Only two movies into the Next Generation films, I have little interest in getting in the middle of a good Kirk vs. Picard debate. However, I can say with some confidence that Star Trek: First Contact stands with the best of the franchise. After the tepid Generations, there’s an assurance to this installment that is infectious; even if the Next Generation characters are only slightly more fleshed out than the previous film, they inhabit the screen with a greater ease and confidence this time out. First Contact deftly references zombie movies and the Alien series while thoughtfully exploring the fallacies of the Great Man theory of history. It also boasts some of the most imaginative production values in the franchise, and features fine supporting performances.
As the film opens, Picard is informed that the Borg are planning to attack Earth. However, Starfleet Command orders the Enterprise to stand back, since Picard was once abducted by the Borg and may be too emotionally invested with them. However, because the Starfleet is badly outgunned, the Enterprise disregards orders and attacks the Borg ship, destroying it. Before its destruction, the Borg craft releases a smaller vessel into the Earth’s atmosphere, and the Enterprise crew is alarmed to learn that the Borg have gone back in time — specifically, to the day before humanity first achieved warp speed — in order to conquer the planet. So several members of the crew beam down to Montana, where Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) is putting the finishing touches on his spaceship, the Phoenix, which will transform space exploration forever.
Now, as followers of this series will recall, I initially questioned where the war-prone Klingons fit into the purported utopian vision of Star Trek (my concerns have since been assuaged). The Borg make more sense; by incorporating the knowledge and attributes of humanoids and life forms from across the galaxy, these cybernetic organisms hope to achieve perfection. Even if their methods are sinister, you can see why they believe their mission is just.
They also make for a particularly nasty, invasive enemy. The Borg begins to infest the Enterprise, abducting crew members (who immediately become robotic zombies) and spreading its wiry machinery through the halls of the ship. As the crew attempts to fight them off, they run into trouble; the Borg can adapt rapidly, and become immune to weapons. Worse, they’ve kidnapped Data.
The set design – and indeed, some of the action sequences — closely resemble the Alien movies, but it feels more like an homage than a rip-off. The Borg are interesting, original adversaries — more like bees in their organization than other life forms. The Borg Queen (Alice Krige) is a particularly fascinating piece of work; though the Borg are allegedly a collective, she exerts a singular personality — one that’s both imperious and flirtatious. (She also provides the series’ most pronounced erotic charge.) Though the android Data might seem immune to the Queen’s cajoling and charms, she finds ways to tempt him — like giving him skin to make him even more human, something he plainly desires. She has to; he contains vital information about the Enterprise that she needs.
Meanwhile on Earth, the Enterprise crew searches for Cochrane. They find his (to their eyes) primitive craft, and are attacked by Cochrane’s confused, terrified assistant Lily (Alfre Woodard). She sustains an injury and is beamed aboard the Enterprise for treatment. Meanwhile, Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Deanna (Marina Sirtis), and Geordi (LeVar Burton) find Cochrane, who, in seeming contrast to his historical stature, is fond of both loud rockabilly and copious amounts of hard alcohol. The officers explain to Cochrane that his ship is the key to saving the world, as well as ushering in a new era of interstellar understanding; naturally, it’s quite a bit for the old man to digest, but he agrees to help.
One of the most interesting things about First Contact is the way that Cochrane is handled. It’s customary when discussing our heroes from the past to whitewash their human flaws in favor of their accomplishments. This is understandable, since it doesn’t matter if Gandhi got up on the wrong side of the bed a few times; the fact that he played a significant role in India’s independence and inspired non-violence movements around the world is certainly more significant. However, by stripping our heroes of their imperfections, they become ideas more than people. Cochrane’s contributions to humanity are extraordinary, but he’s also a drunk and a surly old cuss, motivated by money more than by exploring space. He’s irritated at the attention he gets from the Enterprise crew, since he knows himself better than they do. “I don’t want to be a statue,” he tells Riker and Geordi. However, regardless of his intentions or personal faults, Cochrane’s work changed the universe for the better, and he’s due more praise than he thinks.
Lily is also a welcome element in the film. It’s rare in this franchise that characters react to their surroundings with a sense of awe — even those rare humans from the past. Woodard is excellent in portraying a woman who’s tough, smart, and completely baffled by this strange turn of events. When, on the Enterprise, she looks down upon the Earth from space, it’s a powerful moment — the look on her face is a mix of wonder and fear that surely anyone in her place would feel.
Despite being ambivalent about his place in history (and getting liquored up beforehand), Cochrane is able to get his ship off the ground, with Riker and Geordi onboard. As the Borg continue to envelop the Enterprise, Picard tries to determine the best way to halt its advance — and prevent the Borg from destroying the Phoenix. After some soul-searching, he ultimately orders that the crew abandon the Enterprise — and that the ship be set to self-destruct. As his crew heads to Earth in the ship’s escape pods, Picard stays behind try and save Data. When she finds the Borg Queen, she taunts Picard with intimations that Data is now on her side, but she seems wounded; why didn’t he want to stay with the Borg when he was assimilated? (It appears even cybernetic lifeforms aren’t immune to the charms of a man in uniform). On her command, Data cancels the self-destruct mechanism and launches torpedoes toward the Phoenix. But they’re way off the mark, and the Queen is furious, realizing too late that Data has not joined the Borg collective. Data ruptures a pipe, and destroys the Queen’s organic matter in one of the best bad-guy killings in the franchise.
Cochrane completes his historic warp flight, and the next day, now safely back in Montana, he and his fellow citizens are visited by a strange craft. In a sequence that owes a bit to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the craft’s doors slowly open to reveal — Vulcans! They give Cochrane the Vulcan greeting, which he, like many after him, finds really hard to do. As the credits roll, Cochrane tries to get the Vulcans to boogie to some Roy Orbison, an effort that’s doomed to fail.
First Contact benefits greatly from fine work by Cromwell, Woodard, and Krige, as well as a distinctive look and feel. The crew’s personalities come into sharper focus here, and the film sets up a scenario that non-cultists will have no trouble enjoying. I’ll admit I was a little skeptical of the Next Generation crew, but First Contact has won me over — I’m looking forward to what’s next for this group. Tomorrow, I’m on to Star Trek: Insurrection. Can Picard and the gang deliver once again?