Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Zaki's Retro Review: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

For The Next Generation's sophomore entry in the big screen sweepstakes, Star Trek: First Contact, Picard got angry, Data got happy, and Riker got to direct. Put together, we ended up with one of the strongest chapters in the then-sixteen year old Trek movie series. If that leaves you feeling a little whiplashed after the prison yard shanking I gave Next Gen last time out, just bear with me.

After stumbling so badly out the gate with Star Trek Generations, its amazing how thoroughly Trek's keepers got their act together for the inevitable follow-up (and equally frustrating how thoroughly they forgot the lessons learned here). Again produced by Rick Berman, again written by Ron Moore & Brannon Braga, First Contact is a marriage of those aspects that worked best in the previous series of films, sequelizing a popular TV episode a la The Wrath of Khan, and incorporating a "humorous" time travel storyline a la The Voyage Home.

The film picks up a long running thread from the TV series dealing with the villainous cybernetic Borg, who first appeared in the second season's "Q Who?" and later kidnapped and assimilated Picard into their collective in the third season finale, "The Best of Both Worlds" (generally considered the best of Next Gen's TV run). The zombie-like, seemingly unbeatable Borg stood out from other antagonists introduced in Trek's 24th century tenure, and making them the baddies in a feature was a perfect way of tapping into the fanbase they had developed since their introduction.

The second half of the story delves into the historic event that was the "birth" of Star Trek, so to speak. When the Borg use one of those convenient time vortexes to propel themselves back in time and prevent the fabled first meeting between humans and aliens by stopping the fabled first warp flight of engineer Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell), the crew must fight a two-pronged battle: Picard and Data on the ship attempting to retake it from the Borg hive that has overtaken it, Riker and Co. on Earth to ensure that Cochrane makes his spaceflight on schedule.

Right from the beginning, with Jerry Goldsmith's beautiful, soaring "First Contact" theme guiding us through the opening credits, through the triumphant first meeting between human and Vulcan at film's close, First Contact just works. It works as a rousing chapter in the Star Trek saga, and to a lesser extent it works as mainstream entertainment (though after attempting to watch it with good friend and Trek babe-in-the-woods Brian Hall, who emerged mostly apathetic, I'm thinking a working knowledge of Trek-iana probably can't hurt).

So why does this one succeed where Generations didn't? The one thing First Contact does to immediately set itself apart from the prior film (and subsequent ones) is to reinfuse the franchise with a sense of fun that had seemingly dissipated with the wane of the prior generation, while still maintaining real danger for the characters and real stakes for humanity. The same self-seriousness-turned-ponderousness that dangled around Generations' neck, is blissfully absent from this entry.

The inherent problem with the ideal that The Next Generation represented for Gene Roddenberry is that it's a world where human beings have achieved, for lack of a better phrase, self-actualization, and their business now entails spreading this utopianism through the sheer power of their personalities (never through direct action, as the ever-present "Prime Directive" ensured). This self-importance was also being demonstrated to an absurd degree on TV, with Next Generation's morose successor series, Voyager.

Again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with these aspirations. They're something that anyone can say is worth aiming for and worth striving for. Nonetheless, this same idealism, displaying a naivete that flies in the face of thousands of years of recorded history, isn't terribly conducive to good drama. Thus, when Next Generation most excelled was when it bumped up against those ideals, saying that "Paradise," once achieved, had to be maintained, and sometimes that meant having to deal with those inconvenient little things that make us human.

And "humanity" is at the thematic forefront of First Contact, with Picard forgetting his, Data discovering his, and Cochrane hobbled by his. In a marked departure from most of his TV exploits, Patrick Stewart here plays a Picard who is gripped by a rage he doesn't fully understand after having been "turned" by the Borg into one of their own and used to commit atrocities. This in turn leads to an explosive confrontation with the time-lost Lily, played by Alfre Woodard ("The line must be drawn here!" he bellows, in that great Patrick Stewart way).

