Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Star Trek: The Original Series took an interestingly circuitous and winding pop culture path – a short-lived, cancelled television show followed by an almost decade-long break before returning as a six-part film series that would stretch across three decades before ending on a pretty high note (and not even counting the rebooted film series almost 20 years later). Much was made about The Next Generation being “passed the torch” both during its TV run as well as when its own film franchise kicked off in 1994. Unfortunately, despite TNG’s much longer TV series, larger fan base, and more studio resources than Trek had ever seen, its film franchise never materialized as a worthy successor. For a myriad of reasons, that same lightning in a bottle could not be harnessed for Picard and company’s big screen adventures over the long haul. Star Trek Generations was ambitious but flawed, and the less said about Insurrection and (ugh) Nemesis, the better. But for a shining moment, the stars aligned to produce TNG’s best film adventure, the terrific First Contact. The magic wouldn’t last sadly, but it still holds up as a bold and confidently-made adventure worthy of the excellent show that begat it.
In the first two TNG films there are some interesting parallels to the first two TOS films. The first of each series were very ambitious and high-minded big budget sci-fi concept stories that mostly failed to coalesce as engaging stories. The sequels to these films were more modest and stripped-down affairs and both have the overall feel of “bottle episodes.” Bottle episodes can often be the highlights of TV series because of their better adherence to the principles of strong storytelling. The Wrath of Khan and First Contact both succeed because of their emphasis on characters and personal storylines, a dash of humor and wit, exciting and memorable action setpieces, and the humanistic themes that speak to the core of Star Trek itself (interestingly, both films also present a more militaristic Starfleet, and their adventures suit this more hard-edged, action-packed mindset that succeed on the big screen).
First Contact isn’t flawless, and it makes some interesting (and even odd) choices within the framework of Star Trek’s internal continuity. But separating it from its franchise mythos and judging it as its own animal, it’s a terrific blockbuster in all respects. Audiences seemed to agree, and it attained the highest gross of any Trek film up to that point. Years before the nerds completely assimilated pop culture, it was intensely gratifying for me to see my favorite property achieve its highest measure of mainstream success, as well as critical acclaim. It accomplishes the incredibly daunting task of utilizing the elements of the TV show while still being entertaining and accessible to new, unfamiliar audiences. Like the also great Undiscovered Country, it just works on every level and succeeds in what it sets out to do as a film.
There’s a confident tightness to everything in First Contact that makes it such a watchable and successful film. The first 30 minutes or so exemplify the efficient breeziness that powers the film. It’s impressive how much material is packed into the first act and how quickly it’s able to dive into the main course of the story. In quick succession we get: a disturbing flashback to Picard’s Borg days as Locutus (delivered as a dream-within-a-dream jump scare), the new Enterprise-E, a Borg attack, a senior staff meeting, Geordi’s new eyes, Starfleet’s lack of confidence with Picard where this adversary is concerned, a big space battle (where the toughest ship ever gets destroyed), Worf on the Defiant, a nefarious time travel attack, another brief battle, the war-torn backstory of 21st century Earth, and the introduction of the man who would inadvertently lead humanity out of it – Zefram Chochrane (in itself a callback to an Original Series episode). Whew!
It’s a ton of plot points to barrel through, but the fluidity with which the film handles this breakneck pace is impressive. It’s leagues above the more ponderous, complicated, and slow-moving Generations. In comparison, First Contact has a more refined and propulsive energy. There’s perhaps a bit of an incongruity in how quickly it moves initially before downshifting to a much slower and procedural pace for the second and third acts.
Jonathan Frakes is (still) one of the most prolific actor-directors of the franchise. As a director he doesn’t show a ton of artistic flair here, but there’s a workmanlike competency that keeps the action and plot beats moving efficiently. First Contact lacks the epic grandeur of Generations, but it’s also unburdened by the massive amount of baggage that weighed that first film down. As a result it’s able to soar as a sophomore outing and come into its own as a separate film franchise.
