Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Written by Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore
Directed by Jonathan Frakes
With a sleek new Enterprise, the Next Generation cast set out on their second film, fully realized as a big-screen product. While the budget is bigger and the stakes are higher, something is lost in the process. It’s that distinct sense of a family. The focus is narrowed to Picard and Data, while the rest of the crew become supporting to minor players in these characters’ stories.
The plot of this film has Picard still haunted by his time as part of the Borg Collective. It may have been forgotten to the ages, but the last time we really had a full Borg assault was the season three “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter. The encounters with the species after had always been rogue elements. The Borg are back and heading straight for Earth again. Picard and the Enterprise rush in to save the day, but they find out they are part of the plan. The Borg are able to travel back to the day before the first warp drive flight on Earth and assimilate the planet in the Path. Picard, Data, and friends follow them to make sure history plays out as it should, but they are in for a more difficult challenge than they expect.
The stakes are evident in this story and get ratcheted up pretty damn perfectly. The Borg keep appearing to be defeated but always have machinations to keep themselves going. There are two excellent action set pieces: the opening battle with the Borg above Earth and a brilliantly done spacewalk sequence. The production design team has also reworked the look of the Borg, so they are more physically formidable and grotesque. A Borg Queen is introduced to provide a central antagonist for Picard to play off of. When the movie is focused on this part of the plot, it is hitting on all cylinders and a lot of fun.
Patrick Stewart also has some wonderful chemistry with co-star Alfre Woodard, playing 21st-century native Lily. There are many mentions of the primitive practices of the people of the past by 24 century Starfleet, but Lily manages to point out how Picard has succumbed to an even more primal, destructive hunger for revenge. There should have been more scenes between these two because the moments we get raise the quality of the film.
However, like all the Next Generation films, there are glaring flaws that leave it a perfectly fine movie but nothing spectacular. The storyline on Earth, where the Enterprise crew is helping historical figure, Zefram Cochrane carry on with his warp drive flight. This will lead to Earth, making the first contact with an alien species. This is the birth of what Star Trek is, and so it should be a monumental story, thrilling and engaging. The pacing is sloppy and forced to share screentime with the better Borg plot. The ideas are there, especially Cochrane struggling to bear the weight of knowing he will shape humanity’s future for the better, but they aren’t executed well. I’m not sure if it’s the writing or the acting, but nothing really hits here.
The script feels very concerned with being more of a science fiction action story than previous Star Trek films. It pushes off a lot of heavy thematic material that could be explored with Picard’s PTSD or Data’s temptation by the Borg Queen. Instead, everything is very surface level, the film leaning into the plot rather than the characters. My favorite thing about TNG was always the character relationships, and those aren’t here. Worf is written into the film while he was starring in Deep Space Nine, but then the script doesn’t do much with him save a few barbs between him and Riker. Spending so much time with new character Cochrane steal screentime that could have gone to the cast we know and love.
Star Trek: First Contact is nowhere close to a perfect film, but it is the best TNG movie we ever got. Featuring the Borg as the main villain was smart, and it is was a brilliant idea to explore the roots of Starfleet and Federation. I wish there had been more room for the best ideas to breathe and that the script could have been expanded to include more of the cast.