Monday, July 18, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek: First Contact' (1996)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Before revisiting all the Star Trek movies for this project, I wouldn't have hesitated to name Star Trek: First Contact as my favorite movie in the franchise. Although I had casually watched The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home on TV as a kid, it was Star Trek: The Next Generation that really made me a Trek fan, and First Contact was the first Trek movie I saw in its original run (either in theaters or soon after it was released on home video; I don't quite remember). But I also hadn't seen the movie since 1996 before watching it again this week, and although I still think it's top-tier Trek (and the best of the Next Generation movies), I'd probably put it behind Wrath of Khan and maybe also The Undiscovered Country in my overall ranking.

Even so, it's an extremely entertaining movie that makes great use of the Next Generation cast and adds a couple of really strong supporting characters played by accomplished actors James Cromwell and Alfre Woodard. Like Wrath of Khan, it achieves some of its resonance by functioning as a sequel to a beloved episode (or episodes) of the parent series, in this case the two-parter in which Picard (Patrick Stewart) was abducted and assimilated by the alien Borg. A brief dream sequence establishes everything that any new audience member needs to know, and then the action gets going almost immediately. After so many movies that start by getting the crew back together or checking in on their down time, it's refreshing to see writers Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga (veterans of various Trek TV series) and director Jonathan Frakes (aka William Riker) cut right to the chase. The Borg are attacking. Earth and the entire Federation are in danger of being obliterated. The Enterprise must save the day. Go.

First Contact offers up the biggest space battle in the history of the series thus far, and then it sends the Enterprise back in time after the Borg. But this isn't a rehash of The Voyage Home -- instead of going back in time to our past (as the writers originally envisioned) or our present, they head to a time that is still in our future, 2063, when scientist Zefram Cochrane (Cromwell) was about to make humanity's first contact with aliens (Vulcans). The Borg plan to cripple humanity by preventing first contact, and then assimilating Earth in the past. They also infiltrate the Enterprise and start to take it over. Thus the divided crew has two missions: Make sure Cochrane launches his warp ship from Earth, and stop the Borg from overtaking the Enterprise and killing or assimilating everyone on board.

The result sometimes feels like an awkward mix between two different movies. The Earth-set material with Cochrane is fairly light, although not nearly as light as the time-travel portion of The Voyage Home. It's an upbeat adventure story with a nice sense of humor, and a very satisfying arc for Cochrane, a self-doubting cynic who's reluctant to embrace his role as the forthcoming savior of humanity. It gives Riker, Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) and Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton) a solid spotlight away from the rest of the crew, and it features a very entertaining performance from Cromwell, who makes Cochrane an entertainingly flawed mix of opportunist and idealist.

The storyline that takes place on the ship is much heavier, with some of Stewart's best acting as Picard, who is consumed with a need to stop the Borg, partially out of personal revenge and partially because he understands firsthand what kind of horrors they can perpetrate on the people they conquer. Frakes works wonders with his limited budget, building suspense and a feeling of galactic danger without ever leaving the Enterprise. The addition of the Borg Queen (Alice Krige) gives the story an extra element of creepiness, and Krige makes for one of the best Trek movie villains, combining the sort of tragic nobility of characters like Khan and Chang with a real malevolence. Even if the two main threads of the movie are sometimes disjointed, they come together for a rousing, satisfying finale. It's a high point for Trek and the Next Generation cast, who unfortunately wouldn't get a chance at anything of this caliber again.

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