Using the TV series’ most memorable and fearsome villain is a smart and effective choice. The Borg are one of sci-fi pop culture’s most enduring bad guys because of their simple and enticing premise. It works well for a movie because there isn’t a complicated backstory to the Borg that the audience needs to familiarize themselves with. They’re cybernetic zombies with a hive mind and they kill or absorb anyone who gets in their way. Period. There’s also not any individuals among them (well, with one huge exception that the film introduces), so there aren’t any Borg characters you need to know about. Dramatically, they come in a self-contained package that speaks for itself. The overall plot of the film is thus a struggle between the heroes and a clearly-defined, deadly adversary that makes for a bold, effective adventure.
There’s always been a certain incongruity between TV Trek and film Trek that seems inherent to the appeal of the franchise, as well as the strengths of both mediums. Though it features action, Trek is generally a talky, philosophical, and more high-minded property. As opposed to Star Wars, it focuses on ideas, science fiction concepts, ethics, morality, and its characters’ struggles with all of these (as well as good old fashioned interpersonal drama). These qualities don’t often have a place in modern big budget movies unfortunately, so Trek’s film entries have often leaned on the action and fireworks to round things out as more traditional cinematic romps. The Motion Picture probably represents the purest translation of Star Trek’s science fiction aspects and themes on the big screen, but it’s also a glacial and interminable film that doesn’t really work. Wrath of Khan, Search For Spock, and Undiscovered Country successfully split the difference between high-minded ideals and fast-paced action.
First Contact follows this path and was the most action-packed (and violent) Star Trek adventure yet. But it takes care to also lean on the humanism and idealism that gives the franchise its personality. Another smart decision of the film is its split structure (a generally winning formula that takes a lesson from Empire Strikes Back). While Picard, Worf, Crusher, Data (and Lily) battle the Borg on the Enterprise, Riker, Troi, La Forge (and Barclay!) assist Zefram Cochrane in making humanity’s first warp flight. They’re both very different plot lines that allow the film to have its cake and eat it, too. Down on Earth we get to have the talky scenes that make Star Trek great, and on the ship we have action and adventure that make for a good blockbuster. It also mirrors the A-plot/B-plot structure of many episodes of the show, without diminishing either story – they both seem equally important in their own way.
The film uses the history of the franchise to spotlight a pivotal moment of humanity we had never heard about before (and which gives us the name of the movie) – first contact with aliens. It’s an unexpected choice but presents one of many interesting dichotomies throughout. Star Trek takes place in a future utopia but the film travels back to one of humanity’s most difficult dystopic periods (not the first time the franchise has done this) – the aftermath of World War III (uh, timely!). First Contact is ultimately the origin story of Star Trek itself, and features the inflection point where humanity began to overcome its many problems to become the idealistic people fans have been following since The Original Series first aired. It’s an incredibly ambitious story choice that the film gives appropriate weight, nuance, and humor to for a great payoff.
That dramatic weight of first contact is a plot point that the film leans into hard for both serious and comedic effect. Again, it’s one of many interesting dichotomies that makes for a fun time. This is personified in the character of Zefram Cochrane, played with great cantankerous aplomb by James Cromwell. Rather than being the wise and graceful Great Man of history the crew expects him to be, he’s a drunken, selfish, angry, and fearful person who only wants to profit off of his great invention. It’s a daring (and often funny) choice that plays out beautifully because he functions as an avatar of humanity itself, and his character’s journey throughout the film foreshadows humanity’s growth after first contact. Cochrane begins the film as a bitter and cynical man interested only in profit and disgusted by (and frightened of) his supposed place in history. But the unassailable sincerity of the Enterprise crew does seem to wear him down, and participating in the groundbreaking warp flight fundamentally changes him in a way that sets him on the path to becoming what history remembers him for. Cromwell portrays the full spectrum of these feelings so beautifully – he drips with sneering contempt that eventually gives way to wide-eyed, starry amazement upon leaving Earth and eventually meeting the Vulcans.
