Boldly Going

The latest voyage of the Enterprise is a trip worth taking

If First Contact is the most mature of the Trek films -- the first to deal with unconventional sexuality (green women don't count), the first to allow people to talk in frank and familiar language -- it's also the most complex, dealing with two completely separate story lines at the same time and then bringing them together in one nifty ending.

On Earth in the year 2063 -- time travel isn't a problem in the Trek universe, just an inevitability when the plots run a little thin in the 24th century -- Riker (Jonathan Frakes, who skillfully handles the directing chores this time around) and Geordi (LeVar Burton) must help pilot-engineer Zefram Cochrane (Babe's James Cromwell) launch his prototype warp-drive ship in order to make contact with aliens orbiting the planet -- the first aliens to land on Earth, though to give away their identity would spoil a fine surprise.

To the crew of the Enterprise, Cochrane is a bona fide hero, the man responsible for making space travel possible -- and, in the process, eradicating poverty and war; without him, Star Trek would not have been possible. Geordi and Riker look to him as a hero, treating him like a statue, not a troubled man about to change history. But Cromwell plays him as just a pissed-off drunk who listens to Steppenwolf, Roy Orbison and Southern rock; he angrily tells them he invented warp drive only so he could "retire on a tropical island with naked women." It's an amusing commentary on the nature of history and hero worship, but it also plays out like a nasty, astute swipe at Star Trek fans, a variation on Shatner's plea on Saturday Night Live for Trek freaks to "get a life!"

Coming at a time when true science-fiction films are few and far between, First Contact plays like a sci-fi homage, with its references to Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and there's even a nod to The Long Goodbye during one witty action sequence). It's the best-acted Trek film (Alfre Woodard is wonderful as the accidental tourist on the Enterprise who winds up being Picard's voice of reason) and the best looking (one astonishing scene takes place on the outside of the newly designed Enterprise, which looks more like the ship from the earlier films). It's also the one with the best sense of itself as a Trek film -- and as something potentially far better.

Star Trek: First Contact.
Directed by Jonathan Frakes. With Patrick Stewart, Alfre Woodard, Alice Krige and Brent Spiner.

Rated PG-13.
110 minutes.

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