2. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Directed by Jonathan Frakes.
Starring Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Alfre Woodard, James Cromwell, and Alice Krige.
There’s a lot to be said for letting go of the past – especially where storied movie franchises are concerned – as evidenced decisively by The Next Generation’s second cinematic foray, First Contact. No longer hitched to the baggage of the Shatner years as with Generations, this thrilling sci-fi excursion is easily one of the series’ most joyous and purely entertaining spectacles – helmed by none other than Riker himself, Jonathan Frakes, no less.
Going back to the time travel well once again after indulging it several times prior with mixed results was certainly a risk, yet in centering the story on the fateful initial encounter between humans and extraterrestrials, the stakes are sky-high without tying the movie up in knots. It also doesn’t hurt that fan favourite baddies the Borg serve as the primary antagonists, with a uniquely Machiavellian scheme which involves preventing humanity’s initial contact with alien species from ever taking place.
First Contact also reinvents another well-worn Trek movie trope in an intriguing way; the cast is once again split off into smaller, contained subplots – which has proven problematic for Trek films in the past – yet every single one of them springs entertaining, especially Data’s oddly kinky time spent as a prisoner of the Borg Queen (Alice Krige).
Such a portentous central premise could so easily have collapsed were the film’s tone not so unflappable, yet Frakes boldly attempts to push the bounds of what fans will accept even while the film never quite stops being a flighty romp. The Borg in particular allow the movie to become a darker and more morally soupy adventure. The Borg infestation is genuinely tense, dabbling in body horror as it does, and Picard is acutely aware from the outset that the only way to combat them is death.
This is a film in which Picard kills his own infected crewman because nothing can be done for him, and yet, the sillier moments – drunk Troi and Robert Picardo’s cameo, for example – still aren’t tonally jarring.
Frakes cut his teeth previously by helming numerous episodes of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, yet unlike other TV-versed Trek directors, there’s not even a hint of a ceiling being placed on his visual imagination per the constraints of the small screen.
First Contact looks fantastic, even releasing during the awkward mid-90s CGI onset period as it did. Despite hitting screens just two years after Generations, it’s a decidedly more contemporary and well-aged effort, aided by ravishing work from veteran DP Matthew F. Leonetti, superb Oscar-nominated makeup effects, and a killer Jerry Goldsmith score.
This is all boosted by some of the finest ensemble work of the entire franchise; Patrick Stewart gets arguably his strongest ever innings as Picard here, offering up an angrier and more tortured portrayal of the Captain than we’ve ever seen before. The supporting players are no less splendid, from the magnificent James Cromwell as pivotal Trek figure Zefram Cochrane, to Alfre Woodard as Cochrane’s assistant Lily, and best of all a magnetic Alice Krige as the diabolical Borg Queen.
Yet as prior Trek films have proven, this cast would be for nothing without a strong script, and First Contact boasts one of the most thematically rich and reverent to the series’ core ethos. It lovingly emphasises Trek’s inherent optimism about the future of humanity that’s always been so appealing, punctuated by its affecting, uplifting finale.
At once hopeful and dark, First Contact is a rousing space opera with terrific characterisation, performances, and surprisingly well-aged visual effects.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
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