Prole Hole Reviews Star Trek: First Contact

If you read the little bio I wrote at the end of the review of Generations a couple of weeks back then First Contactyou’ll know I’m in the process of writing a redemptive review of the whole of Star Trek: Voyager.  This was undertaken because I have genuine love of what is, in fact, an apparently little-loved show and I wanted to explore that and, well, redeem it.  But starting off with “Caretaker” made for a nice and easy entry point.  It’s a strong pilot – the strongest of all Trek pilots, in my opinion – but beyond that it’s just straightforwardly entertaining.  Cut to – one year later, and my good self attempting the same redemptive task but this time with the TNG movies.  Except, instead of starting with something that gives a strong foundation on which to continue, I instead had to slog through Generations, a poor movie that sometimes even seems to struggle to achieve basic professionalism never mind actually being  good.  I mentioned in my review of that movie that one of the reasons it’s frustrating is a lot of the details are correct but so little effort seems to have been paid to basic concerns like a plausibility, or a script that makes sense, or not messing up the sole reason for being there in the first place, that it’s easy to ask things like, “what was the script editor actually paid for?”  First Contact course-corrects to such a degree that it’s hard to imagine so many of the same people were involved in the shoddy amateurism that made Generations such a difficult film to redeem.

Let’s be clear from the outset – First Contact is a better film than Generations in absolutely every regard.  Gone, for example, are the pointless continuity references than nobody outside hardcore fandom cares about.  This is relevant because this is an actual movie, where people (not just fans) need to go to the theatre and fork over their hard-won cash rather than just idly flipping channels until they stray across it, and endless continuity points the general public just don’t care about can be incredibly off-putting.  The continuity that is on display in First Contact is, however, integrated seamlessly, and we can visibly see the lessons learned from the last outing.  Never heard of Zephram Cochrane before?  It doesn’t matter, because the script is smart enough not only to avoid any continuity references to old TOS episodes most of the viewers wont remember or care about, but also doesn’t include any wink-wink “I hope he doesn’t end up stranded on some lost planet!”-type foreshadowing.  And yet, if you have heard of him it’s a nice little link to the past without overdoing it.  This is how you handle in-series continuity, not with crushingly painful dialogue about how, “that’s the mission Jim Kirk was killed on!” or Whoopi Goldberg losing her dignity while Explaining The Movie’s Plot.   Never seen Voyager before?  That doesn’t make the Doctor’s brief cameo in sick bay any less funny.  Never heard of Reg Barclay before?  That’s fine, because otherwise he’s just some geeky keyboard-jockey who’s been let out of class for the day, an archetype that functions just fine whether you’ve seen the character before or not.  There’s a real skill in the way First Contact is able to handle and integrate elements of the past and it absolutely nails this in a way that no other TNG film manages and, meaningfully, no Trek film has achieved since The Wrath Of Khan.  Gone, too, are more major recurring characters – stand up the Duras sister, or rather, please don’t, and Guinan.  This is actually significant because it means screen-time isn’t being clogged up with characters who don’t really have anything to contribute – instead the TNG characters are allowed to come front and centre in their own movie and actually occupy the film in a way they never quite did in Generations.  Although Generations is ostensibly a TNG movie into which TOS gracelessly crashes there’s a feeling throughout the film that the TNG crew mostly seem to be standing around on the periphery watching events which really revolve around others, predominantly Kirk and Soran, and only react to situations rather than leading them.   They have very, very little agency and that means they just don’t feel all that relevant.  First Contact completely reverses this, and the difference is palpable.  We have three significant additional characters outside the main crew, a small handful of minor ones, and that’s it.  What this means is that we actually get to spend time with the characters we know and like from the TV show, and actually have them be the prime motivators in their own story.  This gives First Contact a drive and energy entirely missing from its predecessor, but also gives everyone something plot-relevant to do.  Some roles are bigger than others – as with all TNG movies (and a goodly chuck of the series) the female regulars are badly let down by a story that doesn’t greatly require them, so Troi gets to have a funny scene where she’s drunk, and good ol’ Beverly gets to evacuate sickbay and try to look authoritative on the bridge.  It’s not a lot, but at least they do get their little moments to shine (you could argue that Troi gets a couple of moments to sparkle in Generations, but since this is entirely down to the skill of Sirtis and has nothing to do with the script whatsoever I’m not going to).  The main focus is on Data and Picard, which also feels resonant of the TV show, especially the latter part of the TV show, but it doesn’t eclipse or drown out everything that’s around it, and because the way the characters interact with each other in groups shifts (Data and Picard together, then Picard and Lily, then Lily and the bridge crew, and so on), we don’t spend too long with one grouping while neglecting the other.  Even Worf is fairly seamlessly reintegrated (well, at least they find an excuse, something which will become increasingly daft over the next two films) and gets his moment in the spotlight too, Arnold-esque one-liner and all.   The point of all of this is that the crew actually feels like a crew, rather than a random collection of characters jolted into the same film together, and it comes across as something of a minor revelation, albeit a most welcome one.

