Cast : Patrick Stewart, James Cromwell, Alfre Woodard, Alice Krige, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Mirina Sirtis, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, Neal McDonough, LeVar Burton, Dwight Schultz, Robert Picardo.
Synopsis: When the Borg, a new and dangerous enemy of Starfleet, arrive near Earth and journey back in time to destroy us all in the past, the crew of the Enterprise must once again stride into the breach to save the day.
Defining, momentous Trek entry, with the Next Generation crew going toe-to-toe against their sworn enemy, the Borg. After travelling for ages, a Borg cube has finally reached earth, and it seems that the entire Federation Starfleet is unable to thwart their plan to destroy the planet. Mind you, nobody said anything about them destroying the planet in the past, did they? Mind bogglingly cool, this Trek film still holds up under scrutiny today, even in the face of the modern re-think by JJ Abrams. While the first Generations film had little to redeem it overall, this entry, directed by co-star Jonathan Frakes, remains perhaps the best of the Picard-era Trek film, its slam bang action and sly, humorous screenplay ensuring it’s got the one thing a lot of “serious” sci-fi often fails to take into account: a sense of fun.
Perhaps one of the most critically praised of all Trek films, with the possible exception of Wrath Of Khan, First Contact is a prime example of just how cool, action-oriented, and epic Trek could be. After all, we’re dealing with ships in outer space here people! Vast, flying war machines with the capacity of reaching speeds faster than light! Fire phasers and all that stuff. Here, though the phasers get well and truly rogered, big time. The Borg, which one of the films central human characters states “sounds Swedish”, are one of the modern Treks more enduring and frightening enemies, a little like the Daleks or Darth Vader: unstoppable and virtually un-killable life forms with one burning desire. To assimilate and obliterate everything they encounter. For the uninitiated, the Borg are essentially a symbiotic race of organisms which are controlled by a Queen, who assimilate the personalities and traits of species they conquer into their own DNA, making the Borg a very powerful enemy indeed. They are able to adapt and overcome almost any weapon they encounter, as well as being technologically superior in almost every way.
In the Next Generation TV series, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) has previously encountered, and been part-assimilated by, the Borg, in an episode involving a mysterious entity known as Q transporting the Enterprise to a far flung corner of the galaxy. The trouble with this is, it alerted the Borg to the fact that the Federation, and Starfleet, were in existence, and they began a journey across the Galaxy to destroy them. When we pick up the action at the beginning of First Contact, the Borg have reached Federation space, and it seems no ship they have is capable of stopping the Borg’s advance on Earth. Cue Picard, Riker and the crew of the new (and uber-cool) Enterprise E, the replacement for the earlier version of the eponymous spacecraft destroyed in Generations. They arrive near Earth to assist in the battle against the Borg, to the disregard of Starfleet’s orders, and Picards chagrin. Starfleet, it seems, considers Picard’s previous assimilation by the Borg to be a breach in his ability to battle the nigh-omnipotent enemy, a fact which seems to enrage Picard to the point where, in a very Kirk like manner, tells his erstwhile crew they’ll be going into battle regardless of orders. Sound trumpets, cue heroic music, wave the white flag old Borgy, you’re about to be buggered.
But the Borg, sneaky mongrels that they are, open a time vortex as they approach Earth, and Picard and Co quickly deduce that the Borg are going back into the past to destroy Earth before the discovery of Warp drive, a pivotal moment in Trek lore which leads to first contact between Humans and Vulcans. Hence the title of the film. So, in another Kirk-like manoeuvre, Picard and his crew also travel back in time to thwart the Borg, ensuring the continuation of the timeline and saving the world from Borg assimilation.
Got all that? Phew. That’s just in the first fifteen minutes. First Contact reads like a Trek-lovers wet dream: you’ve got vast space battles, an unstoppable enemy, our normally reserved and calm heroes actually being heroic with blood and sweat and all that good, grimy human emotion we want to see, and of course, we get token Klingon Worf uttering his now classic line: “Perhaps today is a good day to die!”. Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore, who penned the lacklustre Generations one film earlier, seem to have had their umbilical cut this time around, as they unleash all manner of hell upon both Earth, the crew of the Enterprise, and time itself. They grasped the error of their ways in Generations, and cut loose in First Contact. The cast of the TV show all have plenty to do this time around, and the depth and development of each and every one is a significant move forward for the franchise. Plus, you’ve also got Trek inductees Alfre Woodard and James Cromwell into the mix, and this Trek is both humorous and humane. Cromwell plays drunken scientist Zephrame Cochrane, the man who would go on to invent Earths first Warp Drive, and catapult history off into a new direction, stimulating Human/Vulcan interaction and the very formation of the Federation. Cochrane, being the drunken misogynist that he is, detests fame and fortune (and, it seems, destiny) and instead seeks anonymity, something in short supply when the historically out of time Next Gen crew land on his doorstep to help him make that first warp flight. To the Trek universe, this is akin to Michael Schumacher going back to help Henry Ford develop the first car. Woodard plays Lily, Cochrane’s assistant, a woman who becomes the bond between the past (Cochrane) and the future (Picard), as she is the first to realise the sense of what’s at stake for both causes. Picard wants to save the future, and Cochrane will eventually make history, and she’s there to witness both.
