Star Trek: First Contact proves just how well people can work with their backs against the wall. The previous installment, Generations, had managed to disappoint critics and die-hard fans alike. Even that film’s monumental teaming of nerd icons (Captains Kirk and Picard) fell curiously flat. There were rumblings that the Next Generation crew couldn’t carry a film, and audiences were suffering from franchise fatigue. This put enormous pressure on the filmmakers to rescue this beloved institution before it truly explored new territory–oblivion.
Thankfully, First Contact makes all the right moves. The film resurrects the Borg, the series’ most fearsome and compelling villains. These cybernetic zombies gave the show a jolt similar as the White Walkers on Game of Thrones: Put simply, they’re cold, relentless, and limitless–the apocalyptic swarm on the horizon. With the Borg on board, First Contact instantly becomes more exciting.
Furthermore, this installment needed to be more cinematic than the clunky, rickety Generations, and the filmmakers over-deliver on that, as well. Director Jonathan Frakes (who also plays the bearded Commander Rider) pulls his camera back for wider, steadier shots that feel built for a theater screen. He also employs a veteran movie crew, from cinematographer Matthew Leonetti to Oscar-winning composer Jerry Goldsmith. For the first time, the TNG actors feel like movie stars.
The plot will be incoherent to anyone who’s never seen that landmark series. Specifically, Trek noobs need to check out “The Best of Both Worlds,” a two-parter that sets up the events of this film. Those excellent episodes depict the Borg making their big push to assimilate Earth and enslave its population. For good measure, they capture and brainwash Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) to be their mouthpiece. While I don’t want to give away any spoilers, I will say the show does go four more seasons after this.
Cut to six years later, and the Borg have regrouped for a new assault. Picard is initially ordered away from the impending battle. The higher ups feel his traumatic experience with the Borg will cloud his judgment. Naturally, the Enterprise crew is outraged, but they oblige and twiddle their thumbs for a while. Eventually, Picard receives a frantic distress call: Starfleet is on the brink of annihilation. That means ol’ Jean-Luc is gonna do Jean-Luc things. He coolly brings the Enterprise into the broiling battle like a Billy Badass. Picard brings his intimate knowledge of Borg technology to bear, and turns the tide of war.
Duly vanquished, the Borg pull an ace card from their zombified sleeves. They open a temporal vortex and vanish into it, escaping to somewhere in the distant past. With that, the Earth transforms into a lifeless ball of Borg drones, another victim of these technical locusts. Picard instantly figures what he and his crew must do: They follow the Borg ship into the rift, where they will repair whatever damage has been done to Earth’s history.
That journey takes them to the mid-21st century. The world is crawling from the smoldering wreckage of a nuclear war. Billions are dead. Yet, this moment finds humanity approaching a glimmer of hope: Zephram Cochrane (James Cromwell), a wily inventor and test pilot, is about to try the first warp-speed space flight. This will catch the attention of neighboring Vulcans, who will then deem Earth worthy of a visit. Thus, Cochrane’s test run will sow the seeds that will grow the Federation we all know and love. Of course, not if the Borg have anything to do with it!
What follows is an exciting, well-written sci-fi epic. Series vets Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore keep things both lively and easy to follow. They also introduce a little emotional shading to Picard, who could get a little sanctimonious and preachy on the TV show. Here, the Borg provoke powerful emotions within their old captive: The Picard we see here is sullen, temperamental, and unstable. His sudden thirst for revenge may very well get the entire crew killed.
The writers also give Picard two strong new characters to interact with: Lily (Alfre Woodard) is Cochrane’s level-headed research partner. During a Borg attack, she becomes lost on the Enterprise, and Picard must guide her to safety. Ultimately, Lily fills much the same role that Whoopi Goldberg’s Guinan did on the series: She’s an outsider, unafraid of Picard’s rank and résumé. When things get dicey, Lily has no trouble telling Picard when he’s out of line. The dramatic tension between Picard and Lily is some of the strongest of any Trek film.
Meanwhile, a new threat emerges within the Borg hive: The Queen (Alice Krige) is a silky, sinister cyborg who commands her drones as a colony of ants. She tries to tempt Commander Data (Brent Spiner) into the collective, but she has a few surprises in store for the captain, as well. As with Lily, the Queen is a strong character, and Krige clearly has a lot of fun playing her. Most Trek installments are only as good as their guest stars, and the supporting players here are top-notch.
Actually, most of First Contact holds up really well. The space battles aren’t 4K-ready, but they’re still some of the best in the franchise. Time travel can be a difficult proposition in film, but the script never gets plotty or contrived. Of course, there are flaws: Outside of Picard and Data, many of the crew don’t have a lot to do. (Dr. Crusher’s dialogue might as well have been given to Ensign Skippy.) The dramatic tension between Picard and Worf feels totally manufactured. Still, this is as close as The Next Generation would ever get to cinematic greatness. The cast and crew had the franchise on their shoulders, and they killed. First Contact is one of the best Trek films, regardless of cast.
111 min. PG-13. STARZ.