Despite its stellar reputation, I recommend that most viewers avoid ‘Star Trek: First Contact’

April 7, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 7, 2015

Star Trek: First Contact was the eighth movie in the Trek franchise. It was also the second (following 1994’s Star Trek Generations) of four movies to feature the Next Generation cast.

First Contact has a number of things in common with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. These films marked the directorial debuts of, respectively, Jonathan Frakes (William Riker) and the late Leonard Nimoy (Spock), the first officers of TNG’s 24th-century Enterprise and the original series’s 23rd-century U.S.S. Enterprise. Both movies involve serious threats to planet Earth, which can only be resolved with journeys through time to Earth as it was roughly 300 years prior to the TV series’ main timelines. And both stories have generous doses of comedy, which are often due to the space-traveler-out-of-time aspect of the narratives.

These films are also the most popular and successful ones starring their respective casts. The Voyage Home, a 1986 release, grossed nearly $110 million. First Contact, which came out almost exactly 10 years later, grossed $92 million. The only Trek films that made more money were the J.J. Abrams–helmed reboots from 2009 and 2012, which populated the roles of Kirk, Spock and company with a brand-new cast.

I like The Voyage Home quite a lot, but I’ve never really been a fan of First Contact. In rewatching it recently, my opinion of the movie rose — but only slightly.

The movie, which Brannon Braga, Ronald Moore and Rick Berman co-wrote, begins with a breathtakingly boring credit sequence; this is incorporates a strikingly dull piece by veteran Trek composer Jerry Goldsmith, whose work I generally enjoy. The narrative kicks off with a brief dream-witihin-a-dream sequence in which Enterprise Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) has nightmares about the Borg, the fearsome collective of partly organic, partly mechanical conquerors that is probably the most formidable enemy in all of Star Trek.

Next we find Picard and his crew cruising aboard the newest iteration of the U.S.S. Enterprise, registration number NCC-1701-E. (The vessel from the Next Generation TV series, the Enterprise D, was destroyed in Generations.) They’re conducting a survey near the Neutral Zone, the Federation’s border with the Romulan Empire.

This routine assignment is unusual because of its timing: At that very moment, a Borg cube is heading directly for Earth, and Starfleet forces are massing to oppose it. Enterprise has been specifically ordered to stay away, however, because Picard was once “assimilated” by the Borg. Starfleet Command fears that the captain may have been compromised by this experience, which in turn might harm Starfleet during the coming battle.

Picard firmly instructs his staff that he intends to comply with his orders. But this goes out the proverbial window after he and the bridge crew monitor audio transmissions from the first clash with the Borg, which goes badly for the Federation.

The races toward humanity’s homeworld, arriving just as the Federation flagship is destroyed. Picard, after picking up psychic reverberations from the Borg, orders the surviving ships to focus their fire on an otherwise obscure part of the cube. This destroys the invaders’ vessel, but not before a sphere ejects and enters Earth orbit.

Enterprise pursues; as it does, the sphere begins journeying backwards in time. The Federation crew, who are carried along in a strange bubble in the Borg’s wake, realizes that the Borg are meddling with history. They see that 24th-century Earth’s oceans have been drained, and the planet’s population replaced by Borg.

Our heroes follow the sphere to the 21st century and soon destroy it. Before they do, however, it damages a missile complex in rural Montana. The crew realizes almost immediately that the Borg were trying to prevent a crucial event: Zefrem Cochrane’s famous test flight of the Phoenix. The initial use of humanity’s first faster-than-light warp drive on April 5, 2063, will register on the sensors of a passing Vulcan vessel, which then will change its course to land on Earth.

But it turns out that Cochrane (the wonderful actor James Cromwell, here saddled with a thinly written part and perhaps the stupidest-looking hat in movie history) is a drunkard and a coward. In order to persuade him to make his test flight, Riker and his crewmates must explain the impact the voyage will have.

“It is one of the pivotal moments in human history, Doctor,” Riker says. “You get to make first contact with an alien race! And after you do, everything begins to change.”

“Your theories on warp drive allow fleets of starships to be built and mankind to start exploring the galaxy,” says Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), the Enterprise’s engineer.

“It unites humanity in a way no one ever thought possible,” adds Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), the ship’s counselor. “When they realize they’re not alone in the universe, poverty, disease, war — they’ll all be gone within the next 50 years.”

As Riker and friends try to pave the way for Cochrane’s historic voyage, Picard is handling a much more difficult task. Before the sphere was destroyed, the Borg covertly transported a party onto the Enterprise. The collective relentlessly begins assimilating components and crew from the ship.

Picard, the android officer Data (Brent Spiner) and the Klingon officer Worf (Michael Dorn, temporarily rejoining his old gang despite having become a regular on the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series in the 1990s) try to fend them off. Their efforts are increasingly futile, which everyone seems to recognize except Picard. The only person who might be able to change his mind is Lily (Alfre Woodard), an injured associate of Cochrane’s who was brought on board for medical treatment before the Borg infestation was noticed.

