Star Trek: First Contact Review
Being a Trek fan and having reviewed the Region 1 Special editions of three out of the four films in this set, you will understand that some portions of this review are culled, re-edited and otherwise improved from those already available on site.
1987 saw the resurrection of the Star Trek franchise on television, a medium that had not seen a 'new' episode for twenty one years. For the first two years, the series was not particularly good, with daft clichés, terrible story telling, production and, in parts, awful acting, not to mention industrial action that caused a prematurely short season two; the future of The Next Generation was in jeopardy. There were however some redeeming features, story arcs were set up, albeit not explored (Conspiracy & Neutral Zone) and the introduction of a new super villain (Q Who) were high points. When the third season was granted, there was an upsurge in production values and script writing, and the series was turned on its head. When it came to the end of that season the makers decided on a cliff-hanger, and produced what is probably the best example of any TV show ever. The Best of Both Worlds saw the return of The Borg, a cybernetically enhanced race of nameless, faceless, relentless killing machines; their mission to invade Federation space and conquer Earth. In doing so they kidnap Picard, captain of the Enterprise, and make him Locutus of Borg, forcing him to kill and destroy all in his path. And, in a move unprecedented in Star Trek before, actually took an episode out to explore the effect this violation had on the character. It is this element that was so cleverly used as the pivotal moments in the Next Gen's second film, First Contact. However, I am getting ahead of myself, because there were still four more seasons of the TV show to play out before the crew of the Enterprise D made it to the big screen. Once there, they Trekked onward for four movies and in all that time they arguably only had the one really good one.
Apparently it was always going to happen; the first in the Next Gen films was a 'handing over of the baton' from the 'old' to the 'new', in effect saying goodbye to Kirk, Spock, McCoy and all the others that had made their last Trek film some three years previous. The Next Gen team had only just finished their tenure on the TV show with the quite spectacular finale All Good Things, so expectation was riding high on how the show would translate to the big screen. After all, the original characters had made it look easy and it seemed, at the time, that Trek could do no wrong - could they break the 'odd number curse'? In a word, no. The fundamental problem was the shoe horned story; forcing Kirk and Picard together to face off against a common enemy must have look incredible on paper and it's little wonder the script developed the way it did, but it is a huge contrivance, and one that the film fails to overcome, even that ending fails to really lift it from mediocrity.
The story involves a peculiar space phenomenon called the Nexus, a powerful ribbon of energy that 'mad scientist' Soren, having been caught in it previously, is redirecting so he can return into it, but doing so will also have the unfortunate side effect of eliminating millions of lives. The Enterprise D is called in to save the day, but is unable to do so without the help of Kirk, himself lost to the Nexus some seventy eight years previous. Ploughing through plot holes, contrivances, the destruction of the Enterprise D and the (second) death of Kirk bring this rather horrible mess to a close with barely a ripple in the grand design of the universe.
David Carson, principally a TV director, takes the wheel and steers the ship much like Troi does - straight into a planet. Luckily, having worked on the series, he had a firm understanding of the characters and most come off looking and sounding exactly how we imagine they should, i.e. as if they walked from the TV set to the cinema screen, which, in effect, they had. That is with one exception. Data, for reasons best known to the creators, has been given an emotion chip (in a left over thread from the series) and uses it to further develop his character. Again another good idea on paper, but the end result never has the time to fully develop, unlike the series where an episode, or entire arcs could be devoted, the film only has two hours, and when competing against the main thrust, is simply lost - so we end up with Data singing “Life forms” and generally being annoying. Malcolm Mcdowell is always good value as the villain, and he is here, but his motives are so flimsy. Even the implementation, as cataclysmic as it is, still doesn't seem enough to warrant two Starship captains to defeat him. And what of Picard and Kirk, joining together to do battle? Well, the fanboy in me loved these scenes, their verbal sparring (“I was saving the Galaxy while your Grandfather was still in diapers”) was terrific and the death scene was enough to move me in the theatre, although not so much upon subsequent viewings.
In the end, the whole premise is flawed, why did the Next Gen team need a 'crossover' at all? It was at its peak when it was cancelled and certainly didn't need the 'boost' of the older series. My feelings are that this film could quite easily be ignored, or classed as the last of the original team, leaving First Contact as the first of the new. How different would their filmic outings have been had there been no 'baggage' to pander to?
Once again the Borg threaten Federation Space and make a beeline for Earth in a second attempt at assimilation. They are once again thwarted by the Enterprise, in its new 'E' configuration, but at the Cube's destruction launch a Sphere that travels back in time to change the course of history by assimilating the past. Caught in the 'temporal wake' the Enterprise follows to prevent this and ensure the future of Star Trek itself. These glib few lines neatly tell the plot of the film, but it is so much more that the sum of its parts. Scriptwriters Braga and Moore fresh from their lambasting over Generations wanted to start afresh, make a Next Generation film 'without the baggage' of Kirk and crew and accessible to everyone, not just fans. Although there were many ideas at the beginning, Braga favoured a time travel story, and instead of our present/past he chose our 'future'; more specifically an area of Star Trek past alluded to in the original series episode Metamorphosis, and Zephram Cochrane, the inventor of the Warp Drive. As for an enemy, there was really only one choice; The Borg. So with these elements in place, and after a few script changes the two story threads were set; Riker and crew on the planet's surface attempting to make sure Cochrane makes his historic flight in the first warp capable aircraft the Phoenix, while Picard and Data battle the hoards of Borg on the Enterprise.
