Star Trek: First Contact (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Star Trek: First Contact Poster

For the first time in the seventeen-year run of the successful Star Trek movie franchise, there is no Captain Kirk. Star Trek: First Contact, the eighth entry into the motion picture series, is the first to rely exclusively on the crew of The Next Generation, who were introduced to film audiences two years ago in Star Trek: Generations. Following in the wake of a trio of disappointing features, First Contact proves to be the most entertaining Star Trek in more than a decade. First time director Jonathan Frakes (who also plays Riker, the Enterprise's second-in-command) injects some badly-needed energy and inventiveness into a series that, prior to this effort, was sinking under its own weight and boldly going nowhere.

A conscious decision was made to develop First Contact into the most action-oriented adventure since Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the largely-effective results speak for themselves. This film moves, rarely ever stopping to take a breath. Originality is not at an all-time high, but the film makers have shown a great deal of ingenuity in grafting elements of Moby Dick, Aliens, Terminator 2, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Return of the Jedi, and even Die Hard onto the familiar Star Trek formula, which emphasizes ideas over mindless thrills. The editing is crisp and the direction is sure-handed, making for perhaps the most streamlined Star Trek movie of them all.

The highlight of First Contact is the first reel, a recklessly-paced, dazzling display of special effects that is exhausting in its intensity. For the first time in eight films, there's no "getting to know you" period. Five minutes after the opening credits have ended, we're right in the middle of the action. And what action it is -- the most spectacular space battle ever to grace the screen in a Star Trek film. It's clear that this sequence, with dozens of starships doing battle with the enemy -- a cube-like Borg vessel -- ate up a considerable portion of the budget.

The Borg, undoubtedly The Next Generation's most popular foe, appeared in about a half-dozen TV episodes, but created a legacy that made them a natural choice for a big screen appearance. Half-organic, half-robot, the Borg all share one mind, and have proven to be the most difficult foe for the Federation to overcome. In First Contact, when an attack of Earth during the 24th century fails, the Borg travel back in time to change history. The USS Enterprise-E, helmed by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), must follow them to the mid-21st century to save the future. But the Borg are on board the Enterprise, and a battle for control of the ship soon develops.

As a species, the Borg are effective, cinematic villains, although, on an individual level, their "queen" (played by Alice Krige) is probably the least menacing of them all. The Borg's natural implacability enhances their sinister aura. There's something eerie about creatures that kill matter- of-factly and don't make a sound when they're injured. The Borg's hive -- actually the corridors of the Enterprise's lower decks -- bears more than a passing resemblance to the nest of the Alien queen in James Cameron's Aliens.

First Contact's greatest asset is Patrick Stewart. The British screen veteran's presence is formidable enough to allow us to forget William Shatner. Stewart makes us believe in and care about the proceedings. Here, Picard is not just the "intellectual commander" his reputation suggests. Instead, he has become a futuristic Ahab, intent on revenge (he was once captured and "assimilated" into the "Borg collective"). Stewart gives vitality and power to Picard's obsessive rage.

All the regulars from The Next Generation crew are on hand: First Officer Will Riker (Frakes), Data (Brent Spiner) the android, Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton), Worf (Michael Dorn) the Klingon, Doctor Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), and Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis). Plus, for fans of the series, there are a couple of unexpected cameos. Joining the regular crew for this one-time outing are James Cromwell (Babe) as Zefram Cochrane, the creator of warp drive, and Alfre Woodard (Passion Fish) as Lily Sloane, his no-nonsense assistant.

If there's an obvious area where First Contact falls short, it's in its stabs at humor. Many of these seem like forced attempts to reduplicate the lightness of Star Trek IV (the one with the humpback whales), and only a few don't come across as misplaced. There are occasional instances of natural comedy, but Troi getting drunk rings about as true as Scotty cracking his skull on a bulkhead in Star Trek V.

The script is cleverly written so that non-fans will be able to follow and enjoy the plot while aficionados will get all the little "in" references. First Contact effortlessly negotiates a number of potential problem areas (such as time travel), which is a credit to the screenwriting team of Brannon Braga, Ronald Moore, and producer Rick Berman.

After three consecutive less-than-stellar adventures, First Contact has single-handedly revived the Star Trek movie series, at least from a creative point-of-view. If the box office results follow suit, there will be a Star Trek 9, hopefully with Patrick Stewart and his crew on board. Whatever the case, there's little doubt that First Contact has come along at the right time to ensure that Star Trek continues to live long and prosper.

Star Trek: First Contact (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 1996-11-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1