Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Star Trek: First Contact

Star Trek: First Contact is my favorite of TNG movies. Okay, that is not saying much. It is all downhill from here. But I will say this in spite of the risk of having pointy objects thrown at my head: if given a choice between watching The Wrath of Khan or First Contact again, I would choose the latter. So there is where I side on that debate.

Let me preface my review by acknowledging First Contact has the same inherent logical flaws every time travel story has. I could have mentioned it yesterday, too, but I was already beating up on Generations badly enough. When dealing with time travel stories, you just have to overlook some things for the sake of drama. If Picard could go any time and place he wanted from the nexus, why did he go back to right when Soran was about to fire his missile instead of, say, a few days prior and nab him in the hallway or something? Answer: that would not make for a good movie. Ironic, since what he did do did not make for a good movie, either, but the point is valid.

Likewise, the time travel of First Contact causes some problems. One even negates the flimsy rationale for Picard’s return to battle Soran right before the missile launch. It is never stated, but you could argue Picard did not want to go back in time too far so as not to pollute the time stream. Yet here he and his crew are cavorting around in the mid-21st century, revealing the future to Cochran and Lilly, and generally leaving their mark on one of the most pivotal events in history. So much for being inconspicuous.

Another glaring time travel problem is why the Borg think stopping first contact is the best plan. Why not go back to prehistoric times and conquer earth then? Or, since they failed in this attempt, go back in time over and over again correcting the fatal flaw in their current plan until they get it right. See/ you have to assume whoever came up with the time travel plan is extremely shortsighted in order to enjoy the movie.

Speaking of ignoring stuff, First Contact ignores all post-”Best of Both Worlds” interaction with the Borg. Picard has not recovered from the emotional damage of being assimilated six years prior. Starfleet is wary of his reaction to dealing with the Borg, so they opt to keep him as far away from Earth’s defending force as possible when another cube attacks. I think this is a much more reasonable response to Picard’s assimilation than the all is forgiven, now lead the task force against the rogue Borg that occurred subsequently to Picard’s recovery. Normally, I am a stickler for continuity, but the course correction makes more sense.

The change does make for a much different Picard than in the television series. I can appreciate some fans do not like it. In the series, Picard was unwilling to use Hugh as a genocidal weapon against the Borg even after they had done so many terrible things to him. But in First Contact--heck, in the rest of the movie series--Picard is far more cruel and reckless. He is almost psychopathic here. In the next film, he will go rogue in contradiction to the moral stance he took in “Journey’s end.” In Nemesis, he will return to being psychopathic and far out of character. But those are discussions for later.

Let me say I do not have a problem with his behavior here. As I said above, it makes sense after his ordeal. First Contact offers a rationale for his actions, excessively brutal though they may be, the later two films do not.

All that nit picking and rationalizing aside, the movie itself is quite good. It is darker and more than just about any previous Trek television episode or movie, which I think is a nice change of pace. I suspect Gene Roddenberry would have freaked, but I generally like everything in Trek that goes against his worldview. the dark tone and violence have a purpose here. It is all about the survival of humanity on the broadest level and Picard’s wounded psyche on the smallest. Compare that to how poorly Nemesis was executed; a dark tone just to be edgy and excessive violence for the sake of being violent. I can make the distinction more clear on Wednesday.

Some high points:

First, he Borg are as menacing as they were back in "The Best of Both Worlds.” It is tough following up a story that well done with another Borg invasion story, but First Contact does it well by introducing a much more claustrophobic feel. Whereas we were fretting over the inevitable assimilation of Earth on a grand scale in “The Best of Both Worlds,” it is the mindless zombie attacks of individual drones in the confined space of the Enterprise that ratchets up the attention--apart from the personal plight of Picard, of course. It is masterful that one can take essentially the same plot and make it frightening twice.

Second, the Borg Queen is a great villain. She was a necessary addition to make the Borg Collective’s comparison to an insect hive complete. Her appearance is enhanced here because it is the only appearance with true menace. Subsequentl7, the Borg became property of VOY and were overused to the point of cliché. I never really got the sense of menace out of her later appearances, even when Alice Krige reprised the role on television.

Third, Lilly. It is rare for a guest character to play such a pivotal role. It is ever rarer s ill for 24th century characters to have their condescending attitude towards people from the past thrown back at them. It is Lilly that straightens Picard out more than anything else.

Finally, Cochran. As a history buff, I enjoy learning that an historical event is not what conventional wisdom says it was. The crew fawn repeatedly over how great Cochran is going to be in the future. He is a legend, right up there with the greatest scientists ever. But the reality is he is an old, perverted drunk who does not care about making history. He just wants to be rich enough to keep himself in booze and bimbos. That just tickles my cynical tuckus.

What is bad? Not much, actually. Data turns traitor yet again, or at least appears to when seduced by the Borg Queen. His ‘betrayal’ is this unnecessarily long, drawn out process in which he even fires near misses at Cochran’s ship to prove. That seems like an enormously risky just to create false drama. I also think Worf’s involvement is awfully contrived, but not as badly as it will be in Insurrection. Yes, the Defiant was built to fight the Borg, but does it not seem strange that DS9’s big dogs would not take the ship into the fray rather than Worf and some second stringers? It has to be that way for the sake of the movie, but still…illogical. As is the idea the Vulcans never detect the Enterprise because of the moon’s gravitational pull. Yes, the moon moves the oceans and hides starships.

First Contact is the only real highlight among TNG movies. It is not a perfect film by any measure, but its flaws are not so overwhelming they ruin the experience. Heck, even the sequence in which Cochran looks at Riker and says, ’so you’re all astronauts on some kind of star trek?” does not ruin it and line prompted the first audible full audience groan I have ever heard in a theater. True story.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

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