Eight movies in and we get the first true Next Generation feature film, directed by none other than Commander Riker himself, Jonathan Frakes! What a difference it makes to be directed by someone who not only has a true understanding of Star Trek, but also has experience in directing it (no offense to William Shatner). Like The Wrath of Kahn, First Contact is a semi-sequel to a classic episode of the TV show. Being assimilated by the Borg was easily the most traumatic event to happen to Captain Picard, and it was an event that went without recompense by the series’ end. Luckily, the power of movies (and bigger budgets) gave the good Captain the chance to have the closure he rightly deserved.
Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is still haunted by his past assimilation by the Borg, and the nightmarish acts he was forced to perform as one of “The Collective”. Now commanding the newly-built U.S.S. Enterprise-E, he defies Starfleet orders and defends Earth from a Borg attack, only for the Borg to escape through a vortex allowing them to travel back in time. Caught partially in the trail of the temporal vortex, the Enterprise gets a glimpse of a very different 24th Century Earth, one that appears to have been assimilated by the Borg hundreds of years in the past. To repair this damage, the Enterprise follows the Borg back in time, arriving in the 21st Century, and assists in the most important event in Earth’s history: first contact with an alien species!
Armed with a larger budget and featuring an infamous villain, the Borg now appear significantly more menacing than they ever did on the show. With creepy mood lighting and Jonathan Frakes’ energetic directing, the Borg remain hidden off-screen for the first half-hour. But when they’re revealed, they remain perfectly threatening throughout the movie. As they “adapt” to Starfleet weapons, it becomes harder and harder to fight them, increasing the intensity again and again as the Enterprise crew has to think of new and creative ways to defend against them. This is the definitive Borg adventure. No episode, before or after, even comes close, and we’re finally introduced to the entity that rules them: the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), who tempts Data (Brent Spiner) using his emotion chip to try to make him part of The Collective. And with Worf (Michael Dorn) being on Deep Space Nine (which was in its 5th season at the time), the writers had to think of an excuse to get him on the Enterprise, although it was a decent one. There’s also a humorous cameo by Robert Picardo, playing a version of his holographic Doctor program from Voyager (which was in its 3rd season at the time). This is the kind of respect and fan service that happens when someone who truly cares is hired on as the director.
While half the movie takes place on the Enterprise in orbit, the other half takes place down on Earth with Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell, who’s no stranger to Star Trek guest appearances), the man who, according to 24th Century history books, is the one to actually make first contact. The Enterprise scenes are very dark and sinister, while the Earth scenes are very light-hearted and funny, striking a perfect balance of tone for a sci-fi action-adventure film. If I had one complaint, it would be that most of the characters I’d grown fond of over the 7 seasons receive little characterization here. The focus is kept on Captain Picard and the Borg, with Data close behind. But a single 2hr. movie can hardly compare to the characterization found in 178 forty-five-minute episodes. Furthermore, this movie takes The Next Generation and casts it perfectly into the theatrical realm. For a movie that takes place in the past, they sure knew how to move things forward.
As complicated as Star Trek can get, it seems to work best when it keeps things simple. Captain Picard finally gets to face his fears with the Borg, putting to rest all those nightmares that have haunted him ever since he was one of them. We also get maybe the most important moment in Star Trek history with the first contact itself. Non-“Trekkies” should be able to enjoy this film with no worries, with the opening minutes explaining everything they’ll need to understand the next 2hrs. And hardcore fans (which I guess includes myself at this point), should just be able to sit back and have an absolute blast.
4 out of 5