TL;DR – From the action to the story and the music. First Contact captures a real moment in Science Fiction history and is still probably my favourite Star Trek film.
As the march of time continues forth, I was reminded that it has been twenty-three years since Star Trek: First Contact came out in cinemas. Goodness, 1996, such a long time ago, a time when I was not even in high school. However, in all the time since and before I don’t think any Star Trek film has had the same impact on me (though Wrath of Khan and Beyond come pretty close). As the time is right, and we all know how important time is, let’s dive into the joy that is Star Trek: First Contact.
So to set the scene, in Generations the USS Enterprise-D was destroyed by assailants and so a new ship the Sovereign-class USS Enterprise-E was commissioned with all our familiar faces making the transition. However, just with the Enterprise is in the middle of its shakedown cruise the worst possible news happens. The Borg are back. A large cube ship is on a trajectory with Earth but the Enterprise cannot help as Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) was once assimilated by the Borg and Starfleet wants it away from the battle. But to hell with orders, which is good because this time the Borg is messing with the timeline and only the Enterprise can fix the damage before it is too late.
The first reason why I love First Contact is the way it incorporates and shows off its many different characters. Everyone gets a moment to shine throughout the film, which given the ensemble cast is not an easy task to do, as we can see with some of the later films. Picard gets his Moby-Dick moment as all those years of repressing what the Borg did to him come flowing forth in one moment of anger. Worf (Michael Dorn) gets to cry out ramming speed because today is a good day to die. Deanna (Marina Sirtis) gets absolutely sloshed and has probably one of the funniest scenes since Undiscovered Country when Uhura tries to talk her way past a Klingon patrol. Data (Brent Spiner) becomes the closest to human as he has gotten so far and given a dilemma that you really feel was a challenge for him. I mean even Reginald Barclay (Dwight Schultz) gets a moment to shine. All of these character moments bring a real sense of joy because it gives you these links to the past but it is also moving the characters forward.
Giving each of the returning cast a moment to shine would have been great, but the film does more than that by introducing three new (mostly) characters that are not only interesting in their own rights but bring new life to the series. Casting James Cromwell as Zefram Cochrane is one of those inspired choices because he completely captures the role. We have sort of met Zefran before but James turned the character from being a historical footnote to being iconic. He plays the role of someone who is not as the history books present but then still might have a hint of that nobility hidden under all the alcohol consumption. That is a really interesting balance to pull off. Then we have Alice Krige as The Borg Queen, and while I will talk a bit about the Borg next the fact that Alice could give one of the best performances underneath what had to be very uncomfortable prosthetics is amazing. Finally, we have Alfre Woodard as Lily Sloane who is one of the most joyous characters in Star Trek. Lily is this breath of fresh air in what can be at times quite a stuffy series. She is noble but also takes zero crap from anyone. She is such a strong counterpart to the more rigid Starfleet officers which is needed but more than that she is the counterpoint to Picard and one of the few characters to rightly call him on his crap. Alfre Woodard is an Academy Award-winning actor for a reason and we see that in her performance throughout the film such as when Picard announces that “I know what I’m doing” and there is this momentary look that conveys more than words could ever do.
The story is also one of the strongest of all the Star Trek films because it has to do so much thematic lifting from the past but it does it with elegance and grace. You can see the work that Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore have done to create a story that is engaging if you are new to the franchise or old. Where this helps is that it feels very much like a feature-length episode of TV in its narrative construction. You have everyone together at the start and then they split off into the A-Plot fighting the Borg on the Enterprise and the B-Plot helping Cochrane get The Phoenix ready to fly so the titular ‘first contact’ can happen. This structure works even better because there is no communication between the two groups so no one knows what is happening. This means that you can have two different plotlines with completely different thematic weight behind them. On the Enterprise, you have death and carnage and everything falling apart. While on Earth, it is a much more light-hearted and almost comical insight into hero worship and how historical character might not match the persona created about them. Smashing these two very different styles together should not work but it invigorates the story.
Another thing that helps is that our main antagonists in this film are the Borg who are probably the best villains created in Star Trek. They work just like the Dominion in that they are a perversion of that core Starfleet/Federation drive. They bring in new races and technology but through forced assimilation and not through peaceful diplomacy. This disconnect is at the heart of the film and is made more manifest by the narrative evolution of the Borg by including The Borg Queen. By creating a focal point in the Queen you give someone for the actors to play off on rather than just a non-located voice. This creates real menace and gives weight to Data’s possible turn against the crew. You can’t negotiate with the Borg, you can barely fight them as they keep adapting as they turn your friends against you. This is all a potent mix for a film, especially when a large chunk of the crew don’t know what is happening up in orbit. To add to all this, we get a story that is both set in the future for us the audience, but also set in the far past for the characters, creating an interesting dichotomy, that they maybe have overplayed now, but at the time was quite refreshing. Also, you have to admit having the Vulcans be the ones we make first contact with was a beautiful nod back to the series of the past.
All of this story is supported by some of the best production that I have seen in a Star Trek film. As a young kid that opening battle with the Borg cube was kind of everything that I had wanted to see in a Star Trek film/show but that had never been able to be pulled off due to the budget. We got old school favourites like the Miranda and Oberth-class and then a whole bunch of new designs in the Akira-class, Saber-class, Steamrunner-class, and Norway-class. While Deep Space Nine would take this further in the years to come, nothing like this had been seen at this level in Star Trek before. That sequence is also set with a musical score that looks back both at the past but also incorporated the future. The collaboration of Joel and Jerry Goldsmith throughout the film created a musical landscape that is a joy to hear with one of my other favourite moments coming when the escape pods are ejected. The ships are excellently designed, the work on the Earth sets look amazing and are full of interesting details that harken back to past episodes, it also helps when you film in an actual nuclear missile silo. They have a full-on 1940s interlude thanks to the holodeck and more. Every part of this film is priming with substance. There is also these moments of pure beauty, you see this at the start where we have a conversation between Riker and Picard shown only through the reflection on the viewport. A montage of Borg exterminations that dip their toes into the visual language of horror films. It also has some amazing visual/practical effects for the time, with the fight on the deflector dish being one stand out (even if they may have forgotten New Zealand at one point).
In the end, there are a lot of reasons why I love Star Trek: First Contact. It is high on the list of great Science Fiction films, and would likely be the best Star Trek film on that list. It has action, it has passion, it has despair, it has joy, and it has darkness. It encompasses everything that is Star Trek and still keeps its positive outlook for the future while everything is going wrong. It is a true joy of a Science Fiction film and one I highly recommend.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Star Trek First Contact
Directed by – Jonathan Frakes
Screenplay by – Brannon Braga & Ronald D. Moore
Story by – Rick Berman, Brannon Braga & Ronald D. Moore
Based on – Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry
Music by – Jerry Goldsmith & Joel Goldsmith
Cinematography by – Matthew F. Leonetti
Edited by– Anastasia Emmons & John W. Wheeler
Production/Distribution Companies – Paramount Pictures
Starring – Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Majel Barrett, Alfre Woodard, James Cromwell & Alice Krige with Dwight Schultz, Patti Yasutake, Michael Horton, Neal McDonough, Don Stark, Cully Fredricksen, Adam Scott, Marnie McPhail, Eric Steinberg, Jack Shearer, Ethan Phillips & Robert Picardo
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