Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

D: Jonathan Frakes
S: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Alice Krige

This Aliens-wannabe is directed with solid competence by Jonathan Frakes and easily outshines the previous entry in this long-running movie series, but it never transcends the obvious attempts to draw some darkness into the franchise and winds up merely so much marketing on the road to endless protraction, fun though it is while it's on. Resurrecting the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series' most effective villains, the Borg; a race of cyborgs whose unfeeling conformity and forced social and biological collectivisation represents the worst fears of the democratic United Federation of Planets (and, by no co-incidence, the United States of America), the film details an attempt by the crew of the new Enterprise NCC-1701E to thwart a Borg plot to re-write human history by preventing first contact with alien life (which changes the destiny of the planet forever). This takes the from of a dual story line set in the movie's past (our future), one part involving the attempt to help space-flight pioneer Zefram Cochran (James Cromwell, of Babe fame) to rebuild his shattered space craft in the wake of a Borg attack and the other involving a tense confrontation with the Borg themselves on the Enterprise in orbit above the planet.

Of the two stories, the second is by far the stronger, with some suspenseful action scenes and a general intensity as yet unseen in the Star Trek movie universe. Stewart and Spiner steal most of the screen time as the newly demented Captain Picard and the android Data, with Michael Dorn running close behind them as fearsome Klingon warrior Worf (after a contrived introduction which brings him back from the TV spin-off Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). Alice Krige then makes an appearance as the Borg Queen to add a little twisted sexual tension, attempting to woo Data from his dreams of being more human to being more Borg with a curious line in psychological and physical manipulation including much sexual innuendo and dominatrix S&M fetishism.

There are plenty of set pieces and lots of portentous goings-on with human destiny in the balance, and the central characters get plenty of opportunity to explore their inner demons as things explode around them (accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith's stirring score). It all adds up to a good sci-fi yarn which does not depend upon foreknowledge of the Star Trek universe to understand (although it is still quite unlikely that even younger viewers are not familiar with the basics at this stage) and occasionally rises to moments of genuine tension and excitement on the road to a potential apocalypse.

The action scenes are handled well and Frakes does a good job of juggling the twin storylines (it's not really his fault that the earthbound tale is so uninteresting). But it is ultimately derivative of better material, most notably Aliens, with its crew of under equipped and fragile humans going up against a sinister biologically superior collective which builds a hive amid the winding corridors of their space ship and is ruled by a female. Also the attempt to create an edge for Stewart's Picard by consciously and repeatedly likening him to Captain Ahab in Moby Dick is irritating and unconvincing, and when he abandons the persona and acts in his familiar, decent, upright, politically-correct manner, the transition is laughably simple. (Interestingly, the same card was played more successfully with Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which was replete with paraphrases and quotations from Melville's novel)

Fans and devotees will have a great time though, given that this is a superior vehicle for the Next Generation cast, and that the script is loaded with in-jokes and important information and events in the history of the future envisioned by TV writer Gene Roddenberry some thirty years before. Diehard train spotters will relish debating the transformation of Zefram Cochran from the typical morally upright sixties astronaut introduced in the original Star Trek series to an opportunistic alcoholic here, and the very existence of Krige's Borg Queen (which rewrites the mythology of the characters completely). There is also a plethora of references to episodes from the show including a showdown in a computer-generated fantasy of the 1930s, a cameo by Robert Picardo (from Star Trek: Voyager ), and a repetition of Data's famous line about sexual techniques used in the first season of the Next Generation show followed by an exact reference to the last time he used it.

In a sense, it can often feel like too much of a mediocre thing when confronted by the enormity of this franchise's cultural and economic reach, and the movie's advertising catch phrase "resistance is futile" could well refer to a skeptic's response to the whole endeavour. But the bottom line is that the movie itself is well-made and generally entertaining, and like Star Trek II - The Wrath of Khan way back in 1982 (whose success following the disappointing returns from Star Trek: The Motion Picture led to four further adventures for the original cast), it is likely to ensure that the series continues simply because no matter how silly things get, a good old-fashioned shoot-em-up will always pull in the punters.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.