JFR 016 | Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Updated: Jan 29



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 (1966-1969) 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 (1993-1999) - 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 Shin'ya 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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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, Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) had very interesting ideas, but felt like extended TV episodes, and Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) 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 Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)), 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 of the Third Kind (1977) and, in one intentional or not reference to its score, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) 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.


The 'Next Generation' crew were worthy of a classic 'Star Trek' film, and First Contact made it so.

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