Janus Film Review Presents: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

as reviewed by Tom

Format Reviewed: DVD/Paramount Pictures (2005).

My fellow Janus Film Review scribe Dan, and I went to see Star Trek: First Contact in the cinema on January 1st 1997. Trivia fact aside, the film still holds a power and fascination for me, precisely because it is the best of the Next Generation films, and I think I instinctively knew it would not be surpassed. Of the four Next Generation-era films, Generations and Insurrection had very interesting ideas, but felt like extended TV episodes, and Nemesis could not quite deliver on its initial promise.

First Contact, on the other hand, sits in the upper echelons of the Trek movies, and is immediately cinematic, zooming out through the lens of Captain Jean Luc Picard’s eye to reveal a familiar (to Star Trek fans at least) cube ship. Picard (Patrick Stewart) has had recurring nightmares and a premonition about the return of his most personal of enemies, the terrifying Borg. Six years previously (in a feature length Next Generation story), Picard had been captured and ‘assimilated’ into the Borg collective. This experience has clearly scarred him deeply as we meet him at the beginning of First Contact. Starfleet have engaged the Borg in a new battle, but are reticent to let Picard take charge of the mission for fear of introducing an ‘unstable element to a critical situation’. Thus, the U.S.S. Enterprise and her crew have been sent to patrol the Neutral Zone, well out of the way of direct conflict. In true Next Generation style, Picard calls a board meeting with his senior officers to discuss their plan of action. We waste no time in discovering that the Borg have travelled back in time to assimilate Earth and prevent the discovery of warp drive. No warp drive means no first contact - humanity’s first encounter with an alien race.

There is something heartening about the fact that the man who invented warp drive, Zefram Cochrane (played by James Cromwell), is portrayed as a cynical drunk. He is a man who is not quite ready to make history, completely unaware of the impact his endeavours will have on the future. As someone who hates flying, he cannot quite compute the fact that he will be travelling at the speed of light. As the reality of his historical achievement sets in, he wants to escape both his present and his future, exclaiming things like “I don’t want to be a statue!”, and raising his hands to the sky in bemusement when informed that he has a college named after him. There is much fun to be had watching the Enterprise crew engaging in some hero worship over this gallant figure from their own history, only to realise that the reality is somewhat different. In a manner similar to Star Trek’s previous Earth-based adventure (the incredibly entertaining The Voyage Home), modern day or near-future Earth is not yet the idealistic utopia the Star Trek Universe aspires to be. In one scene that doesn’t quite work, Counsellor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) finds this out the hard way, getting drunk with Cochrane in order to ‘blend in’. It is not the first time Star Trek has indulged in slapstick, but on this occasion, it’s a scene that feels superfluous to the main action.

First Contact is directed by cast member Jonathan Frakes (Commander Riker), who displays a stylish, elegant and gritty flair. He handles the dramatic stakes and the natural comedy with a balanced light touch. The cast are so established in their roles that one imagines he just had to point the camera and let them do their thing, and so could focus his attention on the excellent visual effects and telling an engaging story. In a much-lauded effects sequence, the sinister Borg Queen (Alice Krige) is introduced as an enigmatic talking head with scorpion-esque spinal column which is gradually lowered to rejoin her cybernetic body. Brent Spiner again proves his chameleonic abilities as an actor, despite really only having to flick between ‘Data with emotions’ and ‘Data without emotions’.

The film continues Picard’s evolution from the intellectual diplomat of the television series to the cerebral action hero that was started in the previous film, Generations. To emphasise this, he starts off in his Starfleet uniform and later battles the Borg Queen - John McClane style - hanging from a cable in a vest. In one pivotal moment, Picard’s stubbornness over his connection to the Borg gets the better of him, resulting in an inadvisable fall out with Worf, and leading to one of the finest scenes in Star Trek history. Stewart brings his Shakespearean prowess fully to bear as Picard is called to account by Alfre Woodard’s Lily Sloane over whether he is working for the good of humanity or out for personal revenge. It is performed exquisitely by both actors, and supported by superb scripting.

The closing act of First Contact is the usual race against time, or in this case, race to rendezvous with established history. In that way, it is the least interesting part of the story. However, Cochrane finally engaging with an alien lifeform is suitably Spielberg-esque in its execution. Both Close Encounters and, in one intentional or not reference to its score, E.T. are subtly alluded to. And if you are fascinated by how a Vulcan would react to Roy Orbison’s ‘Ooby Dooby’, then this is the film for you.

Independence Day is often deemed the best science fiction action film of 1996. It may not be the most iconic, but my dearest affections rest squarely with Star Trek: First Contact. The Next Generation crew were worthy of a classic Star Trek film, and First Contact made it so.

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