And after helming a fair few number of TV episodes, Jonathan Frakes gets to follow in Leonard Nimoy’s footsteps and direct a big movie outing.  Again, the difference over the flat, largely uninspiring direction of Generations is astonishing.  There’s an energy and pace to the way Frakes sets up action shots and he knows how to keep everything moving smoothly, but he’s never afraid to allow things to slow down either – it’s obvious he has something to prove in the direction of this film and he sets about it with gusto.  The scene with Picard and Lily looking down on Earth together as he persuades her to hand over the phaser is, for example, blocked and shot fairly simply, but it’s a slow scene that allows both the characters and the movie time to breathe before moving on to the next action set piece.  Nothing here is rushed and events are allowed to unfold at their own pace.  And yet it’s clear that he knows how to frame a shot too, and is putting in real effort – that magnificent shot of eight Borg in a row activating their laser sights one at a time, or just about every moment with the Borg Queen demonstrate someone who’s really taken the time to learn their craft and bring those skills to the table.  And even though Frakes doesn’t have a reputation as an especially technical director there are a few moments that seem genuinely transcendent, like the effortless shift of perspective when Picard, Worf and Hawke are walking “upside down” across the outer hull of the Enterprise, or the loooooong pull-back after the credits.  The direction, indeed, is one of the elements here that makes it clear First Contact is taking advantage of the fact that it’s a film, not a TV show, and more significantly knows how to use the differences between the two mediums to its advantage.    So we again have a holodeck scene, which isn’t strictly necessary in plot terms (and it’s another skillfully deployed reference to the past that doesn’t labour the point), but gives Frakes a chance to show off directing a little Maltese Falcon riff into which Star Trek then intrudes.  It’s close enough to something that could have happened over the run of the TV show but never did, (“The Long Goodbye” not withstanding) yet it’s also just that little bit more.  To be fair, this is something Generations got right as well, but this feels a lot less self-indulgent and manages to make its relevance felt in about a quarter of the time, as we see Picard’s feet of clay starting to emerge.

Ah yes, the feet of clay.  Well.  The thing is, it works incredibly well for this film, even if it doesn’t really align with the Picard we’ve seen in the past.  Why?  Well, post-“The Best Of Both Worlds” Picard has had a couple of run-ins with the Borg and he has not only never expressed a meaningful desire for revenge (you would have thought this was something that might have come up during “I, Borg” at the very least, given that he’s in a position to commit genocide against the Borg there) but we’ve also never even had a hint that he can “hear” the Borg either.  Does this matter?  Well yes and no – partly yes, because it feels a little like the script is cherry-picking the past and skipping over a few inconvenient bits of that past for the sake of this movie, and partly no because Patrick Stewart turns in a Star Trek career best performance and completely owns this side of Picard’s personality, and, to be honest, it just makes this film that much more interesting.  It adds dimension to the struggle, meaning that we’re experiencing the Borg invasion both from an interior and exterior perspective.  That Picard has psychological issues related to what the Borg did to him is absolutely logical, even if we haven’t really seen them before, as is his desire to inflict pain and get some revenge.  It makes sense, in a film which exists to bring the Borg to the big screen, to use the one character who would have a very personal grudge against them as the principal character in the story, and it makes even more sense that it’s Patrick Stewart who’s given the task of selling that to the audience.  That he’s able to lash out in such an unexpected and violent way in the Ready Room when Lily tries to persuade him to blow up the Enterprise, yet never appears unsympathetic or unjustified while still obviously wrong, is a genuinely remarkable achievement.  I maintain to this day that the casting of Patrick Stewart is the single most important casting decision in the history of Star Trek (yes, even more than Shatner or Nimoy) and that he’s the principal reason we still talk about Star Trek in the present rather than the past tense.  Yet even by his own high standards what he delivers here, purely in terms of performance, is as good as he’s ever managed – the only performance I can think that’s close to being this good is “Chain Of Command”.  It also doesn’t hurt that Brent Spiner has noticeably upped his game since the last outing (well, everyone has, really) so the scenes of Picard and Data chatting together have the feel of a natural conversation rather than Here Comes The Exposition, and in Alfre Woodard as Lily Stewart finally finds a leading lady to play opposite who he actually has some natural chemistry with.  This isn’t a criticism of Stewart, though it is very much in praise of Woodard – it can’t be an easy task to play opposite Stewart when he’s at the top of his game as he is here, so for her to manage so well deserves some serious respect.

Thematically there are obvious links to Generations, and as I mentioned last time out this helps strengthen the overall tone of the TNG films and makes them feel much more of a piece with each other.  As Soran quested for what amounts to the perfect life we see here the Borg Queen doing exactly the same.  As far as TNG goes this is the first time we get a reference to the Borg’s activities as being more than mindless assimilation – a computer program made flesh yet unable to stop running – but instead being a quest for “perfection”.  In Generations, this perfection was represented by the concept-space of the Nexus, an abstract reality where any and all dreams could become true.  In First Concact the thematic heavy lifting is given to the Borg – their quest for perfection quite literally infesting Data as he’s given, for the first time, actual flesh rather than something more synthetic.  His “temptation” – and yes, he’s essentially crucified while being corrupted, though stops short of asking why Soong has forsaken him at least… – also allows loss to become the defining characteristic of his emotional journey through the film.  The very fact that he admits he was tempted by the Borg Queen’s offer, even if only briefly, makes thematic sense in the way that all TNG films are defined by loss, but it also means that his loss is a real one and not an abstract one, as with the Nexus.  He’s given flesh, and he’s seen to react to it with both pain and pleasure (an obvious, but effective, dichotomy), and he’s given feelings whether he wants them or not.  References to his emotion chip are kept to a minimum – thankfully – but still, the fact of the matter is that when he’s with the Borg Queen he can’t just shut off his feelings, and in this he becomes closer to being a true member of humanity than he’s ever managed before, stripped of convenient bypasses (and of course Picard’s earlier “there are times I envy you” line underscores this point without belabouring it).  His remorse at the eventual death of the Queen also therefore makes sense in this context – not simply because she was “unique” but because the Queen was able to give him something that nobody else had ever managed.  Data’s loss is thus very real.  The film doesn’t linger on the losses, but they’re there, underneath the surface.  And of course with Picard we have the most surprising loss of all – the loss of control.  Lily accuses him of enjoying killing on the holodeck – though it’s not made explicit that this is actually the case – but nevertheless the sheer brutality of what Picard does is remarkably unexpected, even before his big “the line must be drawn here,” speech.  This is, in many respects, the ultimate way in which the Borg conquer, even moreso than with phasers or technology – by removing self-control we see Picard starting to lose the essence of who he is, and it’s only when he’s able to reassert his self-control that he is ultimately able to bring victory.  We’ve seen him have that self-control taken away from him before, of course, in “The Best Of Both Worlds”, but what makes the Borg so insidious here is that Picard is doing this to himself – this isn’t Data being tempted or him being full of nanoprobes, it’s just one man breaking down.   The acknowledgement of this begins his healing process, and in healing he achieves the ultimate victory over the Borg, again more than just a simple defeat of the bad guys. Loss, the film suggests, does not have to be a one-way street if we choose not to make it so.

