Film Reviews

Boldly Going

On its 30th anniversary, Star Trek exists only as fetish or fool's pastime. The original series continues to air as a faded relic; the Next Generation cast was put to pasture as a film enterprise before its time; and Deep Space Nine and Voyager run and rerun so often you can't tell their crews apart. The Trekkies (or Trekkers, whatever) who appreciated the original series's camp humor should be in on the joke; those who aren't aren't worth saving anyway. In 1996, three decades after ex-cop Gene Roddenberry launched his "Wagon Train to the Stars," Paramount turns out a Trek film every couple of years knowing it'll be a guaranteed hit. Quality never much mattered (they even let William Shatner direct one). It's all about quantity, baby; so here comes Star Trek VIII -- or Star Trek: First Contact, for those without your tricorder.

Go figure: 14 years after the one great film (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) and five years after the one good one (VI: The Undiscovered Country) comes the best one of all, the first Trek film that plays well outside the cult and evolves beyond the series's myopic, incestuous universe. Like Khan, the film succeeds because it's about something other than the characters' relationships with one another: Spock isn't looking for love in all the wrong places; Kirk isn't looking for Spock; Sulu isn't looking for more lines.

First Contact succeeds because it's about tangible emotions -- Captain Jean-Luc Picard seeks revenge against the Borg, the android Data seeks to finally become human both inside and out -- and because screenwriters Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga have injected a little humor and maturity into the proceedings. It is indeed the most "adult" of the Trek films, as they have insisted in interviews -- blood and sutures everywhere, hints at android-alien sex that are more than a little creepy, bits of flesh sewn at random onto Data's shiny body, real curse words coming from the mouths of real actors playing real characters.

Like Khan, First Contact is a sequel to an earlier episode (or, in this case, a sequel to two -- one of the main characters appeared first in the original series episode "Metamorphosis," and God help the poor bastard who remembers such things) and deals with the theme of revenge and the price that accompanies the taste for blood. In Next Generation's "Best of Both Worlds," Picard (the ever-regal Patrick Stewart) was "absorbed" by the Borg -- "bionic zombies," as one character sarcastically calls them -- and had his body filled with their electronic implants; in essence, Picard was raped by the aliens, sucked into their collective consciousness against his will. When the Borg first start their attack on Earth, his superiors in Starfleet want to keep Picard out of the fight, afraid that he'll make it personal.

When he finally does join the attack -- in a sequence that pays homage to the final attack on the Deathstar from Star Wars -- Picard allows emotions to cloud his judgment; he'd rather let his crew be absorbed than destroy another Enterprise, and he thinks nothing of killing and gutting crewmen who have become Borg even when there's a chance they could be saved (as Picard himself was in the series episode). Picard thinks he understands his attackers because he was, for a moment, one of them; he hears their voices when no one else does, knows how savage they are and how easily he can give in. For really the first time, Picard becomes a well-rounded figure -- the chatty statesman and the guilt-free warrior, a New Age hothead for all seasons.

Brent Spiner's Data again emerges as Trek's most complicated character: Unlike Spock, whom he was intended to "replace" when The Next Generation debuted a decade ago, Data wants to be more human, needs to experience emotion and sensation -- to find out the difference between watching video porn and doing it Borg-style. Data spends most of the film trapped by the Borg queen (Alice Krige), making metaphysical small talk about freedom of will and the hypocrisy of a collective having a leader. Turns out it's just foreplay: When the queen grafts some human flesh to his android frame and then blows on his new skin, Data just about jumps her right there. Is that a phaser in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

The Borg need Data -- or Picard, doesn't matter which -- to bring a little human emotion to their methodical, unfeeling collective; they're this film's version of the V'ger from the first entry in the film series, the cold-blooded bad guys who just need to add a little heart to their computer-chip brains. But the Borg are Trek's most frightening beasts of all: They insert wires into the humans they take over, drill into the eyeballs of conquered enemies, mutate Enterprise crewmen into grotesque monsters. Their presence turns the film into a Trekked-up Alien: The Enterprise becomes a floating abattoir, and around every dark corner awaits potential gruesome death.

When the Borg first take over the Enterprise, you don't even see them; they hide in corridors and engineering ducts, snatching crew members and implanting Borg devices in their grossly mutating bodies. When the Borg take over the ship, they leave trails of vinelike circuits throughout the corridors, trails leading to the Borg queen -- the brains behind the operation. (Indeed, quite literally: When we first see Krige as the Borg queen, she's nothing more than a head and shoulders being lowered and clamped onto a body; it's a disturbing, hilarious, brilliant image.)

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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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky