Friday, August 26, 2016

TNG Flashback: First Contact

With Star Trek: Generations having passed the movie torch from the classic cast, First Contact was the Next Generation cast's chance to stand alone... and shine.

When the new Enterprise-E thwarts a Borg attack on Earth, the cybernetic villains go to "Plan B," traveling back in time to assimilate humanity by stopping their first contact with alien life. Our heroes follow the Borg to the past, and soon face troubles on many fronts. Warp engine pioneer Zefram Cochrane is riddled with doubts about his destiny. The Borg are gradually taking over the Enterprise. And Data has been abducted by the Borg Queen for experimentation... and temptation. Can Captain Picard and his crew save the day and tomorrow?

I've never met a Star Trek fan who doesn't think First Contact is the best of the Next Generation movies. I think the reason for that is that there are so many measures by which one can view it as superior to the other installments. It has the biggest stakes, with all of Earth and the very future that is Star Trek itself hanging in the balance. It effectively combines adventure, science fiction, and even horror. The story has deep ties to the series, but the emotions it stirs don't depend on having seen the series.

That story came from the same writing team as Generations, Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore scripting a plot developed with producer Rick Berman. Berman felt that the best episodes of Star Trek (plus the fourth film, The Voyage Home) had all dealt with time travel, while Braga and Moore wanted to do something big with the Borg -- bigger than the show could ever have done. They decided to do both.

The script itself came less easily than that core "time traveling Borg" idea. The notion to travel to the Italian Renaissance and meet Leonardo da Vinci was dropped in the idea stages. There was a draft that had Picard replacing Zefram Cochrane in his historical flight, which Patrick Stewart felt kept the captain away from his greatest potential drama: facing the Borg again. The Borg Queen was introduced in a rewrite, after a studio executive argued that the film needed a specific adversary amid the Borg "zombies."

The finished script arguably has a few shortcomings, but they're mostly defensible in the name of focusing on what matters. The initial Borg cube is destroyed rather easily (front-loading the movie in a rather Empire Strikes Back kind of way)... but the movie isn't about that attack, of course, it's about the time travel. The Borg time travel with such ease that you wonder why this wasn't "Plan A" all along... but then, it's not like anyone would actually want a bunch of technobabble here (plus, the beloved Star Trek IV is equally flippant about time travel). The Borg have never historically been "zombies" like this, "biting" and "turning" their victims... and yet this horrific take on them is far more scary and visceral than their past portrayals.

In swatting away all those less important details, those inconsistencies, Braga and Moore are able to achieve many poignant moments. It's compelling for the crew to learn that their hero Zefram Cochrane isn't the man the future thinks him to be, and moving when Cochrane rises to the occasion and starts to become that mythic figure. Lily is a wonderul proxy for the audience, delivering great humor ("it's my first ray gun") and the movie's most powerful scene (the "blow up the damn ship!" confrontation with Picard). Worf and Picard get into a chilling argument. The moment of first contact with the Vulcans is as potent as any Star Trek fan would have imagined. A romantic subplot with Lily is wisely avoided (both with Picard and with Cochrane), in favor of a deep friendship instead.

The movie is also fun in a way Generations certainly wasn't (nor do I recall the subsequent films being). The Borg Queen's seduction of Data is creepy but also entertaining. There are fun cameos from Robert Picardo (as an Emergency Medical Hologram), Ethan Phillips (not as Neelix), and fan favorite Dwight Schultz (as Barclay). There's a crazy holodeck sequence -- not because it's necessary, but because it lets Picard loose with a machine gun. There are moments that cleverly puncture Star Trek's high-minded sensibilities ("Don't you people from the 24th century ever pee?"). Marina Sirtis gets to cut loose and show us a drunk Troi, in a moment that Jonathan Frakes seems to truly enjoy not as Riker but as a happy director.

And speaking of Frakes' skills as director, he succeeds not just in getting great performances from the cast, but in crafting the most visually dynamic of the Next Generation films. There are so many memorable shots here: the opening oner that pulls back from Picard's eye to reveal a vast Borg environment (and then returns to that eye in skin-crawling fashion), the moment the Borg Queen takes physical form for the first time, the reveal of the Vulcans, and more. Dutch angles and strange lenses are used to augment the tension of the Borg invasion.

Frakes also trusts other departments to deliver the goods. Jerry Goldsmith composed a moving, wonderful score (with some great new material, even if several melodies are lifted from Star Treks I and V). In costuming and makeup, the new look of the Borg is a quantum leap beyond what the TV show gave us. The movie goes on location to great effect -- to the mountains, and to an actual missile silo. We get new militaristic uniforms, new lighting, a new ship, and it all looks great.