As became clear last time around, the Next Generation movies were destined to become essentially the "Picard and Data" show, and First Contact continues this trend by picking up an ongoing plotline from the series following Data's desire to become more human (which at one point led to an unfortunate meeting with comedian Joe Piscopo -- don't ask). Here he comes face to face with the previously-unseen Borg Queen (Alice Krige), the face and voice of the Borg menace, who tempts him with the promises of flesh (with all that that connotes).

Of course, the prominence of Data's story means that the rest of the cast is mostly consigned to the "Yes, sir/Aye, sir" stuff that Sulu, et al, were left with before them. While Levar Burton's chief engineer Geordi and Michael Dorn's perpetually-grumpy Worf get some decent scenes, I don't know who has it worse here, poor Gates McFadden, whose Dr. Crusher is upstaged in one of her few scenes by the holographic doc from Voyager (Robert Picardo), or Marina Sirtis, who has a painful bit where her Counselor Troi is a stumbling drunk. Not one of her finest moments (though it's not like the remaining movies did her any favors either).

Lastly there's the legend himself, Zefram Cochrane. As played by Cromwell, Oscar-nommed at the time for his role as Farmer Hoggett in Babe, Cochrane is a far cry from Glenn Corbett's version of the character in the original Trek episode "Metamorphosis," and is portrayed here as a drunk, a womanizer, and just generally a derelict, suddenly faced with a future he can't connect to his present. Even with limited screentime that makes the role the equivalent of a TV guest spot, Cromwell does what he can to make Cochrane endearing to the audience ("I don't want a statue!" he exclaims at one point), and the eventual realization of his role in the march of history is a powerful moment when taken with knowledge of what is to follow in its wake.

The connective tissue that joins these seemingly-distinct storylines together is the film's pushing its characters up against those very same Roddenberrian principles that had become such an albatross to Star Trek by this point. First Contact reminds us that where Trek most succeeds is when it backgrounds the infuriating minutia of its own fictional universe, which by then was well past the point of becoming akin to Biblical canon (including the dogmatism that comes right along with it).

As directed by Jonathan Frakes (following Leonard Nimoy's lead by leaping from second-in-command to the center chair), there's a comfort level uncommon for a first-timer which shows that, after several years of helming various TV Treks (including the terrific "Future's End" for Deep Space Nine), Frakes was itching for the freedom offered by a widescreen palette.

Even though the project's low budget is evident (at this point, Star Trek was considered low-risk, high-reward fare for its studio), it still plays as much more of a "big screen" adventure than its predecessor. It's also clear that Frakes has studied his Aliens and his Romero Dead movies, infusing some genuine creepiness into the numerous Borg confrontations (including a gripping zero gravity fight scene on the hull of the Enterprise, featuring Desperate Housewives star Neal McDonough in an early "red shirt" role).

When all was said and done, First Contact managed to make all the pieces fit together just so, and it did its job of establishing the cast of The Next Generation as the rightful heirs of the original crew's big screen legacy, with the eventual box office total placing it second only to Trek IV. As the crew of the spanking-new Enterprise-E triumphantly return to their own time, they had every reason to be optimistic about the longterm future. Little did they know that their unplanned obsolescence was a mere six years and two movies away. A-

6 comments:

Ian Sokoliwski said...

Okee-dokee.

First off, I absolutely love this film. In the next couple of days, I'm gonna make a point of watching Wrath of Kahn and First Contact, being my faves of the entire movie series, before seeing the new one on Saturday (if this stupid cold will let me leave the apartment).

Of course, there is this one central flaw with FC that is tricky to navigate - the Borg Queen.

Okay, I get why they introduced the Queen of Outer Space - you do need some sort of face-to-face confrontation to get a satisfying conclusion. However, it totally is at odds with the concept of the Borg. They don't need a central authority, as they are a collective authority. Even if she is just the collective manifestation of order with which to converse with Data and/or Picard, it still feels a bit ham-handed.