Transcending the usual time travel humour, of which there is plenty of throwaway lines about changing the future and references to what people will do ahead of time (and consequently confuse those people no end), the script from both Moore and Braga is intelligent, powerful, and ultimately, high risk. The script is a high stakes affair, the screenplay upping the ante to a level yet seen in any Trek film, perhaps save Search For Spock. The Borg are unstoppable killing machines, and Picard is unstoppable in trying to stop them; you know what they say about an immovable object and and unstoppable force? It’s true. Devoid of Original Series Trek links, this is Next Gen Trek at it’s absolute finest, action and tension abound with every passing moment as the stakes slowly, inexorably, rise to levels that threaten to turn Picard into the very monster he wants to defeat. It’s a critical moment in the character’s development, after all, he was once one of the Borg, and now he must defeat them. Great dramatic arc, if ever there was one. Patrick Stewart and Woodard make a great on-screen duel, both fiery and insistent in their thoughts, which takes both Picard and us as viewers into places we haven’t seen the character go. It’s a fascinating journey.
But the star of the show is the lanky James Cromwell, who delights in stealing virtually every scene he’s in. To get a script like this must have been a godsend for him, as the irascible drunkard hell-bent on destroying his liver before lunch and sleeping it off until the next morning. His repartee with LeVar Burton and Brent Spiner (as Geordi Laforge and Data respectively) is scintillating, the kind of thing the Kirk-Picard moments should have been like in the previous film! Cochrane is a character the audience can hook into; he’s ourselves, if you will. He’s arrogant, lazy, belligerent, selfish and oafish at times, everything we humans currently are, and he’s suddenly confronted by people who act like we all aspire to be! Of course, his “inner hero” comes out at just the right time (with a little prodding from Commander Riker) but the narrative parallel with our current human condition is undeniable.
First Contact is directed with a steady, sure hand by regular cast member Jonathan Frakes, whose portrayal of Commander Riker in this film is firt rate. Frakes knows Trek, after all, he’s been involved in it for a while by now. Unlike the preceding Generations, which felt a little like sitting on a couch with a plastic cover still attached, First Contact is a grittier, darker, more moody and atmospheric film, filled with shadows and darkness (both metaphorical and literal) for our characters to overcome. Frakes knows how to use the widescreen ratio really well, his scene staging and framing really classy. He brings a genuine sense of tension to the proceedings, allowing the characters to marinade in the story while still ratcheting up the stakes, and the action. Frakes keen eye handles the vast space battle at the films opening well, using the special effects brilliantly to encompass just how massive the Borg Cube actually is. By far, though, my favourite scene Frakes directs well is a moment right at the beginning, in which Picard and the bridge crew stand listening to the communication chatter as the battle fleet is torn apart by the approaching Cube, far off in the distance. The moment is moody, melancholy, and you can feel the pulse in Picard rising by the second. The crew reaction is understandably similar. Frakes holds from breaking the moment with needless conversation, instead using the surround sound audio track to envelop you in the unseen (and yet, obviously horrific) carnage taking place off-screen. With a softly spoken word, Picard orders the ship to embark on a rescue mission, even before asking his crew if they mind very much breaking their orders. It’s a great moment, a heroic moment, yet underplayed at the same time. In his first feature directing debut, Frakes scores a direct hit.
But for me, perhaps, the best thing about First Contact is the music. Jerry Goldsmith steps back into the score composers chair, and the film is the better for it. Haunting refrains, heroic bombast, tremulous thrill music or simple ambient noise, Goldsmith writes music like nobody else. From the opening battle salvo to the final, epic rendition of his now iconic Trek theme, Jerry’s music manages to encapsulate every emotion Frakes was asking for in the script. Frakes even dares to use contemporary popular music in this film, a slight tangent from the score-only previous Trek entries. [Edit: It was pointed out to me that a little modern music appeared in the soundtrack to The Voyage Home, so it’s not a new idea, but it is rare in Trek] And the juxtaposition of a straight-laced Vulcan listening to Roy Orbison’s Ooby Dooby is hilarious in the extreme.
As far as the Trek franchise looked to that point, First Contact was the true high point since Wrath Of Khan back in the 80’s. The script, the cast, the direction: all first class, and a bona fide gem was unearthed. Frakes had seen that by putting the characters fans loved into genuinely scary and “they could actually die” scenarios allowed him the license to stretch the franchise a little, and it worked a treat. First Contact remains the best of the pre-reboot Trek films in my humble opinion, and I know that a lot of fandom would disparage me for that, since it’s considered than Khan is the best Trek film ever. I have no hesitation in recommending First Contact to anybody, either as a stand-alone action film, or as a Trek film.