Star Trek: First Contact (1996) – Retrospective Science Fiction Film Review

This is the eighth film in the STAR TREK franchise and the second to feature the cast of THE NEXT GENERATION. True to the tradition of TREK films (odd numbered entries and disappointing; even numbered ones are good), this is a considerable improvement over the previous entry, STAR TREK: GENERATIONS. The plot involves an Enterprise encounter with the bio-mechanical Borg (the popular villain from TNG’s television incarnation), which assimilates species into its collective, but this time there’s a twist: whereas the series implied that the Borg were non-hierarchical in structure, STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT gives them a Queen (played by Alice Krige), mostly because it’s more fun and more dramatic to have the villainy personified in a single entity rather than spread out over a large group.
The story also contains (rather unnecessarily) a time travel plot: the Borg return to Earth just before the invention of Warp Drive and (off-screen) colonize the helpless planet. This gives the film a chance to give their portrait of a character first seen in the original series, Zephram Cochran (here played by James Cromwell). Unfortunately, this last element is the sort of sop to the fans that plagued the STAR TREK features: rehashing elements from the series. Although the Trek motto is “to go where no one has gone before,” too often the films insisted on taking audiences back to elements they had seen before — on the small screen.
Consequently, STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT falls prey to the problem that has marred the TREK features since STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN: it feels more like a big version of a television episode than a full-blown feature film. It does a good job of serving up elements that will please the fans of the show, but it does not quite stand on its own as a memorable motion picture event.
Despite these missteps, STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT is one of the better TREK films, thanks to a reasonably strong script by Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga and decent direction from Jonathan Frakes (who continues in his role as Will Riker). Frakes is no visual stylist, but he knows that material and serves it well, hitting all the obligatory notes that Trekkies love and providing the familiar shtick one expects from the established characters. The battle with the Borg creates excitement and even some decent drama regarding Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart)’s Ahab-like quest to destroy his enemy. (Here again, the impact is stronger for those familiar with the series: at the end of TNG’s Season Three, the Picard himself was “assimilated,” so he has a personal grudge against the species.) The invasion of Earth is played out on a much smaller scale that the alien invasion of INDEPENDENCE DAY (which came out the same year): we really only see the gradual assimilation of the Enterprise, not of Earth itself; and yet the film is almost as effective.
As usual with TNG, the female crew members are relegated to minor supporting roles. The only female who emerges with any zeal is the Borg Queen. Fortunately, Alice Krige performance is so good that one easily forgives the fact that her character’s mere existence contradicts much of what we know about the Borg (most obviously, she has a personal identity, whereas the Borg are supposed to be a collective hive mind). And it is amusing to see that, in order to goose up the excitement level of the NEXT GENERATION films series, it was necessary to delve into horror territory: Krige’s Queen, at once seductive and loathsome, looks as if she stepped out of Clive Barker’s HELLRAISER series. (Similar, Barker-inspired motifs appeared later in STAR TREK: NEMESIS)
Unfortunately, with the usual misplaced zeal of THE NEXT GENERATION, the script takes aim at something from Classic STAR TREK in order to denigrate it: in this case, Cochrane is portrayed not as a revered scientist but as a selfish entrepreneur who created Warp Drive only so he could profit from it. Typically, a little exposure to the new Enterprise crew converts him into a hero—a sad example of the NEXT GENERATION producers and writers trying to insist that their franchise is superior to the original. (Someone should have told Braga and Moore, and producer Rick Berman, that iconoclasm is mitigated when you simply replace the old icons with ones of your own creation.)
This self-congratulatory approach might have been more acceptable if the Cochran scenes had been better; instead, the sequences on 21st century Earth play out like a standard B-story from the NEXT GENERATION series, allowing the film editor to cut away from the main story at periodic intervals. Fortunately, that main story of STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT is powerful enough to overcome the interruptions. The film also has the benefit of Picard’s struggle to overcome his obsessive desire to destroy the Borg — at whatever cost. This is the kind of element that always helped STAR TREK stand above run-of-the-mill science-fiction: no mere effects show, TREK featured stories about interesting heroes who were recognizable to us, even if they did live hundreds of years in the future.
STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996). Directed by Jonathan Frakes. Screenplay by Brannon Braga & Ronald D. Moore; story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga & Ronald D. Moore. Cast: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Alfre Woodard, James Cromwell, Alice Krige, Michael Horton, Neal McDonough, Marnie McPhail, Robert Picardo, Dwight Schultz.

Copyright 1996 by Steve Biodrowski. A slightly different version of this review appeared in Cinefantasitque magazine.

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