Director: Jonathan Frakes
Cast: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Alfre Woodard, and James Cromwell
Runtime: 111 min.
by Brian Eggert
Original Release Date:
Star Trek: First Contact is not merely a great Star Trek film; it’s a great film, period. In a triumph of succinct writing and fluid direction, it tells a story that doesn’t require prior knowledge of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision. What an exciting, scary, funny, and formally imposing film this is, filled with impressive special effects and bravado acting that top the best part of the franchise’s efforts before or after its release. Rarely does such a product draw audiences outside of its niche-market, but here the approach sees beyond the series’ limitations and becomes appropriately universal, resolving to become, pure and simple, terrific entertainment.
After the minor success of Star Trek: Generations, Paramount planned to retire the original castmembers and devote their full attention to the latest crew, sans appearances by Kirk or Spock. Writers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore conceived scenarios with their preferred plot devices in mind. Longtime producer Rick Berman insisted on a time travel aspect to the new film, whereas the writers wanted to include the show’s popular villain The Borg. They settled on both. Given a budget of $45 million and charged with the high expectations of fans, the production made its riskiest decision by hiring an inexperienced director.
When Jonathan Frakes, who played Cmdr. William Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation, was asked to direct, he didn’t set out to make another Star Trek film. In fact, he had never made a movie before; his practice had been directing only a handful of TNG episodes. But unlike the action-savvy filmmakers that passed on the project, Frakes knew the material and its sometimes confining margins. Studying genre staples like Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, he also rewatched his favorites from Steven Spielberg and James Cameron—filmmakers who know how to apply sci-fi to a product that rises above demographics.
However, this is a Star Trek film, and there’s no denying as much to those who might claim the association is a fault of some kind. The prior films in the series seem to carry a television stigma that prevents them from being seen as cinema. Where Frakes’ direction differs is his choice of cinematographer, namely Matthew F. Leonetti (Dead Again, Strange Days), who employs innovative angles and lenses that push the boundaries of Star Trek filmmaking. The majority of the franchise’s previous pictures use straightforward, unspectacular camerawork and editing, if only to give proper allowances to the characters and their adapted-from-TV world. Frakes achieves a joyous balance between form and function, and from a directorial perspective outgrows the television roots without the result feeling unfamiliar or overly arty to the show’s devotees.
Of course, knowing the film’s background as explored on the television series, and the characters’ prior involvement in the events as they unfold, will only add to the viewer’s enjoyment, though it’s by no means required. Bridging the Season 3 finale and Season 4 premier, the favorite two-part episode “The Best of Both Worlds” earned praise from critics and fans alike for its cinematic scope. The plot involved Enterprise-D Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) being kidnapped and converted into the leader of a biomechanical race called The Borg, a relentless cybernetic hive mind determined to “assimilate” all other species into its collective. Despite being saved by his crew and returned to humanity again, Picard was haunted throughout the remaining series by lingering traces of the enemy, stirring in him a sometimes unreasonable drive to destroy The Borg.
Here is where the film picks up, wasting little time remembering what happened offscreen between this film and Generations. Picard wakes from a nightmare about his assimilation to find that The Borg have launched an offensive on Earth. The newly refurbished Enterprise-E races to the rescue and helps destroy the cube-shaped ship of the enemy, which at the last moment launches an escape pod that flies back through time. Picard and crew follow, arriving in the twenty-first century to discover The Borg plan to wipe out humanity before it conceives of the Federation. The exact event they’re hoping to prevent is the first warp-speed flight by historical figure Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell), a bridging point between the human race and the monitoring Vulcans.
Visiting the war torn planet of the past, the disguised crew finds their hero Cochrane an insufferable, Honky Tonk-listening drunkard more concerned with making a buck than making history. His shuttle is damaged by a Borg attack, but the Enterprise destroys the enemy, not realizing their own ship has been infiltrated during the commotion. For their future’s greater good, the crew breaks their Prime Directive, to not interfere with past or foreign civilizations, and tells Cochrane who they are, when they’re from, and why they must help him. Riker and engineer Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) assist a time-dizzy Cochrane with his damaged shuttle, while Picard and the android Data (Brent Spiner) return to the curiously incommunicado ship to give medical assistance to an injured past-earthling Lily (Alfre Woodard).
Arriving onboard, Picard faces his nightmare, as his ship is slowly overcome by a growing Borg presence. One by one, much like the mining party in Alien, the ship’s crew falls to an unseen foe making its way through ducts, converting enough crewmembers to lead a full-on raid. The Borg moves methodically, logically, but also violently. Data disappears, taken into the custody of the alien leader, their Queen (Alice Krige), who tries to incorporate him into the collective by adding human flesh to his robot body. As Data’s resolve falters, elsewhere Picard’s loss of control over the ship forces him to consider detonating it to stop The Borg. Lily, the Star Trek virgin’s entrypoint into the film, gets a Picard-guided tour through the fast-paced takeover, and talks him down from his obsessive need to wipe out The Borg once and for all.
As Richard Corliss wrote in his Time magazine review, “Here is real acting! In a Star Trek film!” His enthusiasm is justified through Stewart and Cromwell’s performances. The former makes use of his prescribed theatrical training, at once embodying Picard and Melville’s fanatical Ahab, adding depth to his already multilayered character. When Lily confronts him over his passion to kill and ultimately wipe out The Borg, the exchange amounts to the best acting the franchise has ever known. Cromwell, meanwhile, plays a glorious cad humbled and resistant to what he’s supposed to become. Of course, as The Borg might say, resistance is futile.
Occupying the scenes between the Borg Queen and Data is layered, oddly disturbing dialogue and sexual subtext, unlike anything in Star Trek before. Krige’s femininity appears on overdrive in order to radiate her sexuality through that damp mechanical makeup; her lips and breathy voice are creepily alluring, her expressions demonstrating a kind of sadomasochistic pleasure from her body being torn apart and reassembled through mechanical parts. Watch her face as her human torso is lowered down and reconnected with her Borg frame. She seems to take orgasmic joy from rejoining with her artificial parts. These subtleties add to the conflict of Data’s potential defection, as his character has always desired to be human. Here the appeal becomes even more alluring when she grafts skin onto his arm, caressing it and stimulating goosebumps.
Braga and Moore contrast an alien invasion on the Enterprise with the launch countdown on Earth, balancing thrills with light humor and suspense, a perfect concoction for general audiences. Much in the way that 2009’s Star Trek amassed fans that might never have watched such a film, the scenario speaks to anyone through its pace and simplicity, despite the plot being spread around by time travel, The Borg, and the general futurist setting. Technical jargon remains at a minimum, leaving the conflict to arise through concise cinematic language so that anyone can grasp the stakes, no matter their experience with Star Trek. Nevermind how easily time travel or The Borg’s infiltration are accomplished, because that’s not the concern—what’s at stake and how effortlessly it all flows together is what matters.
Equaled only by Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and J.J. Abrams’ revision, Roddenberry’s creation has seldom been this accessible. Star Trek: First Contact represents a remarkable and uncommon occasion where the franchise chooses to be more than another space opera, and instead advances into a cinematic breakthrough. Grossing $92 million in domestic receipts, among the most of any Star Trek picture, Frakes’ effort earned its keep not by presenting just another entry into a series, but by completing a work that transcends the fandom and cultural phenomenon, and succeeds in being just a great film.
More from this series:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Star Trek: Generations (1994)
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)