The Next Generation crew’s first jump onto the big screen was a capable yet flawed disappointment, but that’s no reflection on the strength of the cast. They may not be icons like the original crew, but with seven successful seasons under their belt they’ve more than earned their place in the Trek canon.
It’s welcome to discover, then, that First Contact does them justice where Generations did not.
Here we have a movie that mixes together parts of The Wrath of Khan (a relentless returning enemy and some reliance on TV Trek lore) and The Voyage Home (time travel to an earlier Earth and the cheeky humor that results), and blends them together in a new story that manages to mine Trek lore in a way uber Trek nerds will love while also giving more casual fans like me a space adventure that is good fun.
It all starts with the Borg, a hivemind race of techno-organic hybrid beings that assimilate any creature or technology they come into contact with. They’re basically space zombies with gadgets, a kind of slow-moving menace that you can run from but that you can never really stop, and one that turns allies into enemies.
The Borg have finally started to invade Federation space. This is bad. They’re heading for Earth. That’s very bad. Nothing the Federation has can stop the Borg, not even the Enterprise. That’s really bad. Early on we get a cool space battle that isn’t quite at Star Wars levels of cool, but which is still pretty awesome to see. That’s good.
Then some fuzzy technobabble time travel stuff happens. The Enterprise is caught in a time slipstream or something, they see that the Borg had gone back in time and conquered the Earth a few centuries prior by stopping the first warp drive ship from taking off, and the only way to reverse it is to go back in time and make sure that ship does take off.
Yeah, it’s a touch convoluted, the sort of plot hook better left for a comic book than a movie you hope will appeal to a wider audience; the sort of thing non-Trek fans tend to mock about the series, complete with nonsense, pseudo-scientific jargon about what’s happening. They race through this setup fast enough, though, and the basics are simple enough so that you can stuff it in the back of your mind and just focus on the fun. The Enterprise has to go back in time to stop the space zombies from sleeping with Marty McFly’s mom. Got it. Let’s get on with the adventure.
On Earth, the adventure is lighthearted and fun. While a quirky scientist guy and his crew scramble to finish an experimental rocket, he learns he’s going to become one of mankind’s most important figures by inventing the warp drive. This is all set on an Earth that had just been ravaged by World War III, though we see almost none of the effects of that presumably devastating conflict. Instead, we spend all our time in the woods with some castoffs from Firefly.
This whole subplot would be inessential and frankly not very good – it doesn’t even provide a good window into Trek lore despite flashing us back to THE pivotal moment in this universe – except that it serves a valuable purpose: it provides some breathing room from the claustrophobic, often grim events taking place on board the Enterprise.
And that Enterprise stuff is indeed claustrophobic, even when some of the crew head outside the ship for a spacewalk. The relentless Borg take over in no time. People are dying. The action takes place largely in tight corridors and crawlspaces. If this was staged to keep the budget in check, it was an effective choice, because the result is a feeling that our heroes have no escape short of pulling a miracle out of their nether regions.
About the only misstep in this sequence is a brief scene on the holodeck – as with Generations, this kitsch is better left for the small screen – and the character of Lily, Quirky Scientist Guy’s assistant who is brought on board the Enterprise and who helps Picard come to the realization that his fight against the Borg is more personal than he is willing to admit.
Those are small missteps, though. As with Khan, portions of this story rely on knowledge of TV episodes (in this case the Next Generation’s “The Best of Both Worlds”), but it’s written and presented well enough so that you can go into things blind and never really miss a beat. Data’s struggles with his emotion chip continue here, but they are more seamlessly woven into the story than in Generations. Patrick Stewart is great as always.And so on.
But the REAL standout is Alice Kringe as the Borg queen, an eerie, slithering, evil, and disturbingly sexy villain that may retcon some Trek lore – after all these years the hivemind Borg suddenly have a queen, and Picard KNOWS her? – but that is so good you don’t think twice about it. She steals every scene she’s in. She snakes her way around the set, her face in a perpetual smile constructed of seduction and pure, ravenous desire for conquest. She is so halting a presence that the otherwise silly Earth sequences become a welcome respite from her evil. A terrific addition to the Trek canon (though some fans disagree).
The climax leans towards the light rather than the tragic, and that’s a good choice, given Generations’ failure to hoist the drama flag in its final scenes. Despite the oppressive nature of the Enterprise storyline and the unsettling nature of the Borg Queen, First Contact wraps up in a way that is just plain FUN. And that’s welcome.
No, First Contact’s humor never rises to the endearing level of The Voyage Home’s, nor does its revenge story have the literary potency of Khan’s, but it has enough of both to accomplish what Generations could not: it rises above its small screen roots and earns its places as a bona fide big screen epic.
All in all, it lives up to the recommendations made by several friends, who all said it’s worth watching despite my relatively indifference to continuing this Trek-a-thon into the Next Generation movies.
After the relative disappointment of Generations, a film that could have easily been a made-for-TV movie, that’s all I can ask.