There’s something wistfully meta about his journey that plays upon the appeal of Star Trek. It’s easy to be cynical and pessimistic about the world – safe, even. Nurturing hope and optimism is more of a challenge, but it’s essential to creating a better world. It’s something that most Star Trek fans share, and the vision of Trek’s utopia has won over all of them, the way that a glimpse at a larger universe (and better future) wins over Cochrane.
The pivotal moment of Cochrane’s story is his chat with Riker in the cockpit of the Phoenix missile/ship (a thematic contrast the film points out through Data – turning a horrible weapon into a bridge to a better world). He confesses his small and selfish motivations for inventing faster-than-light technology and dispels any notions of being a Great Man. Frakes kills it in this scene as well, and I love the restrained, giddy glee with which he drops Cochrane’s own future quote on his cynical ass – “Don’t try to be a Great Man. Just be a man, and let history make its own judgments.” It’s a great illustration of Star Trek’s humanistic themes (though a little sexist in its wording, which is definitely on brand). It’s also equally poignant and hilarious, a balance the film strikes so well. Trek’s heroes are all preternaturally smart and capable people, but what makes them remarkable are the more down-to-earth values they embody – honor, bravery, grace, honesty, altruism. They’re qualities we all need to strive for, and ones the various series have always emphasized – despite the challenges involved.
These same themes apply to the other half of the movie aboard the Enterprise in Picard’s journey. In a way, Picard also has to (re)discover the meaning of grace and altruism in a much more rocky and dramatic fashion. It’s an interesting story choice, and a bit more controversial in its execution. His tragic backstory with the Borg is something the show mined for emotional material on a couple of occasions (and served as the origin of Deep Space Nine, lest we forget), and First Contact goes back to that well for a couple more bucketfulls of drama. Like in Generations, Stewart swings for the fences in his emotional performance and succeeds admirably here – portraying the uncontrolled, self-destructive wrath for the Borg that has gripped Picard.
But also like in Generations, there’s something off about it in the context of his character. It’s not quite the Picard we know and love, but one that’s been pulled a bit too far from his core to follow the path of the film’s plot. Again, Stewart absolutely sells every inch of it for a memorable (and even meme-able) performance, but it’s incredibly shocking to see him go full Captain Ahab (another thematic plot point the film feels the need to painstakingly spell out for us) and almost doom himself and his crew to “make the Borg pay” for what they did to him.
Being generous, perhaps the intense proximity and creeping assimilation of the Borg on his own ship is pushing Picard past his breaking point (none of us are immune to PTSD, even our brave and gallant Trek heroes). And the glimpses of what the Borg did to Picard peppered throughout the film do connect the dots of how much they violated and hurt him. Like how the film initially portrays Cochrane, there’s an admirable bravery to the choice of making Picard unlikable and unsympathetic (“Yes, this was Ensign Lynch”… damn, dude) . It works for what the movie needs, but is out of place when considered within the TV series’ context and isn’t quite an organic storyline for the character.
Lily is a smart inclusion in the story, and Alfre Woodard makes for a good sounding board and counterpoint to Picard, taking him to dramatic places the other crewmembers aren’t able to. It’s always fun to see “normal” humans/beings react to the wondrous future technology of Star Trek, and there’s something magical to the scene where Picard opens the portal to space and gets her to surrender her “ray gun.” Like with the characters interacting with Cochrane on Earth, there’s an aching sincerity to the crew that seems infectious. It’s a warm, nice bit as Picard takers her tightly clenched hand and brings her to the open window to finally shatter her guard. It’s kind of Star Trek in a nutshell – making bridges with other people through trust and aided by futuristic, awe-inspiring technology.
