Well, let's just say that the latter definitely didn't turn out to be an issue. When the credits started rolling I was literally thinking to myself "this movie is damn near perfect". So yeah, this movie is damn near perfect and the following review is basically just going to be me explaining to you why I think so.
As an anecdote, I find that First Contact has many similarities to the James Bond movie Golden Eye. It too was the first movie with a new lead and they're both absolutely amazing. But then something happens and the remaining movies with that cast are just nowhere near as good (still highly entertaining though).
I'm going to try to lay out the general idea I have for why this movie works so well before I go into details about the actual story;
First Contact, knowingly or unknowingly, borrows some of the winning concepts from earlier Star Trek movies. Firstly it continues a fan favorite arc from the TV-series (just like Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan), namely the Locutus arc where Jean-Luc Picard gets assimilated into the Borg collective. Just like Star Trek II, it sees the Star Trek crew revisiting one of the better antagonists in the series.
Secondly it uses another fan favorite in the time travelling concept. This allows the crew to revisit a past part of Earth just like in Star Trek IV: A Voyage Home. While this part of Earth isn't the exact same as our own, it is definitely a lot closer to us than to the future the TNG crew comes from and allows "us" to be part of the Star Trek universe in the same way that made Star Trek IV so interesting and fun to watch.
Other things this movie gets right;
- The pacing is absolutely perfect. We get thrown into the heat of the story immediately and the movie keeps our interest throughout without just throwing things randomly at the screen. What happens constantly moves the story forward and we neither feel like scenes are needlessly added nor that we've missed out on vital information.
- They've done the exact right choice when deciding what characters to focus on and how much space their character development should get in the story. First Contact focuses almost entirely on Picard and Data, arguably the only two interesting characters in TNG, but manages to squeeze in just enough of everyone in the rest of the crew that it doesn't seem like Picard and Data practically work alone (something the earlier Star Trek movies definitely struggle with).
- By splitting the setting to "the crew on the ship" and "the crew on Earth" they manage to fill the movie with both one part that is humorous and one part that is tense and action-filled without these parts getting in the way of each other or feeling disjointed. Instead these parts run next to each other absolutely seamlessly and logically.
The movie starts with what could either be called one of the duller intro's I've ever seen or more optimistically described as an intro that doesn't try to wow you with silly effects. After a few minutes of names appearing over a blue smoke we see Picard having nightmares about the Borg. When an admiral Hayes contacts him he already knows that the Borg have come to Federation space to Borg everything up.
|I could probably write a whole essay on what make the Borg such great enemies too.|
I absolutely love the non-f*ckery about this. The movie starts and bam, we're literally right into the shit hitting the fan. The Borg are here to mess you up and everyone watching know what a big problem this is. Straight from the first minute we are fully invested and on our toes about how this is going to go down. Similarly to A Voyage Home it is fairly soon going to be apparent that all of this is only going to be an excuse to set up the time travelling part of the story, and this "back in our own time again" part of the story is never going to get resolved (within this run-time). After having watched it you might still have questions, but you'll be so satisfied with the self-contained part of the movie that you don't care.
Because Picard has been part of the collective the Starfleet doesn't really trust him around the Borg anymore and send him and the rest of Enterprise E to guard some sort of border with the Romulans. Everyone else in the crew agree that those orders are absolutely bonkers and to be fair it doesn't really make sense to leave one of the best ships in Starfleet out of what probably is one of the most defining fights of the Federation just because you don't trust the captain. Surely you would just remove the captain in that case and not the entire ship?
It doesn't take too long for Picard to say "screw this" and go to help the rest of the fleet. With his special inside-knowledge of the Borg (something you'd think Starfleet would've been keen on getting their hands on rather than sending him off to some border somewhere) he manages to unite what is left of the fleet to destroy the Borg cube that is threatening Earth. At this point it's not entirely clear why there is only one cube and where the rest of the Borgs are and that will never be explained later either (see point I made above). We get a short cameo of the Defiant from DS9, captained by Worf who moves onto the Enterprise when the Defiant is put out of use.