Of course, First Contact isn’t perfect.  Obviously.  It’s the best of the TNG films by an absolute country mile, managing to dispense a fun, action-packed movie without feeling like it’s betraying any of the essential concepts that comprise the TV show.  The action-adventure aesthetic has always been a part of Star Trek’s DNA, even the more philosophically-inclined TNG, and it is in First Contact that, for the crew of this show, it finds its furthest expression.  One of the disappointments of the TNG films is that they too often go to this well rather than taking a more thoughtful or interrogative approach as perhaps the TV show might have done, but that shouldn’t be held as a strike against First Contact as such, partly because it’s only the second film in the sequence of four, but mostly because at least First Contact is actually able to deliver on the action-adventure aesthetic it’s going for.  If you’re going to promise a fun, break-neck movie while throwing the best-known of the TNG-created bad guys up on the screen then you really need to deliver on all sides, and this is First Contact’s greatest strength.  Between Frakes in the director’s chair, Stewart at the top of his game, and Berman and Moore delivering a vastly improved script over Genereations, we get to see everything that we should in this kind of film.  It’s true that in some ways the story moves a little too fast, there’s a few inevitable time-travel lapses in logic (always an issue with time travel), and the odd “but what were the Borg thinking?” moment (most obviously – why did they beam over to the Enterprise when the Sphere was destroyed rather than down to the entirely vulnerable human colony and just assimilate everyone there?).  Yet there’s such a sense of style and pace to the movie that these questions tend to fade away during the process of actually watching it.  In a less confident movie (like the two either side of this one, in fact) these lapses can prove to be a serious hindrance, but not here.  What this film proves, ultimately, is that TNG is a broad church and is able to embrace a wide range of styles and influences while still remaining true to what lies at the core of the series.  In this, the small but significant nods to history, progress and the event from which the film draws its name, prevent this being just another mindless action film and help to anchor it in the Star Trek universe beyond just using a handful of familiar characters and settings.  It’s not flawless, but it’s engaging, interesting, funny, touching and memorable.  Resistance is, indeed, futile.

Any Other Business

  • That opening shot, with Picard’s eyeball bulging inwards under the Borg drill-bit is still unsettling, even after all the times I’ve seen it.
  • After the hugely distracting mash-up of uniforms on display in Generations it’s a great relief to see everyone wearing a single, latter-DS9, style of uniform.
  • It seems hard to imagine now, but First Contact is the first time we see the Borg assimilating someone using those little nanotube things that come from their fists.
  • Maybe Soran’s words in Generations had more of an impact on Geordi that we expected.  When Soran taunted Geordi with, “normal is what everyone else is… and you’re not” it must have hit home, as gone is the VISOR of seven years standing (always an unwise, if distinctive, look anyway) and in its place ocular implants that actually allow LeVar Burton to express with his whole face.  It doesn’t make a material difference to anything here, but it’s nice to be able to see his eyes for a change.
  • So the Borg, alien invaders from the other side of the galaxy, who have just wiped out a significant number of starships and travelled backwards in time, open fire on a small, undefended, unshielded complex in Montana and… slightly disrupt a bar and knock someone off a bicycle.
  • Marina Sirtis – unhailed MVP of the Trek movies, it seems.  For the second time in a row, she takes the small handful of lines she’s given and really does something with them.  The drunk scene in the bar is of course her big comedy moment but she doesn’t waste a single second she’s on screen.  I wonder if, in Insurrection, she can make it three for three?
  • Oh yea, that drunk scene in the bar – Jonathan Frakes has never been so hammy in his life, and it works wonderfully.  The only thing missing is a sad trombone when Troi passes out, and Riker breaks the fourth wall by rolling his eyes directly at the camera.
  • In Generations, Kirk races down to Engineering to try and save the Enterprise-B and has to navigate an insane number of ladders, supports, and gantries to achieve his goal, which looks dramatic on screen but makes it seem like the ship’s layout was put together by a maze designer on an off-day.  The same bloke must still be working for Starfleet, because the manual ejection of the deflector dish makes absolutely no sense whatsoever but does provide a handy platform for the bad guys to build a beacon on top of, should your movie require a dramatic space fight.
  • Look, I know that it’s long established that the Borg won’t attack you unless you actively present a threat to them, but it reaches absolutely ludicrous levels here.  We’re supposed to believe that even when they’ve taken over an alien starship and that takeover is pivotal to their plans they’re going to ignore you while you wander about the place?  Even when you’re unobtrusively hanging about in space while the Borg build their interplexing beacon?  Come on!  Though saying that, you’re ignored unless you’re a handy redshirt that needs to get assimilated to up the drama quotient.
  • Picard tells Lily after killing one of his own crewmembers who’s in the process of being assimilated, “trust me, I’m doing him a favour.”  Says the man who was assimilated by the Borg and, in fact, got better.  Mmmm.
  • The movie’s signature special effect – the Borg Queen floating down in Engineering as a head before joining with her body, all in one smooth shot – looked unprecedentedly good for a Star Trek film when First Contact was initially released and still looks fantastic all these years later.
  • I just want to add some more praise for Alfre Woodard, really.  She’s great in this film, and it’s so great that her character is never reduced to being yet another peril monkey that needs rescuing.  In fact this whole movie is pleasingly free of peril monkeys.
  • While James Cromwell, one of the most “hey it’s that guy!” actors in the business (see the bridge of the Enterprise-B for more on this) does a generally great job with Cochrane (especially as a last-minute stand in for Tom Hanks), the use of rock’n’roll is inexcusably corny and not nearly as funny as the producers seem to think it is.
  • Similarly, Cochrane’s “you’re on some kind of… star trek” is way too on the nose, though the film just about gets away with it thanks to Cromwell’s delivery.
  • It’s also an intriguing idea that he developed the Phoenix as a way to make money, and it’s a shame this idea isn’t expanded on a little further.  Similarly it seems clear that Cochrane is, if not a full alcoholic, at least well on the way to becoming one, something else that could have been brought out a bit more.  It’s also a bit of a shame that we never get to see him do anything engineering-clever or solve a problem, which makes it a little tough to buy him as the man who invented warp drive, or indeed any kind of scientist.  And yet he’s still pretty great.
  • The Borg Queen falling apart in This Week’s Handy Flesh Dissolver is magnificently done, as is Data’s strangely touching lament over her passing.
  • I like the fact that the movie ends on a shot not of Our Heroes returning successfully to the 24th century, but instead lingering on the actual moment of first contact.  Though, again, the rock’n’roll was a mistake and a moment of genuinely moving dignity, when it seems like Cochrane has finally grown as a person thanks to his experiences over the course of the film (as Star Trek a theme as you could possibly hope for), is rather undone by a crap joke and James Cromwell’s dancing.
  • One thing the TNG films get unambiguously right where the TOS films failed is using the correct damned theme tune from the TV show.  Why the TOS films steered away from this I have no idea, and criticize the Abrams films all you like, but even they understand that using the correct theme is a pretty basic Thing To Get Right.
  • And in two weeks time I’ll be back to cover Insurrection, so I hope you’ll join me for F Murray Abraham’s face-stretching sessions, and some unexpected Gilbert and Sullivan.  Be seeing you!