I won’t shock too many people when I write that pretty much everything works out in the end. After all, two more movies were made with the Next Generation cast after this.

The action is — well, passable at best. The zero-gravity combat scene on the hull of the Enterprise is eery but a bit slow-moving. The movie’s climax is also a bit cumbersome: As Cochrane prepares to activate the warp drive, Picard has portentous exchanges with Data and the Borg queen (Alice Krige), who’s been holding the android captive for about half the movie in Enterprise’s main engineering compartment. And then there’s one last action sequence with Picard attempting to haul himself above a cloud of toxic gas on a cable that keeps slipping while the queen clings to his leg…

Meh.

The bond between Picard and Lily is interesting but under-developed. Is it meant to be a budding romance, or just a friendship? What’s Lily’s relationship to Cochrane, anyway? At the end, Picard gives Lily a chaste farewell peck on her cheek. It seems awfully tepid, given that the original Star Trek famously helped break down racial barriers, in part through TV’s first scripted interracial kiss.

First Contact’s major flaw is that, from a tonal standpoint, it isn’t one movie; rather, it’s two poorly integrated movies.

The onboard action here is deadly grim; as his obsession with fighting the Borg grows, Picard orders crew members to their deaths, remorselessly kills and disembowels an ensign who has been assimilated in order to access memory chip located in the abdomen, and orders the abandonment and scuttling of the Enterprise.

By contrast, the Earthbound plot feels like a walk in the park, which is literally the case — many of the outdoor scenes were shot at Angeles National Forest. But it’s figuratively true in that many of the interactions between the Starfleet officers and Cochrane are played for straight-up comedy. Cochrane gets Troi drunk; engineering officer Reginald Barclay (Dwight Schultz, reprising his minor TNG role) humorously stutters his way through a conversation with Cochrane; Cochrane and La Forge have a cutesy exchange about whether or not Starfleet explorers ever have to use the bathroom.

The contrast between the two parts of the film is glaring; they clash, and they clash badly. The orbital narrative has a few — a very few — moments of comic relief; either they bracket the main Borg action or they involve the 23rd-century Lily, the holodeck or the Emergency Medical Hologram. (Robert Picardo reprises his Star Trek: Voyager role in a brief cameo, while Ethan Phillips, a Voyager regular as the alien Neelix, has his own cameo as a fictitious holodeck character.) The humorous scenes with Lily read like an extension of the 24th-century-meets-23rd-century Earthbound stuff, which makes a certain amount of sense, but they still aren’t as silly as what we see Riker, Cochrane and company doing.

There’s also one unintentionally frivolous thing that intrudes upon the Enterprise E scenes: On a couple of occasions, Frakes shows the action from the viewpoint of Borg drones. He uses a fisheye lens to do so, the goofy distortions of which undercut the gravity of the situation.

I did change my mind about Star Trek: First Contact in one regard. This time around, the grim aura of the proceedings aboard the Enterprise struck me as appropriate; after all, the Borg pose a mortal threat to the galaxy.

But this movie still doesn’t hold a candle to the best films of the original Star Trek cast. First Contact is a film whose flaws outweigh its virtues. Despite the limitations of the other TNG features, First Contact may be my least favorite of their cinematic outings.

Are you a Trekkie? (Or a Trekker?) Then you might like Star Trek: First Contact. Heck, you might even love it. The same thing goes if you like science fiction films in general.

I, however, don’t plan to revisit this movie any time soon.

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2 Responses to “Despite its stellar reputation, I recommend that most viewers avoid ‘Star Trek: First Contact’”

  1. Rainman Says:

    Again I must admit I am a lover of this movie, for bringing more of the Star Trek universe’s story into view for non-trekkers, and for finally showing us what should be a common-sense happening in the 24th century: Why not take a walk on the underside of the ship? In space, there is no up and down; there is no underside at all, except in schematics. I think the comedic moments were generally true to TOS, and I am still chuckling about the first ever use of the term, “star trek” in the whole franchise, by Cochrane. You barely touched on Picard’s eruption, when he was talking to Lily, that I think is a turning point for his character. The almighty Captain Picard is human after all, raging against the Borg, but he should be doing so! Get pissed off, for god’s sake! What I disliked the most was the sequence in engineering, which I have said elsewhere amounted to the all-powerful Borg being defeated by “the smash of a lava-lamp.” I consider it possibly the worst movie villain death ever.

    • memwrite Says:

      Picard’s confrontation with Lily is indeed a great scene. Unfortunately, since so many people love “First Contact,” I had to devote a lot of words to what I *didn’t* like.

      Also, yes, part of the novelty of the zero-gee combat sequence on the hull of the Enterprise *is* that it flips the usual on-screen orientation of the ship. Up and down have virtually no meaning in most of space, so in a sense, this is natural. However, no one had either the imagination, the means or the budget to stage a scene like that before. Kudos to Frakes and to Berman, Braga and Moore for journeying into this (mostly) new frontier!


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