The Borg are back, the future is in peril and the “Star Trek” mythos proceeds apace. “Star Trek: First Contact” is a smashingly exciting sci-fi adventure that ranks among the very best in the long-running Paramount franchise. Better still, this is one TV spinoff that does not require ticketbuyers to come equipped with an intimate knowledge of the small-screen original. Fans and non-fans alike will line up for this wild ride, and many will be repeat customers. Expect earthshaking domestic grosses, impressive foreign biz and, eventually, out-of-this-world homevideo sales.
The title is doubly apt, in that “First Contact,” which revolves around the initial encounter between humankind and extraterrestrials, also is the first “Star Trek” movie to feature no one from the late Gene Roddenberry’s original 1966-69 TV series. In the previous film, “Star Trek: Generations,” the redoubtable Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner) passed the torch over to Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), commander of the new and improved Starship Enterprise. Now it’s up to Capt. Picard and his crew from TV’s “Star Trek The Next Generation” to keep the universe safe for the United Federation of Planets. Fortunately, the new kids on the block are up to the task.
Written by Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore, with considerable input from producer and “Next Generation” veteran Rick Berman, “First Contact” actually is a sequel to “The Best of Both Worlds,” a popular two-part episode from the “Next Generation” series. On television, Picard was captured and very nearly “assimilated” by the Borg, a marauding race of half-organic, half-robotic cyborgs. He managed to regain his humanity, but just barely.
And as “First Contact” begins, he continues to be troubled by Borg bogeymen in his nightmares. All of which explains why Picard, normally a by-the-book officer, is so eager to ignore orders and join the fray when Starfleet Command launches an attack on a gigantic Borg spacecraft. Picard leads the USS Enterprise to the battle just in time to take command and blast the Borg. Unfortunately, several of the Borg escape and head to Earth, where they hope to control the “present” i.e., the 24th century by sabotaging the past. Even more unfortunately, some other Borg manage to board the Enterprise, and set out to assimilate the entire crew for the greater good of their Borg Queen.
Jonathan Frakes, the dashing actor who played Picard’s second in command, Cmdr. William Riker, on the “Next Generation” series, does double duty here as director and co-star. Having earned his stripes by directing a few TV episodes, Frakes makes an auspicious debut as a feature filmmaker, sustaining excitement and maintaining clarity as he dashes through a two-track storyline.
Picard and his crew follow the Borg back in time to April 4, 2063, the day before an eccentric scientist named Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) is scheduled to make the first recorded warp-speed flight in a reconditioned rocket. The Enterprisers know from their history books that, because Cochrane made this flight, he attracted the interest of wandering extraterrestrials, which in turn led to the formation of the United Federation of Planets and the production of four different “Star Trek” TV series. Once they beam down to Earth , however, Riker and his companions discover that the Borg, also mindful of history, have damaged Cochrane’s rocket. It’s up to the Enterprise’s Away Team to make repairs and to make sure Cochrane stays sober long enough to keep his date with destiny.
Meanwhile, back on the Enterprise, Lily Sloane (Alfre Woodard), Cochrane’s more sober-sided associate, is caught up in Picard’s battle against the Borg invasion. At first, things look bad for our heroes. The Borg methodically seize control of various levels of the Enterprise, and turn every human they can grab into one of them. Indeed, the Borg Queen (played with deliciously perverse sensuality by Alice Krige) even manages to capture Lt. Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner) , the android officer who has been outfitted with an “emotion chip.”
The Borg Queen offers to fulfill Data’s fondest desire by making him human. As they negotiate, the movie takes an intriguingly ambiguous turn, so that it’s not entirely clear just who is seducing whom. For a while, there is serious doubt as to where Data’s true loyalties lie. Credit Spiner and the scriptwriters for finding brave new ways to make a familiar character unsettlingly unpredictable.
Longtime “Trek” devotees may be disappointed by the relatively short shrift given to such Enterprise regulars as Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden), Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis), Lt. Cmdr. La Forge (LeVar Burton) and Klingon warrior turned Starship officer Worf (Michael Dorn). Even more jarring, however, is the way “First Contact” introduces horror-film elements to a traditional “Star Trek” plot. Much of the violence and many of the shadow-streaked battle scenes are heavily influenced by “Alien” and “Aliens.” The Borg drones and Borg-ified humans, like their counterparts in the original TV episode, look a lot like malevolent bit players from the “Hellraiser” movies. Purists who recall Gene Roddenberry’s original vision of a less blood-soaked “Star Trek” universe may be put off by the rough stuff. But mainstream audiences will be more approving of the greater emphasis on high-voltage shocks and action-movie heroics.
Stewart once again comports himself with all the gravity and panache you would expect from a Shakespearean-trained actor. He is at his best playing opposite Woodard in a scene that has their characters arguing over the best way to battle the Borg. Woodard’s Lily agrees with the Enterprise officers who want to bail out in escape pods after igniting the Enterprise’s self-destruct mechanism. But Stewart’s Picard who, naturally, has an old score to settle with the Borg dismisses such talk as craven defeatism. It is a credit to both actors that their emotion-charged conversation is genuinely compelling.
Other performances, including Cromwell’s colorful turn as the hard-drinking Cochrane, are just what they should be for “First Contact” to work. Much the same can be said for the special-effects wizardry, by far the most elaborate seen in a “Star Trek” film. Tech credits including Matthew F. Leonetti’s striking cinematography and Michael Westmore’s inspired makeup are stellar across the board.
If “First Contact” is indicative of what the next generation of “Star Trek” movies will be like, the franchise is certain to live long and prosper.