earth provide a nice balance to the heaviness of the Enterprise sequences.
All-in-all, a good film. There’s plenty of little moments that don’t work, but the overall push forward of this film keeps everything flowing. The three plots are all interesting and the movie deftly switches you from one to the other, never stopping to spend too much time thinking about any one thing. It’s a smart trick – to give the Riker and Picard plots a deadline so you have to keep moving. Picard can’t think too much because of the Borg presence and Riker has to be single-minded in his pursuit to get Cochrane on his ship. The scene where Cochrane launches into space with a grinning Riker and Geordi aboard works wonderfully, the ricketiness of the Phoenix contrasted nicely with the smooth-running Enterprise. When the Vulcans arrive at the end of the movie, it feels properly historic and important.
FIRST CONTACT is a mature, slick, action movie carried to success largely by Patrick Stewart giving just the right weight to the center of the movie.