There are really just a couple ways in which I'd try to shore up the movie. Foremost, I think it's a much better story for the characters on the ship than the ones on the planet. The Earthside story is much more about Cochrane than Riker, Troi, or LaForge, and I'd try to find a few more moments for them. Second, I'd retroactively not destroy the Enterprise-D in Generations. It's simply not as powerful to threaten a ship we hardly know (and scarcely get to see in an un-Borgified state). It would have been far more potent to see the ship we loved for seven seasons in jeopardy, being assimilated deck by deck.

Other observations:
  • In the opening minutes of the film, the enlarged bridge and shrunken observation lounge of the Enterprise-E (relative to the D) tells you all you need to know about what's important to this movie. Less talk, more action.
  • Four new CG starships were designed for the big opening battle against the Borg cube. Three would go on to appear later in Star Trek, but a computer glitch destroyed the model of the Noway-class vessel, and so it was never seen again.
  • Data being able to turn off his emotion chip undermines the big forward step of him having emotions. Plus, the Borg Queen then reactivates the chip anyway, meaning it was all just for a cheap gag.
  • Speaking of the Borg Queen, it's notable that this is the only Star Trek film where the main villain is female. Remarkable, and a bit disappointing, I'd say.
  • It's kind of hilarious that LeVar Burton finally got his wish to lose the VISOR, and then Geordi wears sunglasses in his biggest scene.
  • Reportedly, Tom Hanks was approached to play Zefram Cochrane -- and being a Trekker, he was actually up for it. But Hanks opted instead to make his feature directorial debut on That Thing You Do! Hanks or no, James Cromwell was a fine Cochrane. He'd been on Star Trek twice before, and also brought award credibility with his Oscar nomination for Babe. (And he wasn't the only Oscar nominee "guest star." Alfre Woodard was also a nominee, for Cross Creek.)
  • During production of the movie, a persistent rumor (fanned by LGBT media) claimed that the ship's new helmsman, Hawk, was going to be gay. Obviously, there's no indication of this in the finished film, and the producers have denied ever having that intention... leaving the gay character issue for another day
  • Two audio commentaries were release on the 2-disc DVD version of the film. Of those, Jonathan Frakes' track is a bit of a waste, as he just gets caught up watching the movie and joking about his directorial choices without offering much insight.
  • ...but writers Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore are again thoughtful as they were on Generations. They defend their "the audience doesn't care about the details" choices, talk about the flaws they see in the deflector dish sequence (even though fans seemed to like it), acknowledge how much Jerry Goldsmith's music helps the movie, and make note of this being the first PG-13 Star Trek movie. Of particular interest is a discussion they have near the end of the film, about the blessing/curse nature of Star Trek's elaborate continuity. They talk about how reviving Star Trek might well require some grand move to wipe the slate clean -- which is exactly what the reboot movies did.
  • Speaking of the reboots: their controversial (among some fans) use of the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage." It's worth noting that this movie got "there" first with Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" (a great choice) and Roy Orbison's "Ooby Dooby" (a more questionable, goofy choice).
Star Trek: First Contact looks positively like a low-budget indie film compared to the modern Trek reboots, but The Next Generation really never looked better than this. Indeed, on the big screen at least, it never was better. I give the movie an A-.


Anonymous said...

Overall this is a good movie for sure. What bothered be most however were scenes such as the one with the argument between Picard and Worf. Picard calling Worf a coward is so completely out of character and makes absolutely no sense. Picard was always rational under the worst of circumstances even during other encounters with the borg later in TNG. Also, what's with the borg and the power tools attached to their hands? Sorry, that's just plain ridiculous.
Frankly these kinds of scenes sort of destroyed the experience for me, although I have to admit the storyline is clearly the best of all TNG movies. Nevertheless, in my opinion it doesn't hold up that well against the best TNG TV episodes.

Francis K. Lalumiere said...

First Officer's Log:
There were lots of little things to nitpick in this movie, but overall, the only thing that really bothered me was the concept of the Borg Queen. It's a love-hate relationship for me: on the one hand, it makes for some great face-to-face confrontations, but on the other hand, it destroys the monolithic nature of the Borg, which is what made them so terrifying to me (and no doubt to many others). It used to be that you couldn't have a conversation with the Borg, couldn't reason with them, couldn't negotiate with them. Not so with the Borg Queen.
Still, undoubtedly the best TNG movie. In fact, it all went downhill *very* fast after First Contact. I blame Rick Berman. For a great many things.