Star Trek 286: First Contact

286. First Contact

FORMULA: The Best of Both Worlds + The Wrath of Khan + The City on the Edge of Forever

WHY WE LIKE IT: If The Best of Both Words represents the best of TNG, then its movie sequel represents the best of its films.

WHY WE DON'T: "So you guys are astronauts... on some kind of star trek?"

REVIEW: From the opening with that haunting score (FINALLY, TNG gets some musical lovin') and then creepy pull-out out of a Borg Cube, disturbing drill-in-eye-imagery and double-twisted dream sequence, you're in for a major ride. It's TNG's Wrath of Khan, with an old enemy of the captain's coming back in full force, but this time, it's our guy who's cast in the Ahab role. Picard's Locutus arc begin in The Best of Both Worlds gets tied up in a great way, fully utilizing Patrick Stewart's skills as an actor. Not to get ahead of myself here, but there is no scene more resonant with me than Lily's confrontation with him culminating in the Moby Dick speech. "And I will make them pay for what they've done" has an unspoken "to me", doesn't it?

But getting back to the start of the film, First Contact introduces the new Enterprise-E, a slick gunmetal gray warship of sharp edges and glowing lights. The new uniforms are also an improvement in this new, darker Starfleet (let's not forget the Dominion War also in full swing at this time), and will certainly help DS9's look. The new interiors serve the story as well, though I haven't yet grown used to them yet. Geordi's new eyes look cool and make a lot more sense than the VISOR (from both an acting and technology standpoint). And Data's emotion chip is used to good effect, never over the top (love the anxiety bit, for example).

Usually, a movie might end with a climactic space battle, but First Contact actually starts with that. Holy Mother of God, that's a beautiful ship battle. Dozens of ships, lots of interesting new designs, and in theaters, I couldn't help but shout out "The Defiant!" as soon as it came onscreen. An excellent way to bring Worf into the proceedings (and I like the tension between this "exile" and the others), but also a nice wink to continuity. In fact, First Contact does well what Generations did execrably. Lots of continuity references that amuse fans, but don't detract from the story: cameos by Barclay, the holographic Doctor and Ethan Phillips (who plays Neelix); the Bozeman is at the battle (the voice on the com even sounds like Kelsey Grammar); Dixon Hill and a freeze frame moment with many holoprograms from the series; fully functional Data; the design of the Phoenix (check out those blinking lights in the cockpit and tell me wasn't inspired by the original Enterprise's viewscreen); the first time anyone's ever said "engage" to go to warp; etc. etc. etc. The main plot strands are explained and that's enough. The rest is fun texture.

The script sparkles with wit and counterbalances the intense drama and suspense of the shipboard battle against the Borg with light comedy on the planet's surface. Because in addition to a worthy revenge story, we get a missing piece of Star Trek history. First Contact: When Zefram Cochrane made the first warp flight and attracted the attention of the alien race that would help us make the first steps towards the Federation. There are challenges for our heroes, but a lot of great comic setpieces, none so funny as Troi's drunk scene. She's great in this. Riker's as genial as ever too, and Geordi, well, Geordi is an idiot. As usual. But it leads to the funny. At the same time, it's an exploration of how we see our heroes. It's a great theme, especially with what's going on with Picard up above, and James Cromwell is very good in the role.

But it's Alfre Woodard's Lily who steals the show for me. So down-to-earth and willing to call Picard on his bullshit, she's one of the best audience identification characters I've ever come across. Of course, there's another guest actress here and it's Alice Krige as the Borg Queen. Some have expressed dismay that the Borg concept was changed yet again, but this doesn't handicap them like the whole Rogue Borg thing did. It gives them a voice and a face, and turns them into a villain rather than a menace (and yet, they keep that "force of nature" feeling). It seems odd at times that the Borg organizing consciousness has so much personality (quite the vixen too), but if you absorb the distinctiveness of every race you assimilate, you really should be able to access emotions (and in fact, the Borg concept SHOULD change all the time, shouldn't it?). Really, one of the best things about the Borg in this film is that they adapt. It's a real move-countermove game between her and Picard until she is finally betrayed by Data.

The ending is a series of great climaxes. The first flight of the Phoenix makes you smile. The crew abandoning the Enterprise is a well-paced moment with stirring music and a choice for Picard. In the end, it's not surprise that the Vulcans were our First Contact with the larger universe, and our first words to them should say something about us. It's "Thanks", which given the idealistic history outlined by the characters in this film, is fitting if brief.

I could go into too much detail, list each of my favorite lines, discuss every cool effect or design, but I'm going to stop here and let you use the Comments section to add to the review if you feel the need to. I'm off to watch Insurrection.

LESSON: Before using your first raygun, please read the instructions. (I know, I know, they're always written in Klingon.)

REWATCHABILITY - Sky High: Though I may have a fondness for Star Trek VI, and share fans' devotion to ST II, First Contact is the best of the best. It's got it all. Jonathan Frakes hardly ever had a false note on the episodes he directed, and after First Contact, I'm surprised he didn't get to do a lot more high profile directing.