But Lily isn’t there to just be a googly-eyed simpleton gawking at the holdeck or Worf’s weird head, and she challenges Picard in some useful ways at pivotal moments. When Picard refuses to destroy the ship (and the Borg along with it), Lily is aghast. Crusher goes along with his wishes as any good Starfleet officer would, but Lily is essentially “fuck that” and confronts him. It’s a little unfortunate that the parameters of the characters are such that no one could really, realistically challenge Picard (with the exception of poor Worf, who gets dismissed – what else is new!). Such is the way of TNG’s strict hierarchy (something Deep Space Nine was able to get around with its diverse, motley crew). But Lily as an outsider is able to attack his foolishness head on. She forces Picard to see that despite his assertion that the Borg must be stood up to for the sake of the galaxy, he really just wants emotional revenge on them and doesn’t care who gets in the way. As said, it’s really, really outside the bounds of the reasonable and stoic Captain Picard from the TV show. But the script and acting are impressive enough for it to not get in the way of things too much, and he does see the light eventually.
And perhaps even more controversially, we get to the third storyline of the film. Picard and Data are arguably the best and most interesting characters of the cast so it makes sense to emphasize them, although it has the adverse effect of short-changing most everyone else (especially Troi and Crusher). First Contact handles both of them better than Generations did, at least. Data’s plot intertwining with the newly-introduced Borg Queen is an interesting choice but is overall the oddest aspect of the film.
It’s easy to criticize the Queen as an illogical aspect of the Borg – seemingly flying in the face of their nature as a collective hive mind. For as effective and creepy villains as the Borg are, there’s still something empty about them as a dramatic antagonist. “The Best of Both Worlds” succeeded in part because of its (at the time) shocking use of Picard as their avatar Locutus. So a central face is necessary – even with the Borg – to give them some dramatic life. And the Queen, played with slimy intrigue by Alice Krige, does definitely provide a memorable villain. It’s an unforgettable performance and she imbues the Queen with such an unsettling and otherworldly quality – aided by the excellent makeup, costuming, and SFX (her first appearance as a disembodied torso is still a breathtakingly effective and creepy visual).
The Borg of the TNG TV series were more of an implied terror than a credible one. They certainly didn’t look scary with the kinda crappy costuming. But the Borg of First Contact are a wonderfully upgraded enemy that takes full advantage of a bigger film budget. The costuming, makeup, and prosthetics are all vast improvements – I love that they go to the trouble of making some of the Borg aliens that have been assimilated (like Klingons). The sight of the Borg using their tendrils to inject their nanoprobes into the crews’ bodies to quickly turn them is horrifying, as well as extended scenes of their bodies being further mutilated to become mindless drones. It’s in these parts that the film veers into horror territory (especially the part where their red laser scopes carve out from the darkness as they approach), at times maximizing that PG-13 rating to great effect . The Queen is a great capper on this, and she stands with the likes of Pinhead and Freddy Krueger as a classic, iconic horror villain.
All that having been said, the Queen is fucking weird, man.
The film (perhaps wisely) doesn’t elucidate exactly who or what the Queen is, instead leaving those details tantalizingly vague. She’s not their leader per se, but “brings order to chaos,” whatever that means. And somehow she was present on the Borg cube with Locutus but wasn’t destroyed when that ship was. “You think in such three dimensional terms,” she sneers to Picard – which again, no idea what the fuck that means, but it sounds cool. To logically pick her apart almost seems beside the point since she functions so well in her purpose within the film. One could question why she has so much emotion or personality where none of the other Borg do at all. And about a hundred other things about her.
The Queen seducing Data is a bizarrely interesting aspect of the plot, and she does it in a number of ways. Sexually, of course (wut), and we get a weird callback to one of Next Generation’s most awkward scenes in one of its most awkward episodes (“fully functional in a variety of ways,” cool cool cool!). It is unfortunately sexist that this new female character must play the part of the evil seductress, using her feminine wiles to corrupt the males. It’s a reductive direction that borders on nonsensical, especially within the context of the Borg.
