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

as reviewed by Dan

Format Reviewed: Blu-ray/Paramount Pictures (2016).

It is pretty much accepted as scripture that the finest Star Trek film remains Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). It was hailed upon its arrival as a taut and thrilling science fiction film: in other words precisely the opposite of its predecessor, which in the clumsy and rapacious hands of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, suffered from tonal confusion and an indulgent narrative. Wrath of Khan tackled thematic issues such as age, death and revenge, and the passage of time has only served to enhance the film’s legend. The more recent Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) was essentially an attempt to repurpose Wrath of Khan, only placing the story (and villain) within the remade ‘Kelvin’ timeline. For all its attempts at replication though, Into Darkness is a vastly inferior interpretation.

Wrath of Khan has loomed large over every subsequent Star Trek film - and there have been some great examples over the years - but only one has come close to rediscovering Khan’s true essence. Star Trek: First Contact (1996) is the eighth chronological release in the Star Trek movie franchise. It is also a Star Trek: The Next Generation-era film, meaning Jean-Luc Picard - not James T. Kirk - is captain of the Enterprise. First Contact was the first attempt at creating a true Next Generation movie. The seventh entry, Star Trek: Generations (1994), was almost a hybrid entity. It featured elements of both crews, and existed mostly to unite two captains of the Enterprise in a muddled and highly controversial story.

In First Contact everything gleams, right down to the new uniforms and of course, the utterly spanking Enterprise-E. The new starship was designed to be sleek and ultra-modern, yet evocative of the older incarnations of the ship. She is a thing of exquisite beauty, and should be required viewing for all current and future Star Trek visual designers. From a narrative standpoint, the film is immediately brisk and honed. We discover, via an unsettling and surreal dream sequence, that the focus of the story is Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard and his ultimate bête noire, the Borg. Trekkies and Trekkers alike had been yearning for a film focusing on the monolithic terror of the Borg Collective, alongside further exploration of Picard’s assimilation, in the legendary ‘Best of Both Worlds’ Next Generation story. Within twenty minutes of runtime an enormous space battle has occurred; Michael Dorn’s Worf - at that point a series regular on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - has been added to the story, and the time travel element of the plot has been established.

First Contact uses time travel in an intelligent fashion. The premise of the Phoenix launch is clearly understood, and represents a logical target for the Borg. The story is set in an historically speculative era. In narrative terms, it is both past (from the perspective of the Enterprise crew) and future (from that of the audience). This allows events to proceed organically without infringing on real life history or continuity. The film maintains a double-stranded narrative, telling two stories that do not fully coalesce until the climax. The pacing is exceptional, alternating effectively between story one - tension - and story two - lighthearted relief - with utmost efficiency. The characters of Zefram Cochrane - played with image-shattering charm by the always-dependable James Cromwell - and Alfre Woodard’s redoubtable Lily, add humanity to the occasionally po-faced Enterprise crew. They counterbalance the holier-than-thou attitudes of their newfound companions, be it through modesty, humour and a little liquor (Cromwell) or in the case of Woodard, the unwillingness to submit to false piety, and the willingness to call a spade a whale.

The original Borg were a medley of cables, tubes and a chalk-white pallor. This pseudo-gothic look was impressive but anodyne, failing to reflect the true horror of man being forcibly consumed by machine. The new Borg possess a more reptilian skin pigmentation, and are variously inspired by H.R. Giger (in the stylised ferocity of their appearance); Terminator (the use of crimson lights and penetration of the skin), and Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), in the grotesque body horror of the assimilation process. Their appearance is complimented by some choice cinematography, for they appear constantly immense and innumerable. Director Jonathan Frakes (who still finds time to play Will Riker in the film) revels in the tension before their initial reveal, shooting and framing at a distance, and using shadow and darkness as if directing a classic horror film. The initial attack sequence aboard the Enterprise is genuinely frightening, and is made all the more suspenseful by the genius of the late, great composer Jerry Goldsmith. His masterful score adds so much to this film. Goldsmith loved scoring Star Trek films, and they are much less for his absence.

A new addition to the Borg mythology is that of an individual figurehead, in the form of the Borg Queen. Her origins are left deliberately ambiguous. Rather than serving as a direct ‘leader’ of the hive mind, she is portrayed as a necessary controlling influence. It is even implied that she is immortal, although her literal destruction represents the end of the Borg in her immediate vicinity. She is granted a stunning reveal, entering the film as a disembodied head, shoulders and spine. Alice Krige’s subsequent performance is almost uncomfortably sexy. She is seduction incarnate as she tempts and tantalises, all the while remaining capable of the utmost menace. It is a striking performance. It helps that she spends much of the film sparring with Brent Spiner’s Data; a wise choice, for Spiner is one of the most under-appreciated actors of a generation. He can oscillate between childlike curiosity and profound wisdom almost on a whim, and their philosophical conversations are a highlight of the film.

The true story of First Contact concerns the trauma of a man who was corrupted and essentially raped. Patrick Stewart gives a mesmeric performance as an increasingly vengeful Picard. The dispassionate explorer of old gives way to a ‘soldier’, in Lily’s words, seeking to ‘hurt’ - again, Lily’s words - those who have wounded him. In a memorable bridge scene with Worf, Picard risks both death and the permanent destruction of a friendship out of rage-induced spite. All the folly inherent to the species is then laid bare, as Picard rants and smashes his models - the literal legacy of the Enterprise - to pieces, and vows to ‘make them pay for what they’ve done’. First Contact subverts the character roles seen in Wrath of Khan, but the central lesson of Moby Dick still applies. The only difference between Captain Ahab, Khan Noonien Singh and Jean-Luc Picard is ultimately, one chooses to quit. It is hugely ironic that in a story that is also about preserving a path towards greater enlightenment, it takes the words of a supposedly unenlightened soul to bring a ‘great’ man back to the light. Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan are different films, but one is the true spiritual successor of the other. That is high praise for any film, but for a Star Trek film, there is no higher acknowledgement.

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