Saturday, October 2, 2010

Star Trek: First Contact

As it has been since 1996, First Contact is my favorite Star Trek film. (Here’s the official order, for those who like to keep score: 1)First Contact, 2) Star Trek, 3) The Motion Picture, 4) Nemesis, 5) Generations, 6) The Search for Spock, 7) The Voyage Home, 8) The Wrath of Khan, 9) Insurrection, 10) The Undiscovered Country, and 11) The Final Frontier.) Of the whole series to date, it’s the one that most succeeds in simply being a film. I get chills watching it.

It should come as no surprise that most of them come from watching Patrick Stewart in it. As I discussed earlier, clearly the dude was cast in Star Trek because he can act, and it wasn’t the small screen for which he was meant. He was going to be the consummate Star Trek film actor, and by god, in First Contact, he fulfills that potential, from one sequence to the next, working as many levels as he can possibly fit in, against as many actors as possible. Clearly, he meets his match in Alfre Woodard (Lily), and the ready room scene where the two collide over the best course of action against the Borg claiming Picard’s own ship, that’s cinema gold. I don’t care if no one else ever actually agrees with me, that this is literally one of the finest scenes ever caught on film. I don’t care if most critics consider, even after more than twenty years, Patrick Stewart’s part in Star Trek to be an unnecessary and ill-fitting diversion from the stage. They never really appreciated him before. And they still don’t really appreciate him now. Even most filmmakers today hardly recognize the extent of his talent. I like him as Professor X just fine, and Conspiracy Theory is an unexpected delight. But it’s as if, apart from TV work specifically developed for him, no one understands what this guy can do. I consider his Scrooge, which he developed over years of performing a one-man show, to be definitive. Likewise his Ahab (even if the hair was a little dodgy). And yet his one true film highlight comes in the middle of a movie most people will never take seriously enough.

First Contact was the unabashed success of the Next Generation films, and rightly so. It may have been another apparent rip-off of Wrath of Khan, but if so, then it was the one that really got it right. The Borg, especially as embodied by the new Borg Queen (Alice Krige) were lightyears more interesting, compelling, and articulated than Khan, not to mention more relevant. They spoke directly to the character of Picard, both in terms of past experience, and his unwillingness to admit defeat.

This wasn’t like Kirk, cheating no-win scenarios, just because he was the dashing hero. Kirk won his biggest victory by unwittingly sacrificing his closest friend. Picard admitted defeat. It’s in First Contact that the character is completely reinvented, or perhaps brought back to his never-before-seen roots, as a young risk-taker unafraid of consequences, who once lost his heart because he refused to back down from an unwinable fight. Throughout seven seasons on television, he remained mostly a passive figure, content to fall back on his skills at negotiation. He lost a valuable officer in Ro Laren because he refused to take an active role. In the films, he finally accepts that responsibility again, and it’s a revelation. In fact, it’s downright scary. Once he finally opens up, Picard almost isn’t even likeable. You can see, if you want to, the echoes of Nemesis in First Contact, when he slaughters Borg drones without hesitation, even drones that are recently assimilated from his own crew. All the compassion he was shown, even when transformed into the pitiless Locutus in “Best of Both Worlds,” he directs only to Data, perhaps the only being capable of truly understanding the turmoil that is always bubbling beneath the surface. The android has emotions he can turn off in the blink of an eye. The captain probably wishes he did, too.

What you might not get from Picard himself is portrayed aptly by Zephram Cochrane (James Cromwell, in his signature Star Trek role), the historic wonder boy who turns out to be all too fallible indeed. In fact, he’s hardly likable at all. So Riker, in his most memorable appearance anywhere in the franchise, learns. Maybe it’s not hard to notice the first officer this time, because the actor behind him, Jonathan Frakes, is also behind the camera. Like Leonard Nimoy before him, Frakes proves adept at directing, finding new and interesting things to do that help illuminate all the strengths, both old and new, of everyone he’s known for years. Where some people see a lot of Alien in this movie, I see familiar things made relevant in new context, which is all any piece of fiction can possibly hope to do. There are no new stories, and there really aren’t any old ones, either. Stories just are, combinations of familiar elements told in unfamiliar ways. If you want to, you can view First Contact as the perfection of a familiar effort, making Star Trek films. This was the eighth one. How often are the best films in any series that deep into the pile? (Okay, okay, so the Harry Potter series has a good shot at that, because there’s a lot of meaty character work to resolve in the final half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and these films have already proven that they’re best when they center on character and the spectacle possible in bringing it out.)

Because the film spends so little time trying to explain things, it works incredibly well, because it’s allowed to just have fun. Riker and Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton, finally sporting pretty much his own eyes), not to mention Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), they still playing the support team, but this time, they’re commanding it, trying to guide the unruly Cochrane into completing his historic mission, the first human warp flight. Worf (Michael Dorn) has his best and most essential appearance of the franchise, too. Viewers who didn’t know he was technically a part of the Deep Space Nine crew when he showed up in the Defiant, the ship that was built to battle the Borg, and put up as much of a fight as he could, in a sequence only sparingly demonstrated, saw an awesome battle and a good reason to bring him back aboard the Enterprise. He and Picard have their most meaningful conversations, or should I say confrontations, the kind of scenes the TV show could never have done, but should have always been happening. To say that Worf was a castrated Klingon on the small screen would have been putting it lightly, but it was also completely indicative almost all of his appearances. First Contact gave him an excuse to cut loose.

Even Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) has at least one good moment, when she summons the Emergency Holographic Program (Robert Picardo, proving that in a short time, at least one aspect of Voyager was already a proven part of franchise lore) to stall some incoming Borg. You get everything you need to know about her, Crusher’s medical and professional sense, in just that one scene. It’s what everything about her had always been trying to say, and there it was. Gates even gets to show off her theatricality, which had always failed before.

We get a couple of minor Starfleet officers to make an impact, too, from the established (Reg Barclay, portrayed to perfection once again by Dwight Schultz, in his only film appearance) to the new (Neal McDonough, making a lasting impression as the short-lived Lt. Hawk, and Michael Horton, as the recurring Lt. Daniels). Picard brings Dixon Hill to the big screen, too, and that works like gangbusters. Ethan Phillips joins Picardo in a Voyager cameo. Anyone who already loathed Neelix must still have enjoyed that one. (Tim Russ, in one of his many pre-Tuvok roles, had sort of started this tradition by appearing in Generations as a bridge officer aboard the Enterprise-B.)

The final act has its own iconic moment, too, when the audience learns the aliens who spotted Cochrane’s flight are actually Vulcans. It’s a huge surprise, a fitting one, and helped set up an entire later series (Enterprise). Jerry Goldsmith’s lush and somber score helps make the film tremendously memorable, hitting the same frenetic notes at the right times as the rest of the movie itself. I need to reference the new uniforms as well. Not since The Motion Picture and Wrath of Khan had such a change in wardrobe made such an impact, both on the films they happened in and on the franchise itself. The red jackets Kirk sports for six out of his seven appearances speak about an era just in themselves. The black jackets Picard assumes in First Contact (which are quickly made the standard attire in Deep Space Nine) help bolster the image that this is Star Trek finally embracing the medium of film.

It’s not hard to see how First Contact affected the rest of the Star Trek franchise, from 1996 to 2005, the kind of profound impact that happens surprisingly infrequently. For that reason alone, it earns a place in history. But it is also a darn good film. I would volunteer “great.”

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