But in a more clever development, I do like how her assimilation of Data is done in a reverse way to how the Borg normally do it – instead of applying machinery to the organic, she applies organic to the machine by giving him real human skin and all the overwhelming, hedonistic sensations that go along with it. I mean, I could push up my nerd glasses and opine about how this is way too imaginative and creative a tactic for the Borg (they’re not really “smart” in a traditional way, just bluntly powerful and mechanically adaptable). But the Queen isn’t like the Borg, so presumably she’s able to think and strategize in ways the Collective can’t. Which opens up all sorts of other questions the film doesn’t answer…
Anyway. Data’s emotions are thankfully handled in a more organic, less grating way than they were in Generations. It’s interesting that he’s still getting a handle on them, and it makes sense that he’s still adapting to it all (not having had the lifetime of experience with them). The Queen preys on his desire to become more human, using his emotions against him and overwhelming him with sensations he can’t adequately process. The sight of him as a partially assimilated cyborg is a memorable one, and his apparent heel turn is a chilling moment. For a “bottle movie,” there is a lot of stuff packed in. I appreciate Picard going back for Data, which is a welcome callback to Data (and poor Worf, no credit given) rescuing him from the Borg in “The Best of Both Worlds.” His willingness to even become Locutus again is remarkably self-sacrificing and shows some of that good old-fashioned Trek nobility.
In true horror movie fashion, the villain is killed graphically (the Queen’s organic parts dissolving is a grisly sight and sound, as well as her writhing mechanical remains afterward) and the day is saved. Although the fact that every Borg conveniently dies when she does is really a fridge too far, and completely flies in the face of their iconic decentralized nature. But whatever…
The big dramatic payoff comes when an alien ship lands on the not-as-primitive-as-thought Earth. The Vulcans step out, and I almost slapped myself for not guessing it was going to be them. Who else could it have been? Again, it serves as a franchise origin story with humans meeting the first alien species of Trek and it feels so mythic and poetic. “Live long and prosper,” the Vulcan says, because of course he does. Cochrane vainly tries to return the salute (but hilariously can’t get his fingers to do it) and instead goes in for a handshake and says “Thanks.” The two beings meeting in the middle, and them forming and understanding despite their differences is everything you need to know about Star Trek.
Similarly, this greeting contrasts with Picard and Lily’s farewell. I always find these partings extra emotional and impactful – people from different realms who won’t ever see one another again saying goodbye. She envies the bright future he’s going back to, but he envies the adventure she will take as her world is about to become a whole lot bigger. It’s a beautifully scripted and acted moment; despite some logical inconsistencies, this film just absolutely fucking nails what Star Trek is about from top to bottom so well.
The Enterprise is (miraculously) able to return to their own time, and I like that the film ends in the past, lingering on this pivotal moment of humanity. It injects one last moment of levity as Cochrane serves the Vulcans booze and blasts his wacky rock and roll music. It seems like an unlikely start to a long partnership and friendship between the two peoples, but one of the film’s themes is that of unlikely origins. Humanity, with all its warts and in such a low place, seems like an unlikely founder of the utopia and peaceful interstellar alliance of the Federation. But anything is possible when you believe, set aside your differences, and do the hard work. It just takes the right inspiration and motivation, presented here as the revelation that we’re not alone in the universe. It may seem far-fetched, but as Cochrane says when he gazes up at the stars… “Why not?”
