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This review was originally published via The Classical Mess, a Substack I was doing a few years ago before I found out they gave money to bigots.
There’s a crisp, bracing energy to Star Trek: First Contact (1996) that I will attribute to director Jonathan Frakes. Although he was a film novice, Frakes had a clear and deep understanding of Trek after playing Commander Riker in universe for nine years. He also knew which corners to expand to make everything feel cinematic. First Contact is widely regarded as the best movie featuring the “Next Generation” characters and I’d only argue on one critical point where verisimilitude is lacking.
Zefram Cochrane is a historical figure in Star Trek celebrated for piloting Earth’s first warp speed space flight during the 21st Century, a voyage that facilitated our planet’s inaugural encounter with alien life. These events are threatened in First Contact when machine-based conquerors the Borg travel back in time from “the present” (the 24th Century) and murder Cochrane’s flight crew a day before launch. Captain Picard, Cdr. Riker et al race beyond the clock to help Cochrane, who, as it turns out, has more in common with Dennis Hopper than da Vinci. The “joke” about this aerospace pioneer being a rock n’ roll smart ass goes over like mildew. Cochrane is written in a weak and one dimensional way and James Cromwell doesn’t seem right for the part.
“So you’re all astronauts on some kind of star trek?” he asks our heroes at one point, breaking new barriers in cringe (and cheapening a much more clever title reference in “Next Generation’s” final episode). Paramount originally wanted Tom Hanks to play Cochrane. Could Hanks squeeze life into that line? Could he make the billowing fur coat and leather cap work? That getup is like Blade Runner meets “The Golden Girls.”
The meat of First Contact is with Captain Picard. Years earlier he was assimilated by the Borg into their shared consciousness, an event so traumatic it continues to haunt him. Picard’s struggle is pronounced enough that even a few of his contemporaries in Starfleet question his reliability when engaging the Borg. Patrick Stewart achieves the usual excellence as Picard and First Contact gives him a terrific screen partner in Alfre Woodard. Woodard plays Lily Sloane, a gutsy Cochrane associate who through no fault of her own becomes trapped aboard the Enterprise during a Borg attack. Sloane may be overwhelmed by the situation but she isn’t intimidated by Picard. She dishes out some hard truths he needs to hear when the situation starts getting real hairy.
First Contact has another memorable debut from the Borg Queen, who descends upon the Enterprise and takes a special interest in assimilating Lt. Commander Data. Is this surprisingly human Borg really their queen? Does she control their hive mind or does she only represent it? I think the jury’s still out on that. Alice Krige’s portrayal of the Borg Queen is imbued with a thin benevolence that suggests she might not be entirely evil. Spoiler alert: she is.
A poignant ending caps Star Trek: First Contact, one with hope, wonder, and humor. It could have served as the final ringing note for this lengthy film franchise. Lucky for us, First Contact made enough moolah to propel the adventuring forward. I can assure you no one says “star trek” in the final two installments.