Director Frakes in his first feature film (though he had directed eight of the TV episodes) brought with him a familiarity of the franchise, a cast that knew and respected him and an energy and enthusiasm to make this film succeed; and succeed it does. Undeniably, Stewart's performance as Picard is the highlight of the film, perhaps revenge is not an emotion that 24th century men subscribe to, but this particular one does. His authority on the screen is matched only by Alfre Woodard as Lily who gives as good as she gets in the observation lounge and 'that scene' (”and I will make them pay”). All other cast members give memorable performances, each getting their own little highlight. Special mention to James Cromwell whose portrayal of a Star Trek legend as a man that cannot accept the hero worship pilled upon him is a joy to behold. Production values are first rate too, at 1996, this film was on the cusp of CG. It still had miniatures built of some craft (hurray) including the Enterprise E as well as CG craft, and both actually do blend really well together. The Phoenix rocket blast and plasma at the end are the only obvious CG elements. The Borg get a face lift too and become much more menacing because of it. We get to see much of the new Enterprise E both inside and out. In fact along with the opening pull back shot in the Borg cube and the Queen's entrance, the walk on the hull of the Enterprise remains the best shot of the film.
There is much to enjoy in this movie, and as much as Braga and Moore wanted to make it accessible, at least a little Star Trek knowledge is needed to fully appreciate it. Warf, for example, was at the time appearing on Deep Space Nine, so references to his absence (and the Starship Defiant) would be lost on anyone not realising that. Plus the stand off between him and Picard on the bridge needs some idea of their past to realise the full gravity of that situation and Warf's reply ”if you were any other man I would kill you where you stand”. There are many other little nods and 'in jokes' about themselves that some might find off putting; in fact watching it again and out of context, as it were, I noticed a lot of material that I adored first time around, but now seemed too self congratulatory. But these are small concerns in an otherwise superb film. First Contact marks the highest point of the 'new' Trek and impossibly manages to cross the border into a fine Sci Fi film, irrespective of the Star Trek name - “Resistance is Futile”.
Star Trek 9 at first glance appears to follow the feature film role/rule that the odd numbers are not as good as the even numbers. Personally I think Insurrection has had a bad rap over the years as I feel it is a very well crafted film, filled with the sort of ideas that make Star Trek great and what drove The Next Generation to the peak of Trekdom.
The film opens to an idyllic world, where all is green and pleasant. Pulling back we can see this world being covertly observed by federation and Sona personnel within a holographically hidden duck blind. A call for help signifies that the android Commander Data has gone berserk and is attempting to disclose the operation; a mission he succeeds in. On board the Enterprise, Captain Picard and his crew are hosting ambassadors when they receive a transmission notifying them of Data's actions. Understandably perturbed by this information, the gallant crew set course for the Ba'ku planet to discover why Data has malfunctioned. They are met with a frosty reception by the Sona ships and Admiral Docherty of Star Fleet who inform them they have 12 hours to remove themselves and Data so normal service can be resumed. After capturing Data, restoring his memory and 'rescuing' the other personnel on the planet a curious anomaly within the planet's rings causes the ship's crew to start reversing in age. Upon discovering this, the Enterprise soon uncovers a conspiracy to remove the 600 Ba'ku inhabitants to use the planet's unique properties for the 'good of the many'. Such policy is against Picard's ethics and when his challenge falls upon deaf ears he and his crew take it upon themselves to stop the forced removal themselves.
This relatively simple story is a far cry from the action packed drama that was Star Trek First Contact and many fans and critics alike felt it was not strong enough. However, it was a conscious effort on the part of veteran writer Michael Piller to return to basics and explore in a film the dynamic which made Picard so eminently right in the TV series. His persona and justice were the driving force of the show and not only inspired loyalty from the crew, but from fans too. So when one looks at this film as a whole it comes off very much as a big budget TV episode, an observation noted by many. This is its curse, but also its selling point. The TV show was never better than in its double episode features; the best know are probably Best of Both Worlds, Chain of Command and, the finale, All Good Things. In them Picard normally played the central role and through him and his sense of duty and righteousness the show towered above all before it. Picard was Star fleet, he stood for what Rodenberry epitomised and without him the Trek franchise as we know it today would not exist. Many, if not all of these qualities are in Insurrection, so why then is it not liked as much? To be honest I don't know. I can see everything that is trying to be achieved, I can see the quality of the TV show, I can see and feel for the film, and yet it doesn't quite have that edge, that certain something needed that makes a film great. However, it does not deserve the lambasting it has received, nor the lukewarm reception of its previous DVD releases. With everything on show, Insurrection is a fine addition to the Star Trek film franchise and the one I rate fourth after First Contact, Voyage Home and Wrath of Khan in the order of preference.
Some known facts about Star Trek Nemesis' release in 2002; it was the lowest grossing of any of the Star Trek films; it was released at the same time as Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. So before any discussion of the films merits we can see that it was up against it from the word go, perhaps a spring release might have seen a better return? However, I digress, after four years and completed contracts, it was with a bit of a shock that the crew of the Enterprise E were reunited for one final trek. After the lukewarm reception of Insurrection it was felt that a new direction was needed, to this end Jonathon Frakes was replaced by Stephen Baird, of Executive Decision fame. Baird, who professes ignorance to all things Trek related, was brought in to give a new style and fresh ideas and not, as I remember, because Frakes was attached to another project and unable to commit to directing, something that Berman insists upon on his commentary. Whatever the reason, Baird's involvement certainly has changed the look of this tenth instalment, but in doing so has also changed the feel and that is probably why most fans regard this as on par, or sometimes below, Trek V. However, as a science fiction drama, there are levels of enjoyment to be had, even if the end result is, let's be honest, a bit naff.
The film starts in open space, then zooms closer to a planet, through the atmosphere to come to rest within the Romulan Senate. There is a furious discussion going on about senate leadership that is finally settled by a pretty green firework that kills everyone in the room by turning them into a shattered stone effect. Cut to the jolly atmosphere aboard the Enterprise, it is mid way through Picard's best man speech at Troi and Riker's wedding; cue much joviality and Data singing. After the festivities the Enterprise is on route to Batazed for the conclusion of the wedding when the sensors pick up a positronic signal known only to emanate from androids like Data. Sensing no danger, even though the signal is extremely close to the Romulan neutral zone, the Enterprise investigates, but because of some techno-babble is unable to use the transporters so a dune buggy is deployed to investigate. After a fierce gun battle and total disregard to the Prime Directive, it appears the signal was emanating from a prototype Data, designated B4, again suspecting nothing suspicious Picard orders it to be reassembled.
Their proximity to Romulan space makes them ideal candidates to address a diplomatic situation that has occurred between the Federation and Romulus, so Admiral Janeway informs Picard. Accordingly they head off to meet the new leader of the Romulans, the enigmatic Shinzon. When they finally meet face to face, there is a startling resemblance between he and Picard, not surprising really since he is a clone. Shinzon has two agendas, steal Picard's DNA to save his own life and wipe out the heart of the Federation, Earth, with the same green firework that was used at the beginning. To get to this end we must travel through plot holes, space battles, crashing starships and the 'death' of a major cast member, but it's ok because there is still enough scope for another film should the writers want to continue, luckily, as time has informed us, this option was not taken, but a far better and all new direction was used instead.
Science fiction and in particular Star Trek has always been at its best when confronting everyday issues within the context of the show. For this outing, cloning is the subject under debate coupled with the nature versus nurture argument, it is a bit of a shame then that this underpinning plot line wasn't developed to its fullest potential. I can understand the reasons that a clone of Picard was used; the development of a super baddie is hard; how to top the Borg for example, so to pitch Picard against himself sounds like a bold step, allowing the philosophical arguments along the way. Unfortunately Shinzon comes across as a spoilt child having a tantrum; 'my life was crappy, so now yours is gonna be' kind of attitude. The pair only have two scenes alone where they spar with each other, perhaps its Ton Hardy's lack of presence against Stewart, but there was never the depth and feeling there (possibly his age, look at his blistering performance in Bronson, that is the Shinzon we should have had!); compare a similar confrontation with Lily and Picard in First Contact.
Of course Baird is primarily an action direction, and there is plenty of action in this film, be it car chases, brawls or bike (scorpion class fighters) chases there is always something to keep the MTV generation happy. But in trying to force a Star Trek persona on an action sci-fi romp the heart somehow gets lost, something I find weird because the series did its own action episodes that worked so well - Starship Mine for example. He did also manage to change the look, a bit, the Enterprise is now a nice maroon colour and there are plenty of greens and blacks (remember he hasn't seen First Contact) and there was a nice washed out filter during the car chase. The film wisely centres on Picard and Data, the fans' favourite characters, though this has the unfortunate side effect of giving precious little for any of the supporting characters, even though they are major cast members, to do. In some cases they are given unexplained out of place scenes just to set up a contrivance for the ending; consider the Troi rape scene, no explanation is given for how, or why except to aid the shootout at the end.
However, with all this nonsense and bad Trek around I still found much to enjoy in the film. If you can get over the daft plot holes and inconsistencies, which, if you go looking, are in most of the Trek films anyway, you can enjoy the battles and the crashes. Finally, I'd have liked to see Data stay dead, rather than be reincarnated as an imbecile, if the writers really wanted to change style and break from the norm then what better way than to end on a downer (it's happened before in the series); but this is the last Trek film of it's ilk, so it's gotta end on a positive note and be able to boldly continue into the future. Live long and prosper.