 

Prole Hole is a not-especially-small robot of European descent, based grudgingly in Amsterdam, NL. Indoctrinated into the Star Trek way of life from a very young age by a father who would use having a child as a bit of an excuse to watch TOS himself, it has proven a hard habit to break, so here we are.  Prole is currently undertaking a redemptive review of the entirety of Star Trek:Voyager – yes, really – which can be found at http://tolerabilityindex.freeforums.net/board/41/star-trek-voyager

 

4 Comments ON " Prole Hole Reviews Star Trek: First Contact "
  • alt_example

    Jean-Luc de Lemur June 13, 2015 at 12:20 pm - Reply

    Great review again, PH! I’m not fond of the internet revisionism towards FC—it’s a movie, it has more leeway to do stuff with Picard’s character than TV at the time allowed, and it makes sense in the context of the film. And it’s just so fun to watch.

    The Star Trek line played pretty well at the showings I went to, as did the rock-and-roll, though those both be corny American things.

  • alt_example

    seannewboy June 15, 2015 at 8:43 am - Reply

    An excellent review. I agree totally that although they have many strong female roles, they tend, even now, not to use them very well.

  • alt_example

    Prole Hole June 17, 2015 at 11:04 pm - Reply

    Thanks Jean-Luc and seannewboy. And I agree, there’s a lot of revisionism around First Contact, which always struck me as a bit strange.

    “Hey you know how there’s this really great, fun film that everyone more or less agrees is great fun, and which was really popular, and did really well at the box office, and which the general public really like?”

    “Yea?”

    “Kinda sucks doesn’t it?”

  • alt_example

    richelieu jr June 29, 2015 at 6:06 pm - Reply

    Can something (‘bulge inwards’)?

    Nice review of an excellent and needlessly maligned film.


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