Tom Bondurant said...

Really enjoying these Trek posts. Did you hear Ron Moore and Brannon Braga talk about Crisis On Infinite Earths on one of the commentary tracks?

Matthew Turnage said...

I think I may be the only person who likes the "astronauts on some kind of star trek" line.

I think one of the reasons this film really works is because every character has something meaningful to do. Well, Beverly still doesn't get to do much, but she does come off better here than in any other film.

As a rock music lover, I also thought "Magic Carpet Ride" was a great choice for the first warp flight.

Siskoid said...

Thanks Tom. I'm sure I noticed it the first time I flipped the DVD, but have since forgotten it. I guess I'll have to make time!

Matt: And I'm still looking for a recording of that Berlioz opera Picard was listening to. The incidental music (Cochrane's tunes, the jazz standard in the Dixon Hill program, etc.) is excellent throughout.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Matthew that ZC's reference to Star Trek is great. It's a tongue-in-cheek moment handed out by an uninhibited character.

The "why I don't like it" moment is Picard's Holodeck fight with the Borg. This may be nitpicking, but Holodeck uses "photons and forcefields" (dixit DS9's Vic Fontaine). If so, then Borg armor shouldn't be affected by it. Turning the Holodeck safeties off doesn't turn the bullet to a REAL bullet. And beside, the Borg armor is an adaptive force field, and, if it can adapt to all "ray gun" technologies, why can't it stop mundane bullets. Ridiculous.

Apart from that, I agree with you 100%, buddy.

Dan Sai said...

Oh man, not only is this movie amazing, but it has one of the best commentary tracks to EVER grace a DVD. Jonathan Frakes has the most bat-shit crazy commentary. Some highlights:

-He talks about how great "that guy in the beard" looks.
-Instead of saying "assimilated" he says "borgified"
-He does impressions of trekkies at conventions requesting Patrick Stewart to repeat some of his famous lines.
-He tells a story about Michael Dorn wrestling with Patrick Stewart.
-He breathes heavily into the microphone.

All this and much much more. My friends and I plan whole gatherings around watching First Contact with "The Riker Commentary."

Siskoid said...

Dr Mi: The why we like and don't is usually pretty tongue in cheek. But on the holo-bullets thing... I would think that trick would work exactly once. Kill two Borg with forcefield bullets and then the Collective adapts. So I have no problem with the scene. A more realistic, but less dramatic way to do it is to just ask the computer for a tommygun, no need for the elaborate set-up, but I guess that's the computer lock-out's fault.

Dan: Now I really do have to listen to it again.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry. I just can't go along with this review.
To me, First Contact was probably the worst Trek movie ever. Why? Because Zefram Cochrane was IN ST:TOS!! Doesn't anybody but me remember? He was that scientist who'd become marooned on some planet and kept alive by some energy entity that was in love with him! And that guy (who is the REAL ZC to me) was nothing like that drunken shaved-head post-punk parody in First Contact. Zefram Cochrane was the epitome of the "noble scientist" archetype. As far as I'm concerned, the crew of the Enterprise did not travel back in time to our(their) past, they were visiting some bizarre alternate world past.

Siskoid said...

You're entitled to your opinion, Anonymous, but that can all be explained away. The Companion recreated Cochrane, made him young again and all that. She's telepathic. The Cochrane we saw on that show was an older wiser Cochrane, but also one who may be an idealized self-image.

If I let continuity snafus make my judgements for me, I wouldn't like a lot of Trek, let me tell you.

Dan said...

Is there anything more boring than "the 'noble scientist' archetype"?

Cromwell's Cochrane is far more interesting, from both ends.

More interesting for the crew to be disappointed in someone they had idealized, sort of like going back in time and finding out that George Washington isn't actually twelve stories high and made of radiation.

More interesting for Cochrane as a character to be saddled with the weight of the future's expectations ("Over there is where they're going to put up the statue!", "Actually, I went to Zefram Cochrane High School!").

Colin said...

Now, Mike, this is only tangential to discussion of the movie, but I figured you'd be the person to ask: do you know if the image on the "Visit Cochrane Memorial" card from the CCG was sourced from elsewhere, or whether it was just photoshopped form a picture of James Cromwell?

Siskoid said...

It's totally CGI (or painted) based on the scene, as are Population 9 Billion, Borg Scout Vessel, Establish Gateway, Planet, Scout Encounter and Transwarp Network Gateway.

Colin said...

I thought you'd know :). Thanks.

LiamKav said...

"To me, First Contact was probably the worst Trek movie ever. Why? Because Zefram Cochrane was IN ST:TOS!!"

This is actually a good example of the everything that had gone wrong with the franchise, and why I reboot was needed.

Anonymous said...

This is not only my favourite Star Trek film, but my favourite film, full stop. Every actor gives the performance of their career, every character has something to do, every scene serves a purpose, and all technical aspects executed flawlessly.

OK, I'm going a bit overboard. But I think this is one of very few virtually flawless examples of cinema.


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