CULT CORNER: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Dylan goes back in time to revisit the Next Generation’s best movie on its twentieth anniversary.

Who made it?: Jonathan Frakes (Director), Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga (Writers), Rick Berman (Producer), Paramount Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, James Cromwell, Alice Krige, Alfre Woodard.

Tagline: “Resistance is futile.”

IMDb rating: 7.5/10.

Going back to the Next Generation cast is a huge shock after the ’09 reboot. It makes you realise that the Star Trek franchise has changed irrevocably since Picard and his crew first stepped foot on a starship. This isn’t just a case of changing cast, but altering the tone, costume and visuals of the series to something much more like the original show. It’s a barometer for how science fiction in pop-culture has changed as whole; what was once a zeitgeist of detailed and specific technology, languages and beliefs, has changed into something more fantastical and adventure-orientated. That’s not to say sci-fi like Star Trek: First Contact isn’t out there, but in terms of mainstream big-budget movies, this is from a different age. It is also one of the most-loved of the Trek films. The concept behind First Contact was even important enough to influence the acclaimed Enterprise two-parter “In a Mirror, Darkly,” which perceived an alternate timeline with an evil Federation after humanity’s first brush with extra-terrestrials. Of course, this is irrelevant for how the movie works on its own, so how does First Contact fare in terms of cinematic achievement?

The plot follows the crew of the Enterprise as they break orders to fight the Borg, the technological terror they faced previously in The Next Generation two-hander “The Best of Both Worlds,” where they assimilated Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). When the crew sees them go back in time to change the world’s history, they follow after them to the 21st century, the day before mankind first meets aliens. From there, it becomes a case of saving the Enterprise from assimilation, and making sure that First Contact actually happens.

As I said in my review of Wrath of Khan (1982), I’ve never been a Star Trek follower, and this movie throws you into the deep-end of the mythology. Whilst there is some backstory on how Picard was once a part of the Borg, we are never made privy to exactly what they are, why they are so close to Earth, and to be frank, what the Federation is. We get some knowledge of the characters from their actions, but no real idea of the structure and rank of the fleet. I do remember watching this at age nine and being a bit flummoxed by what was going on, and there must’ve been a lot of parents/girlfriends/boyfriends in the same camp. This is especially true as Earth is essentially destroyed in the opening few scenes. It’s a huge event to happen before some of us even know who the characters are, and this makes what is essentially the apocalypse lose gravitas.

However, this is only a problem for the first ten minutes. Once the plot actually gets going, everything slows down and the main structure of the story is actually pretty straight. It’s a relief when they head back to the 21st century and the world becomes more recognisable. From there, all of the elements start to play off each other well. The idea of going somewhere that is the past for the characters but the future for us is fun, and the Borg’s plan does make sense. Although there are a lot of different subplots going on, they all work as they involve different crewmembers with very different motivations. As such, there really isn’t one main plot device, only diverse themes. First Contact actually gains momentum as the plot goes on, when it could have easily run out of steam. The “time travel saves the world” plot expands into something much more interesting, and the “Borg Queen” (Alice Krige) stuff with Data (Brent Spiner) allows for some philosophical sci-fi subtext. Even the Holodeck scenes make for some interesting  visuals, and a refreshing change in pace.

I always thought that the Borg were by far the most chilling adversaries in Star Trek, and here they look fantastic. The practical make-up effects and spooky performances make them feel like a formidable, unstoppable and genuinely alien threat. They raise the film up so much, and make it much more terrifying than, say, Malcolm McDowell with a big weapon (ahem). The make-up appliances for the crew slowly being transformed into Borg still look fantastic, too, and land smack-bang in the nightmare visions of the uncanny valley.

This is in perfect contrast to Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell), the first man to meet aliens. He provides some much-needed warmth and light to the film, as well as throwing in an extra problem in his ill-refusal to face the future.

I still think there are some problems. For a lot of the running time, there is never enough emotion to signify that the world is under threat, that the crew are being turned into inhuman monsters, and that they get to travel back in time to meet the first people who greeted Vulcans. It is treated like any standard mission. I do appreciate that these are trained soldiers, but the lack of grief dissipates some of the tension. In many ways, these characters are so far ahead in the future, and so used to terrifying things, that they have become otherworldly to us. Just look at the scene where Picard walks through the Enterprise with Lily (Alfre Woodard), a character from the past, and see how she reacts. It’s a shame they didn’t play around with the similarities between the Federation crew’s stoicism and the Borg.

This problem is solved in the last thirty minutes when the Enterprise is at risk, and the characters do start to crack in the last half-an-hour or so; we see the emotions that director Jonathan Frakes (Riker himself) should have pumped into proceedings from the start. First Contact really comes into its own in the last section, and the fact that it was unintelligible at the beginning is soon forgotten. The plot is both packed with information and moves very slowly. It could have done with ramping up its action scenes and letting the characters breathe more, because there are some genuinely interesting scenarios going on here which play spectacularly well. They deserved more time than they are given.

Though its not perfect, First Contact is a pretty tight piece of science fiction. It could do with another half-hour at the start to really develop the characters and the setting, as well as feeding my need for an emotional connection. It’s fascinating to see it twenty years later in terms of how the franchise has changed. Also, the movie doesn’t quite reach the epic nature needed to totally make it the definitive film of the television series, but it’s a glimpse into a world of sci-fi films that is already gone. First Contact has more than enough going for it to deserve a place in Star Trek history. Those without any knowledge of the saga or science fiction in general may find it a difficult and rather unintelligible watch at times, but there are enough interesting sequences to make it a fun watch. Needless to say, massive fans of the series will find a lot to love here.

Best Scene

Despite all the majestic sci-fi and the epic visual effects, my favourite moment comes when Picard loses his cool when the ship is under threat.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The character Zefram Cochrane was first seen in classic Star Trek episode “Metamorphosis” played by Glenn Corbett. There are differences between the original Cochrane and this character, most notably Kirk’s identification of “Zefram Cochrane of Alpha Centauri?” but they are both noted space flight pioneers. This Zefram Cochrane role was actually written for James Cromwell. Tom Hanks was also considered for the role, but was unavailable as he was filming That Thing You Do!. Corbett could not reprise the role, as he died from lung cancer in 1993.
  • For inspiration prior to filming, director Jonathan Frakes says he viewed the films Alien,  AliensClose Encounters of the Third KindBlade Runner and Jaws.
  • Earlier drafts of the script called for the USS Defiant to be destroyed in the battle with the Borg, but screenwriter Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica) objected to the needless destruction of the ship from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in a story that didn’t even involve the DS9 characters (apart from Lt. Commander Worf). It would also prove to be inconvenient for the television show, so the Defiant was eventually allowed to survive the battle.
  • When Dr. Crusher says “In the 21st century, the Borg are still in the Delta Quadrant”, it was intended as a teaser for upcoming episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, in which the Borg were featured prominently.
  • Robert Picardo reprises the role of his holographic “Doctor” from Voyager in a cameo.
  • Was released the same day that Mark Lenard (Spock’s father Sarek) died.

Dylan Spicer

Dylan graduated from Brighton Film School and and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He has worked on award-winning short and feature films. He is currently experimenting with Narradu Memories, and his online audio drama giantcannibals.co.uk.

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