Fortunately, Alice Krige is totally watchable, thereby rescuing that idea while watching it :)

Okay, that's my only real gripe. Other than that, this one is just a hoot. In fact, the only thing better than watching FC is watching FC with the Johnathan Frakes commentary on. It's just awesome - he constantly has this bubbling enthusiasm, this can you believe that I made this film!??! feeling all the way through. It's a total hoot, if you are into that sort of thing.

Seriously, the only commentary that I like more than this (when it is this type of commentary) is the director's commentary on Rat Fink A Boo Boo (look it up - do it. Right now.)

Oh, yeah. Marina Sirtis and her drunk scene. It's comparable to Harry Morgan's drunk scenes as Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H. Pretty painful...but mercifully brief.

Oh, one more thing...I do not like the new Enterprise design. It has a different focus, much more militaristic, than the Galaxy-class ship. Oh, sure, it looks cool...but it just feels wrong.

Actually, I gotta say that I much prefer the Enterprise design as seen in the show Enterprise. Not the NX-01, by the way (although that one is kinda cool), but the one they toss off in one of those temporal cold war episodes, when they show a 27th Century version (or some other post-Next Gen time). Much more elongated bits on it, much more of a 50's/60's sci-fi look to it.

But that's just me... ;)

Zaki said...

Aw, I love the ENT-E...I dig the more military feel and the darker colors. But then, I was NEVER a fan of the Galaxy class ship. Always hated it, and was glad to see it scrapped.

But whaddo I know, I like the NX-01 too...

Ian Sokoliwski said...

I see what you are saying, and I get that the Galaxy class stuff doesn't make a whole lot of sense if you think about it too much..

...much like pretty much all of Star Trek, come to think of it...

But it had the advantage of externalizing the notion that the Enterprise was not a machine of war. It was goofy and luxury-liner-ish and far too plush for a real military vessel (especially the pride of the fleet) but it was supposed to be the vehicle for telling both family and relationship-based stories, as well as larger political and action-based stories.

(see what I did there?)

Enterprise E lost all of that. When Picard tosses off the comment in Insurrection along the lines of remember when we used to be explorers?, part of what he is referring to is that he is commanding a ship of war now, not an explorer vessel.

Yes, in the post-Dominion War setting of the Next Gen movies, this makes sense...but it loses a connection with the elements of the Next Gen TV show, the parts that often did work. Well, that were supposed to work.

It's a cooler design, no argument there. It just doesn't feel like the Enterprise.

And, for the record, the NX-01 is a cool design. And perfect for the initial premise of the show, basically The Right Stuff in space. I loved the 50's and 60's NASA and USAF feel to the overall design and the interiors.

David Carr said...

Another great review, Zaki, and one I can't find any disagreement with. FC is kind of the "Thank God they didn't suck this time" movie. It's not up to Wrath of Khan levels of drama, action, and tension, but it gets close enough to that, and far enough away from Generations to be enjoyable.

Part of the thing that makes the TOS movies work so well (even the sucky ones) is that we didn't have too much exposure to those characters and their world during the show. When they come back in movie form, everything feels fresh and new, even with older characters. Khan's movie appearance would never have been so tense if he made three more appearances on TOS, like the Borg did on TNG.

TNG-era movies just couldn't win. Their world was so thoroughly entrenched in TV Land, that even the bright spots, like FC, still have a been-there, done-that feel to them.

Nomad said...

Data proved himself to be a stud (once again) in this Star Trek installment

The Mad Swede said...

First off, I agree with David; another excellent review, Zaki.

Secondly, I have to agree with Ian that the main "flaw" of the film is that the introduction of the Borg Queen so thoroughly erases much of what was truly unique about the Borg as a frightening enemy. Don't get me wrong. I think Kriege owns the part and that Voyager made some excellent usage of the altered concept as well. But there is a slight feeling of sadness of losing that frightening uniqueness of the truly collective mind that will swallow us all up and erase our individuality. Not underneath a more powerful mind, but as part of a more powerful ocean mind. A mere drop of water in the ocean.