Released on November 22, 1996, Star Trek: First Contact was the first motion picture to focus solely on the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast (its predecessor, 1994’s better than you remember Star Trek: Generations, spent much of its running time crawling towards the meeting of Captains Kirk and Picard).
The film has the crew of the newly-commissioned Enterprise-E squaring off against the Borg once more, only this time the cybernetic creeps are looking to assimilate Earth in the past — a nifty side effect being that their plan will also prevent the planet from ever making first contact with the Vulcans and joining the United Federation of Planets. Jerks.
Fortunately, Picard and his ever-heroic crew have some help in the form of warp drive inventor Zefram Cochrane (a perfect James Cromwell) and his assistant Lily Sloane (Alfre Woodard, ditto). Meanwhile, Data has his loyalties tested by the nefarious Borg Queen (Alice Krige), the woman pulling the strings of the entire collective and giving Starfleet’s Pinocchio the tempting chance to finally become a real boy as it were.
Star Trek: First Contact struck a chord with longtime fans and newbies alike, raking in $146,000,000. (It remains the highest grossing of all Trek films that were released before J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot). But financial gains aside, does the movie still hold up all these years later? The answer to that question is a resounding yes.
Here’s eight reasons why…
Jonathan Frakes’ taut direction
Having already helmed several episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Commander Riker himself, Jonathan Frakes, was given directing duties on First Contact. Although a film of this scope would be daunting even for the most seasoned of veterans, Frakes handled it skillfully as a first time feature director. In fact, it can be argued that due to his familarity with the source material and the cast he had crucial insider’s knowledge that helped him avoid any director/actor tensions and get better performances from his co-workers, all of whom already held him in close regard.
Like Leonard Nimoy before him, Frakes’ success on this film proved that when the Enterprise’s number two guy (heh heh) takes the director’s chair the result is nothing short of fantastic (The all around deplorable Star Trek: Insurrection being the rare exception to this rule).
Picard Loses It
With the exception of the episode “Family” and briefly in the pilot episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine we never got a chance to see how much Captain Picard’s assimilation by the Borg in the two-part episode “The Best of Both Worlds” impacted him. Indeed, as First Contact illustrates beautifully even years later he remains haunted by the experience to the point that when he has the chance to get his revenge he lets his anger take control.
For a character as stoic and unflappable as Picard always is, the film grants him an opportunity to show that Starfleet captain or not he is as flawed and human as anyone else.
The debut of the Enterprise-E
Look, I’ve got nothing but love for the Enterprise-D, but you have to admit that it possessed a very 1980s design aesthetic. Its successor on the other hand is sleeker and more battle ready, a subtle reminder that — for better or worse — the Next Generation–centric films were more about action than intellectual discourse or man contemplating his role in the universe.
First Contact was a film that required an ass-kicking Enterprise. The E happily delivered. But did Riker really have to take a pot shot at the comparatively dimunitive Defiant? That’s not cool bro.
Action Hero Worf
Not saddled with having to deal with spending valuable screentime on characters from the original Star Trek, the film was able to place some fan favorites from the Next Generation in the cinematic spotlight. Worf benefitted from this the most, with the Son of Mogh given an unforgettable zero gravity action sequence and his own Schwarzenegger-esque catchphrase, the immortal “assimilate this.”
The Borg Queen and Data Kinky Artifical Lifeform Hour
Admit it, you are deeply aroused by this. Or is it just me?
Anyway, the addition of the Borg Queen into the mix added a fascinating new layer to the Borg, arguably the greatest threat ever to face the Federation (with the Dominion a perilously close second). As portrayed by Alice Krige, the character is both sexy and full of menace. Audiences knew that she ultimately wouldn’t prevail in her quest to bring Data to her side, but it sure was fun, if a bit uncomfortable, watching her try.
Lily Sloane: Future Audience Surrogate
As portrayed by the ever-great Alfre Woodard, Lily Sloane is a character who is caught between the war torn reality of her present and the optimistic future presented to her by a certain Jean-Luc Picard. She stands her ground when Picard is at his most unhinged, helping to get him to return to reason by reminding him of his resemblance to a certain whale-obsessed literary figure.
More than just an everywoman, she is the conscience of the film. The only disappointment here is that the filmmakers didn’t make her a full-fledged love interest for the captain as it would be great to have seen him become romantically linked with a woman who was very much his equal. Ideally she would have joined him aboard the Enterprise if for no other reason than to spare audiences Picard’s tepid romance in the ever terrible Star Trek: Insurrection.
The Borg at their most ruthless
Thanks to a PG-13 rating, audiences got to experience the brutality of the Borg like never before. As a result, the hive mind seems more soulless than ever before — resulting in more than one reviewer comparing their creepiness to that of the xenomorph in Alien. Good company, that.
Zefram Cochrane: Reluctant Hero
One of the reasons that Deep Space Nine succeeded creatively is that it wasn’t afraid to show that while Gene Roddenberry’s idealistic view of the future was hopeful, it wasn’t exactly representative of how people actually behave. Star Trek: First Contact also understood this, making Zefram Cochrane a lost soul more than the hero who invented warp drive and paved the way for mankind to truly trek amongst the stars.
Delivering yet another tremendous performance, James Cromwell portrays Cochrane — one of the most important characters in Trek lore — as a damaged, greedy man who is more concerned with himself than the future. It was a bold story choice that had Roddenberry purists crying sacrilege, yet the journey from selfishless to heroism never feels like a contrivance. It is well-earned thanks to the alchemy of a tight script and a beloved character actor at his very best.
Chris Cummins still believes that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the best sci-fi show ever. You can debate this point with him (although why would you want to?) on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.