Directed by Jonathan Frakes
November 22, 1996
This is a reappraisal/edit of my original review of Star Trek: First Contact. I thought it appropriate to take another look in light of the 25th anniversary this year of the film.
The Borg travel back in time to assimilate Earth and prevent first contact with the Vulcans thus destroying the Federation. Now the crew of the Enterprise-E must follow and prevent the changing of the timeline.
First Contact is a movie that pulls an Ed Valenti on the story of Earth’s first encounter with Vulcans and says, “But wait, there’s more!” It is not as if they take lingering questions raised by what came before and expand upon them. They just shoehorn in crap and put a bow on it by featuring the Borg. There is a great deal that is wrong or just plain questionable about what should have been TNG’s most epic screen outing.
They go back into Star Trek mythology and mine the idea of First Contact and the character of Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) for the building blocks of this story. Why James Cromwell? I am not knocking him as an actor but physically he is all wrong for the part. And as an actor he is just as poor of a fit.
The character of Cochrane (Glenn Corbett) was originally a quiet, thoughtful individual that sought no glory. He was just trying to live his life. Here he is a drunken glory hound that stumbles into his historical greatness. And do not get me started on how this movie creates some incongruities on the character’s only previous appearance in TOS.
Too late. In TOS Zefram Cochrane was much shorter and younger though his youth was being maintained by an alien entity in that appearance. The assumption was that by the time he encountered the being he was still a young man but here in First Contact he is played by the significantly older and taller James Cromwell. Originally the character was a decent guy and not a raging alcoholic and apparent sexual assaulter (he could not keep his hands off of Troi-because it is funny). Here they portrayed Cochrane as a jerk with a serious drinking problem. This was a bit too much of a change for me.
I give them credit for when they touch on the character of Zefram Cochrane they make a nice point that often the way we view historical figures is not exactly how they were in life. We tend to build up the ones that we have singled out as great individuals into superior versions of humanity. Our secular saints often have serious warts. It is a nice bit of commentary there.
Another sin of First Contact is how they watered down the Borg even further in a big screen outing that show have been epic. When the Borg first appeared, they were disconcerting and frightening with one collective mind and came at the Federation like an unstoppable force. They felt like a monster in a way. The Borg were also a commentary. They were the loss of individuality and freedom in the face of advancing technology. You could not talk to them and negotiate. And defeating them took ingenuity and a willingness to risk everything. Then they started focusing on individual Borg and then here they got a hierarchy. They went from a force of nature to a species with a head of state (Alice Krige as the Borg Queen) that you could reason with. Not my favorite development. Paramount head Jonathan Dolgen was reportedly the one responsible for this terrible idea. Up until this film the Borg were much more alien but by adding a Queen they lost that other nature.
In First Contact Capt. Picard (Patrick Stewart) once again works through his feelings over being assimilated. I say “again” because I am pretty sure in the TNG episode “Family” and the episode “I, Borg” that introduced the character of Hugh (UGH!) he had already worked through those same feelings-TWICE in the series! It seemed rather pointless for him to do it this time around.
A lingering question for me is why no Guinan? Like Picard, she has a strong connection to the Borg since her world was attacked by the Borg. We learned that in the episode “Q Who?” and were reminded that she came to Federation space as a refugee fleeing the Borg in the first TNG film Generations. The Borg are significant to this character who lives and works on the Enterprise, but she is M.I.A. from the story here. Word is Whoopi Goldberg assumed she was going to be in the movie given what she knew of the plot so it is not as if she would have turned an offer down, but none came. Lieutenant Barclay (Dwight Schultz) and Nurse Ogawa (Patti Yasutake) show up briefly but not Guinan whose world was destroyed by the Borg? Who made the decision to include them but not her? I sense the inept mind of Jonathan Dolgen again.
Something that has never been clear to me concerning the plot was if the Borg idea of time travel was their Plan B in case of failure or was it their Plan A from the start. If it was their main plan all along then why didn’t they just time travel before they got to Earth? That seems like a better idea than time traveling once you have lost your main ship and the bulk of your forces. They used the better idea once their troops and resources were nearly wiped out. For a foe that had assimilated multiple species and for whom defeat appears to be almost unknown (yet they get handily defeated often in Star Trek) that appears to be rather stupid.
Plenty of the B Characters (at least when it came to how they were used in the films) got more to do. Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) got a moment to shine when evacuating sickbay and used the Enterprise’s EMH (Robert Picardo) to distract the Borg. It was funny and very creative.
While Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) did get more to do than sense things, she was the comedy relief for the most part. Her interactions early on with Cochrane were a disservice to the character and a bit of lazy writing. She got sloshed because it is…funny? That is some lowbrow crap that is normally beneath Star Trek.
Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) got a bit more than reacting and repairing things. His story about going to Zefram Cochrane High School was a cute bit of backstory. Burton’s performance was aided by the unexplained loss of his character’s VISOR device which was replaced by ocular implants. Burton could act and give the character more range, but they never explained why the VISOR went away after the entirety of the TNG run and apparently Geordi having worn it most of his life.
It was nice to get Worf (Michael Dorn) back on the Enterprise. Given the distance that Deep Space 9 was from Earth, how he made it in a matter of hours seems a little incongruous with previously established information about travel time, but I am good with any excuse that gets the whole crew together again. And when Worf said “Maybe it IS a good day to die” that was just a cool moment for the character. Very Klingon.
Data (Brent Spiner) was given a significant presence in this movie. Then again that was the reality for all the TNG movies. He and Picard became central figures in all the films which unfortunately pushed the remaining ensemble cast into the background. That included the characters best bud Geordi LaForge. I would argue that if your first exposure to TNG were the movies you would be unaware of their close friendship until watching the show.
Aside from his brother Lore (also Brent Spiner) taking over the Borg that had been severed from the collective because of one Borg’s brush with individuality and manipulating Data in “Descent Pt. 1 and 2,” I am not sure why the focus of this film was so placed on him. The events of that two-part episode had few if any reverberations in the series. The only important development was the emotion chip which resurfaced in Generations but that was not anything that screamed “Borg!” It is not like Data had suffered at the hands of the Borg in a manner similar to Picard or Guinan who is not in the movie yet had her world wiped out by the Borg.
The Borg stories usually provided for some cool action and this is no different. The tension always skyrockets when the characters walk through a cube or any place the Borg are. One wrong move and the Borg will identify them as a threat and the battle begins. The longer they walk the more the tension builds, and you anticipate whatever that one mistake will be. Nothing happens for so long and the anticipation makes the payoff so sweet.
First Contact is not a bad movie but it so much less than it could have been. It is heavily flawed. Upon rewatching I give this a barely “if you want.”