Star Trek films had their fair share of commercial success prior, but First Contact was deservedly the biggest mainstream achievement the franchise had attained. The very next year, Independence Day would basically invent the phenomenon of the summer sci-fi blockbuster that arguably still persists to this day. In this context, the success of First Contact makes even more sense, as it captures the same winning blend of action, humor, and big sci-fi ideas that powered similar big 90’s popcorn entertainment like ID4 and Men in Black. The fact that it’s a smart film that functions as a much worthier cinematic translation of the series than Star Trek Generations makes it all the more impressive as an achievement. Despite some minor flaws, it’s a confident and fun adventure that manages to seamlessly integrate so many themes inherent to Star Trek’s appeal. Like the world that Zefram and Lily had to look forward to, it seemed like the movie adventures of the Next Generation crew were boundless and full of hope. It was a bright, promising future that a young me looked forward to, and that’s what Trek is all about.
- The score is wonderful, and it’s great to hear the traditional Star Trek theme in a film (for the first time since… The Final Frontier). Also, the cool Klingon anthem (from The Motion Picture) pops up when Worf appears. The main theme is a great piece, capturing the quiet hushed bravery of astronauts blasting into space, and the life-changing, history-making emotions of such a monumental event of meeting aliens.
- The backstory of the film’s plot is pretty nuts – the producers knew they wanted to do a time travel story, and contemplated various time periods, including ancient Rome before settling on the Renaissance in Italy, which the Borg were invading. I’m soooo glad we didn’t get that version of the film, but it’s interesting the winding creative path works like this take.
- The name of the film is kind of an odd choice, given that there was an episode of Next Generation with the exact same one. But it’s something Trek does a lot, given that there are so many episodes and movies with only so many words to go around, I guess.
- We get a new Enterprise as the last one was so unceremoniously trashed. It seems kinda sadistic that the plot toys with our emotions in threatening to destroy this one, too. I was always kind of lukewarm on the design of the Sovereign class. I appreciate its sleeker lines and more militaristic/battleship vibe, but it’s also kind of ugly from certain angles and its proportions seem a little off balance.
- On the other hand, we get four new Starfleet ships which are all pretty cool-looking, especially the Akira class. The redesigned Borg cube (and new sphere) also look pretty great. The Vulcan ship has a really interesting and non-traditional aesthetic (it looks like a UFO, appropriately). And I love the primitive proto-nacelles of the Phoenix. So many great designs!
- We would see Cochrane again in a pre-recorded message in the pilot of Star Trek: Enterprise, as well as in a re-imagined first contact scene set in the mirror universe. Both are pretty great, and in the former you can sense that he’s grown into the man history remembers him as.
- Having Worf command the Defiant as a means of getting him into this film does make some sense in the context of Deep Space Nine and only feels slightly shoehorned. Is that initial shot of his hand gripping the command chair supposed to be a fake out that it might be Sisko? For as much as I love this movie, I’d give anything to see the version where Sisko and Picard have to battle the Borg (while working out their own significant issues with one another).
- So, for the shit we might want to give Starfleet for keeping Picard away from the Borg, they were… pretty much right? He really shouldn’t have been around the Borg. Of course, if not for him swooping in, the Borg would have conquered Earth in the present. But at the same time, because of his Ahab-ness he almost allowed the Borg to conquer Earth in the past, so…? I dunno.
- The space battle against the Borg is all too brief but really great, and I love that initial view of the towering cube looming towards Earth. Great, cinematic visual staging. And again, the music is just fantastic.
- Like in Generations, Crusher gets almost nothing to do here. Her biggest scene pretty much gets stolen by the cameo of the Emergency Medical Hologram. Oh well.
- How did the Phoenix land?
- Furthermore, how did Cochrane get the resources to build the Phoenix? Are there Army surplus stores after WWIII where you can get discounted ICBMs? The film offers no details surrounding all of this – he does have a crew, but this has to be funded by whatever remains of the U.S. government, or a corporation, or…?
- The Borg Queen would of course be back for several episodes of Voyager. Uh… sure? Why not, three dimensional terms, etc.
- So the Borg just have straight-up time travel technology here. Which makes sense, given their technological sophistication. Not much else makes sense about it, though.
- Patrick Stewart was my old guy fitness idol. I mean, look at this slab of aged beef: