Nutshell: Very good stuff. Probably the best of all Trek films, with an involving story and a skillful, even-handed approach.
Star Trek: First Contact is one of the best Star Trek films — probably the best Trek film — definitely the most even-handed. It successfully balances just about every element I believe a good Trek film should have — superior production and special effects, plenty of humor and fun, involving conflicts and problems that must be overcome, and a compelling story with human themes and values consistent with Gene Roddenberry's optimistic vision. All of it is wrapped into a very neat package of plotting and pacing. It's good Star Trek, and it's good cinema.
As an added bonus, First Contact brings back the Borg, perhaps the most interesting and menacing race of villains in the history of Trek. Ever since their introduction in TNG's second season episode "Q Who," the Borg have been the most compelling threat to the Federation. In that episode, they were simply hungry for any technology that was different and new. Negotiation was not a factor; they wanted your stuff, they were without a doubt bigger and stronger, their hive-like collective was overwhelming, and if you resisted them, they would destroy you.
A little more than a year later in "The Best of Both Worlds," the writers clarified another element of the Borg that made them even more terrifying — the fact that they wanted not only your technology but also you — they wanted to turn you into a mindless drone, to strip you of your individuality and add you to their single-minded collective. Unlike the relatively boring and simple-minded aliens of Independence Day, who simply wanted to destroy everyone and everything in their path, the Borg instead threaten you with a fate worse than death: Their goal is to absorb people and technology and forcibly make you one of them, so that you will become one in their hive of conquerors.
That Borg ship was destroyed, but not before they assimilated Captain Picard into their collective and stripped him of his individuality, which was only regained after the cunning intervention of the Enterprise crew. Now the Borg have returned, and they're again bent on doing whatever it takes to assimilate Earth.
First Contact opens with a powerful and magnificent-looking shot — part of a flashback dream sequence that begins as an extreme close-up of Captain Picard's eyeball, and then tracks back to reveal Picard standing in a Borg module on a Borg ship. The camera continues to track backward for what seems like miles, showing what must be millions of Borg drones on the massive vessel collective — of which Picard has forcibly become part of. Picard suddenly awakens in his ready room aboard the new Sovereign-class Enterprise-E, which, we learn, has been in service for nearly a year now.
A message comes through from Starfleet Command. The Borg have been identified in Federation space, and they're on a direct course for Earth; and as Picard states, this time there may be no stopping them. Further, Starfleet orders Picard away from the battle — they fear his past assimilation by the Borg may instigate an unstable element to an already-volatile situation.
Well, no points for guessing that once the Borg start pounding on the Starfleet ships and the losses start rolling in Picard takes it upon himself to violate direct orders and engage the Enterprise in battle. What's surprising here is the speed with which the film launches itself. Unlike in Generations two years ago, little time is wasted here on old jokes or the reintroduction of the TNG cast (a nature of the film that keeps the plot taut and should actually increase accessibility for non-Trekkers). Within ten minutes of the opening credits, the Enterprise is in the heat of battle with the immense Borg cube — as is the Defiant, commanded by Worf, apparently ordered to the battlefield as part of a reinforcement effort.
I must say, seeing a Trek battle of this magnitude on the big screen — especially with that huge Borg ship — is a sight that probably alone is worth the price of admission. It looks great. Particularly attractive are the organic motions of the Defiant, which flies around the screen with such graceful, eye-pleasing movements that it makes war look almost like choreography.
Perhaps one negative aspect about the initial battle with the Borg is that it ends a little too abruptly and easily. As Starfleet's resident expert on the Borg and their weaknesses, Picard orders the fleet to concentrate their fire on a specific point, which destroys the Borg cube in a nifty pyrotechnic display. But this victory transpires a little more easily than it really should have — especially considering Picard's aforementioned notion that "this time there may be no stopping them." By beating the Borg in five minutes under only partially explained circumstances, the threat feels a little less real than I hoped it would have, not up to the level of the Borg assault on Earth back in "Best of Both Worlds."
But there's a flip side to this coin. Like I said, First Contact wastes very little time — the pace of the movie is pretty fast, and once the Borg cube is destroyed and the damaged Defiant crew is beamed aboard the Enterprise, the main plot takes off. You see, just before it explodes, the Borg cube launches a smaller sphere which creates a "temporal matrix" that allows it to travel back to the latter half of 21st century. While in pursuit, the Enterprise is caught in a temporal wake, and upon realizing that the Borg intend to change history by assimilating Earth in the past, Picard decides he must follow the Borg back and prevent such an occurrence.
Okay, so it's Yet Another Time Travel Plot. Time travel can be dangerous territory in terms of plausibility, because it sets up the possibility of the all-encompassing Time Paradox. Fortunately, the film steers clear of most of the technobabble and confusion, and wisely delves into its story. Still, time travel has been done on Trek so many times (Star Trek IV, Generations, and numerous episodes of TOS, TNG, DS9, and Voyager), sometimes without success. There are a few things about First Contact's logic of time travel that annoy me, like, for example, how time suddenly became something that the Borg could manipulate at will, and how the Enterprise reconfigures the time matrix at the end of the film to get back to their time period. Such complaints are minor, however — the importance here is the story once the movie goes into the past, which easily makes the ends justify the means.
The Borg and the Enterprise arrive at Earth, April 4, 2063 — shortly after the widespread destruction of World War III that leaves the planet particularly susceptible to an invasion; but, more importantly, as the crew quickly notes, this date is the day before the historic "first contact" between humans and intelligence beyond the solar system, which is supposed to take place when Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell), the Montana-based inventor of warp drive among humans, takes a test flight in his revolutionary space craft, to the interest of some extra-terrestrials who are passing near Earth's star system.
The Borg want to prevent first contact and assimilate humanity, but the Enterprise intervenes and destroys the Borg sphere. Before the loss of their ship, however, the Borg are able to beam a small invasion party aboard the Enterprise, and begin assimilating the ship and its crew like a cancer from the inside.
From here, the story divides into three narratives. One involves Picard, Worf, and the Enterprise crew's efforts to contain the Borg from taking over the ship. A second centers around Data, who is kidnapped by the Borg during a confrontation and taken to the lower decks they control where they attempt to assimilate him into their collective under the command of an element new to Borg milieu — the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), a single entity who represents the mind behind a massive collective of drones. A third follows Riker, Geordi, and Deanna's attempts to see to it Cochrane's warp flight goes through as history plans.
The type of movement between different plot lines exercised in First Contact is nothing unfamiliar to Trekkian story structure, but under Frakes' tempered direction, the plot holds together just fine and scenes work. Most importantly, the plot proves consistently interesting and the story remains involving. The key to the film is its big picture — the way it works all of its elements into a coherent, cohesive whole in which each development manages to be something both entertaining and relevant.
Picard's fight for the Enterprise takes an understandable and sturdy character-driven turn — that of vengeance. The motif begins subtly; such lines as Picard's order, "Don't hesitate to fire on crew members who have been assimilated," make sense in their context, but also add to the bigger agenda — that of Picard and his hatred of the Borg for what they do to any who stand in their path, and — more specifically — what they did to him six years ago. The vengeance factor present here is deftly executed, thanks in part to another of Patrick Stewart's convincing performances. But another important aspect here is in the screenplay's ability to make points about this theme. For this purpose the writers have a character named Lily Sloane (Alfre Woodard), Cochrane's 21st century assistant who winds up lost in the bowels of the Enterprise after a series of events. Sloane is smart, and she makes some keen observations about Picard's situation, at one point drawing a very pointed comparison between Picard and Captain Ahab of Moby Dick. Woodard's energy is very commendable; she and Stewart work well together in a host of scenes of varying depth.
It's clear that Picard allows his anger to cloud his judgment, particularly when he refuses to arm the Enterprise's self-destruct sequence and orders the futile fight for control of his ship to continue. This throws him into conflict with Worf in a charged scene filled with fiery words. Conflict is tough to do amongst the TNG cast, but the filmmakers pull it off here by making Picard decidedly wrong and, further, insulting Worf for trying to set him right. Based on TNG's history between Worf and Picard, Worf's very Klingon response to Picard's insults seems sincere: "If you were any other man, I would kill you where you stand." Pretty startling. (If the later scene where the two make up seems a tad easy, remind yourself that this is the TNG cast we're talking about.)
The entire revenge theme speaks for itself much of the time, and it's a credit to the writers that the film looks at the situation from so many perspectives. In one way it's easy for us as the audience to hate the Borg and the relentless strive toward oneness and mass consumption they represent (especially those of us who so vividly remember Picard's experience in "The Best of Both Worlds"). On the other hand, many of the Borg now trying to alter history used to be members of the Enterprise crew, and it's unsettling to watch Picard barely bat an eye after damn near enjoying gunning down a Borg (in an elaborate holodeck sequence) who used to be one of his own ensigns. Of the themes in First Contact, this is the heaviest and most complex, and the writers give it the analysis it deserves.
As Picard and the crew attempt to quash the Borg cancer, Data finds himself in the position Picard was six years ago — on the Borg "operating table," where they attempt to turn him into one of them. For some reason, the Borg take a particular interest in Data; they see him as the key to the human puzzle that has defeated them once already. There are a host of intriguing exchanges between Data and the Borg Queen, with some dialog that's really on the mark. Data's quest for humanity has always been something pervasive on TNG, but here the dialog reveals another purpose — it underlines the evil in Borg oneness. Whereas Data's quest is a search for his own human individuality, the Borg simply conquer and force their way of life on others, in their effort to become a more "perfect" network of drones. And as Data so rightly points out to the Borg Queen, "to think of oneself as perfect is often the feat of a delusional mind." The Queen has some retorts of her own, and knows that Data's quest for human feelings is his weakness and goes so far as to tempt him closer to the Borg collective with human flesh, grafting it onto his circuitry for true skin sensations. It's a witty and ironic approach by the script, that the key to the Borg's removal of humanity from humans would be in giving Data more distinctly human characteristics.
The Borg Queen turns out to be one of the film's most interesting characters, partly in the way the filmmakers realize her — both physically and mentally — but also because of Krige's skillful rendition of a calm, seductive personality who aims to simultaneously consume and create Data anew, as well as humanity along with him. (A particularly nice display of the Queen's sense of superior tranquillity comes when Data attempts to escape but freezes in pain when cut on his newfound flesh by Borg drones. The Queen simply waves her hands and the drones disperse in random directions, like a group of mindless insects. A very neat touch.) Michael Westmore's makeup designs for the Queen, as well as the rest of the Borg, are great — slick, creative, interesting to the eye, and very, well, Borg.
Noteworthy in the Data/Queen scenes are Data's emotional responses of fear and subdued anger — appropriately utilized rather than released to run amok like in Generations. (This makes sense, since Data would have learned much about controlling his feelings since that time.)
As the Enterprise copes with its problems, the script also supplies a lighter story as Riker and Geordi attempt to convince Zefram Cochrane that he's really a key figure in the future and that humanity is within a day of being forever changed for the better. While the Borg-centered angle of the story supplies issues of individuality and survival, this part of the story is the true, Trekkian "heart" of the film. It deals with humanity and how it views itself in the prospect of change. Riker's explanations to Cochrane about how much the world will change after first contact is one of the many highlights of the film. And, besides, the character interaction in this story is just plain infectious. Cromwell, in particular, turns out to be an amiable presence, with a lighthearted performance containing much grace and humor — I liked Zefram Cochrane a lot. (I honestly don't remember the Cochrane character that appeared in TOS, but I don't care, either.)
I could fully understand why Cochrane would be overwhelmed learning that he's to be labeled a historic visionary. And I got a kick out of the whole bit with the statue that Geordi explains, and the idea that the savior of the future is merely a guy who wants to get drunk and make enough money to retire to an island of naked women. (For that matter, I was amused at the notion of Cochrane getting Deanna tipsy, agreeing to talk to her only after "three shots of something called tequila.")
In a key passage, Cochrane explains to Riker that his motives were hardly visionary — that he is not and does not want to be the "great man" that everyone in the future knows him to be. Riker has a response:
Riker: "Someone once said, don't be a great man, just be a man, and let history make its own judgments."
Cochrane: "That's rhetorical nonsense. Who said that?"
Riker: "You did, ten years from now."
It's dialog like this that defines the Star Trek universe. It's reassuring that at least some cinematic version of the future has imagination and hope for humanity and still has the prudence not to always take itself so seriously.
As much that takes place in First Contact (and as haphazardly as I've probably summarized it here), it's a credit to screenwriters Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore that they manage to tie everything into a sensible, efficient whole. They also manage to spread the material around all the main TNG characters — much better than in Generations. While obviously Picard, Data, and the guest characters get much of the material, given the size of the cast it's nice to see that everyone gets into the action one way or another.
And the plot's action provides some fresh and creative technical feats. The most impressive set-piece is a neat zero gravity situation on the hull of the ship, where Picard, Worf, and Lt. Hawk (Neal McDonough, who unfortunately is provided little purpose in the film except to be the token "dead meat" character) attempt to thwart the Borg's attempt to build a beacon on the deflector dish. The special effects are convincing, to say the least, and the entire episode is played out in a sort of slow-motion. In a word, this is clever.
There's also the aforementioned Dixon Hill holodeck scene that Picard and Sloane venture into to elude some Borg pursuers. The idea takes time out from the standard chase to nearly transform into a movie with a life of its own, complete with all the typical characters. (I particularly got a good laugh out of the "Nicky the Nose" gag — one of the most subtly amusing notions in the film.)
Naturally, there are the obligatory cameos — Robert Picardo as the EMH, Ethan Phillips as a holodeck character, and Dwight Schultz recapping his character Barclay at his most Barclayness — in the context of the film though, they fit, particularly the moment when Barclay so enthusiastically meets Cochrane, which underlines Cochrane's whole annoyance with being constantly identified as a historical figure.
Nearing the end, the film brings the three plot lines together, with the launch of Cochrane's warp rocket, the evacuation of the Enterprise (which Picard finally comes to terms with losing and puts on a countdown to auto-destruct), and the Queen's revelation to Picard that she has found an "equal" to her in Data, who she is convinced is completely under her control. She orders him to destroy Cochrane's warp ship with the Enterprise's torpedoes. The most cheer-worthy moment of the movie, at least for me, came when Data turned "Resistance is futile" around on the Queen, much to her horror and disbelief. In one line, Data shows his ability to keep his loyalty to humanity, surprising an arrogant creature and bringing the entire Borg collective down with her. Nice job — it had me cheering.
After the Queen's demise, I still had some questions that left me a tad perplexed, like, for instance, how exactly the Queen was on the Borg ship in "Best of Both Worlds" that was destroyed. Seeing her again causes memories to resurface in Picard — he remembers the Queen as the master behind his own attempted assimilation. The Queen's retort that his feeble human mind is too limited to understand was mysterious but unrevealing. Perhaps my primitive three-dimensional mind isn't supposed to understand it, either. Too bad; I would've appreciated understanding the Queen's history a little better. As a symbol of oneness she works great, but the specifics are a tad overly vague.
As compensation, the film allows us to witness first contact between the humans and the Vulcans. Without going too much into detail, I'll just say that the sequence is a poignant, effective payoff, and a great way to end the movie. I think it's the best scene in the entire film and one of the better moments in Trek's history, with a genuine sense of wonder and amazement and a real epic feel (and Jerry Goldsmith's theme is top-notch). It lays down some of the background of the Federation, which I've always wondered about, and it reveals that Star Trek cares not just where it's going, but also where it came from. As a Trekker so close to the series, I was moved. (Don't begin to ask me how a non-Trekker would react, though — I wouldn't know.)
First Contact is not really the action-packed "Borg movie" the trailers want to suggest. It's got action and adventure, sure. But it's really about assembling a sci-fi plot to entertain in thoughtful ways, using the resources and history of the seemingly-immortal concept of Trek itself. If this film is an indication of where the franchise intends to go, I'll gladly be aboard for the next ride.