The Star Trek movies featuring the Next Generation crew are still unique in film history. The six films featuring Kirk, Spock and McCoy were all a decade or more removed from the original series run. The next leg of the film franchise kicked off just after Star Trek: The Next Generation went off the air, making those four movies essentially an annex to the TV show. After the recent reboot of the franchise reinvented Star Trek‘s aesthetic possibilities, it’s clear that the older films aspired to little more than a glossier version of what was on TV. There’s nothing wrong with this, and those movies are at their best when they play to the narrative strengths of the show itself, just on a grander canvas. Hands down, the most successful Next Generation film was Star Trek: First Contact, the film that continues the most famous storyline from the series: Captain Picard’s rematch with the Borg collective.
Jonathan Frakes, who plays Commander Riker, took the director’s chair for this installment. He supplies a strong visual sense to a film that already had a great deal of built-in visual interest, with its space battles and killer robot zombies. The very first shot is a marvel, a flashback to Picard’s original abduction and assimilation into the Borg, captured with a long pull-back that begins on a close-up of Patrick Stewart’s eye and ends on the cold landscape of a vast metallic hull. The interior of the Borg ship is envisioned as a brutal tech dystopia; in this regard, First Contact beat both Dark City and The Matrix to the punch. The ship’s occupants remain unseen until more than a half-hour into the movie, a skillful bit of showmanship that allows Frakes to get in a few horror-movie licks before settling into some of the show’s old standbys: an away team mission and a crisis aboard the USS Enterprise.
Of the two parallel stories that unfold during this film, by far the more effective is the zombie invasion on the ship. That’s where the story’s two best-defined character arcs occur — namely, Picard’s and Data’s (Brent Spiner) — and it’s the story with the more urgent and concrete problems to solve. The away team led by Commander Riker does the usual away team stuff, running around forested areas while trying not to disrupt the local society too much. The twist is that this time, the planet is Earth, three centuries in the past (but still almost fifty years after 2016). Their mission is to protect a historic space flight that the Borg want to prevent. Since there aren’t any real enemies on the planet, it all ends up being pretty lighthearted. The only obstacle comes when the test pilot, Zefram Cochrane (an amusing James Cromwell), gets spooked by the time travelers’ anachronistic reverence for him. There are a few good points made here about hero worship, how some courageous or noble things can be done for selfish reasons, but there’s also a good deal of mugging for the camera by Frakes as Riker and LeVar Burton as Geordi. The only intrigue arises from the communications blackout between Earth and the ship, the right hand never knowing what the left hand is doing.
Back on the ship, everything depends on Picard. He has an intimate knowledge of the Borg’s strengths and weaknesses because of his previous experience, but along with that comes a strong case of post-traumatic stress and a blindly vindictive spirit. The film draws two analogies to illustrate his potential downfall. First is the film noir protagonist, glimpsed when Picard launches a Holodeck virtual reality program just so he can get his hands on a weapon. Tommy gun in hand, he mows down a pair of Borg attackers, his latent rage boiling over. Later, there’s a verbal link to Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, the greatest of all doomed obsessives. In both these scenes, Picard is accompanied by Lily (Alfre Woodard), Zefram Cochrane’s companion, who had been transported to the ship for medical treatment. Her bold, clear-eyed observations of the captain finally steer him away from his self-destructive course. She awakens his natural compassion and circumspection. This allows him to confront his demons, suddenly remembering aspects of his trauma that he had blocked, and even paves the way for closure.
Lieutenant Commander Data’s character arc is also a continuation of the TV series, with the android’s Pinocchio tendencies creating an ethical dilemma. The Borg offer him radical reconstructive surgery to make him more human, in exchange for the surrender of his individual consciousness. This devil’s bargain is extended by the hive mind’s queen (Alice Krige). The socially awkward but pleasant Data is a very easy character to like. An earlier scene had established that Data didn’t understand the emotional value that humans associate with the sense of touch. So it was a narrative masterstroke to have his crisis of conscience come about thanks to skin grafts. As the Borg experiment on him, the possibility of the most reliable of characters actually being lost for good looms larger. In the film’s final act, all the storylines are woven together into cascading suspense.
On the most basic plot level, Star Trek: First Contact isn’t terribly distinctive. It’s about saving the world. But the time-travel premise helps the film explore the foundations of the entire Star Trek mythos. Contrasting post-apocalyptic Montana with the utopian, greed-free world of the twenty-third century, the film expresses hope for a solution to humanity’s problems. It’s still a long way off (there might be another world war first), and it will take the miracle of warp-speed travel to achieve, but it could happen. This was Gene Roddenberry’s vision. Clearly, the conventions of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking compromise that vision somewhat. There’s still a great deal of violence and oppression in other parts of the galaxy, as it turns out. Everywhere and in every era, people tend to have the same faults. The Borg were a manifestation of future shock in the early nineties — the fear of cybernetic advances, the increasing prominence of computers, the dawn of artificial intelligence. Technologically, the Borg are already outdated and clunky only a couple decades later, but spiritually, they retain their sinister terror. In this way Star Trek: First Contact speaks to real-life anxieties even as it devotes most of its attention to being a fun genre exercise. It succeeds at both beautifully.