A sphere breaks out of the exploding cube however and quickly moves towards Earth. The Enterprise goes into pursuit and the sphere disappears into a temporal rift into Earth's past. Enterprise is stuck in the temporal wake, manages to catch up to the sphere and destroy it, but not before it managed to fire off some shots towards the surface. Now they set out to find out what the sphere tried to do in this specific time period, which turns out to be 2063, very closely to the time and date of "first contact" ie when humans made their first faster-than-light-speed flight and caught the attention of some Vulcans who happened to be passing through our otherwise insignificant Solar System.
Apparently the Borgs had been trying to prevent this from happening because that would leave the humans in a completely different position in the future. Possibly, probably, there wouldn't be a Federation the way we know it at all. It's interesting to note however though, that since the Borg work under the principle of "adding your distinctiveness to our own", crippling and throwing the culture you're about to assimilate back hundreds of years technologically and scientifically seems like a counter-productive thing to do. The Borg are changing the humans so they'll be easier to assimilate, but in the process they're removing pretty much everything that made the humans worth assimilating in the first place (the fact that Borg don't bother with civilizations too underdeveloped has been established at this point afaik).
Picard takes Data and Crusher down with him to see what damage the Borg caused and this makes total sense - you bring the doctor for the wounded and the walking computer for the possibly damaged old-timey spaceship. While Crusher takes care of some wounded, Data and Picard move towards the missile silo where the rocket-gone-spaceship is being stored. Inside they are being shot at by an associate of Zefram Cochrane, but wait - I've forgotten to introduce Cochrane so far. Don't worry, I know you all know who he is and the movie doesn't make this mistake either. While the movie doesn't immediately tell us the significance of the "random" humans we get to see on the planet surface when the sphere attacks, it's quickly explained that one of them is none other than the inventor of faster than lightspeed-flight Zefram Cochrane.
Picard fails to assure the associate, named Lily, of their non-hostile intent and Data decides to take a different approach in a great scene. He jumps straight down some thirty meters and further confuses Lily when he is completely unharmed by her bullets. She faints and it turns out it was only partially because of shock, she's also suffered severe radiation poisoning and is taken onto the Enterprise by Crusher. This way the movie logically sets up and moves into the next part - the return of the Borg.
|Lily (Alfre Woodard) - One of the better side-characters|
On board the Enterprise some people have noticed that the climate control seems to be malfunctioning and the heat has slowly gone up. I wonder what that could be about!? Picard spider-senses (aka Borg-implant sense) that something is wrong and asks Worf if something is amiss onboard the ship. When he is notified about the changed temperature, he immediately decides to return to the ship while Riker, Troi and Laforge go down to the surface to oversee the repairs to the rocket and to find Cochrane who has gone missing.
We're about a third into the movie and now it smoothly transitions from what has so far been a fairly standard setup into the two-pronged story-line that I find truly makes this movie so well designed and fun to watch. On the one front we follow the crew on the surface who are trying to deal with an unwilling Cochrane, giving us a slower and more humorous pace. On the other front we get Picard and Data (and Lily) trying to deal with the Borg threat on the Enterprise, giving us suspense and action. The greatness is not just that the setup delivers on so many aspects of Star Trek, but that they harmonize so well together, running next to eachother throughout the remainder of the movie without detracting from eachother or confusing the viewer. I can't emphasize enough how well this works even though they are completely different in style, the crew on the surface have no idea what is going on aboard the Enterprise until the very end. Both the writing and the editing is absolutely superb here.
Like I mentioned the focus in First Contact is definitely on Data and Picard, and I don't mind because I find most of the rest of the crew to be walking blocks of wood with one character trait attached to them. It is credit to this movie then that what little we do get to see of the other crew really works for them. Why couldn't the writing have been this interesting for the TNG series? Troi manages to find Cochrane who, off-screen, gets her to drink a lot of drinks. When Riker finds them both they are listening to much too loud music and Troi is drunk. It's a fun scene that Marina Sirtis pulls off greatly. When they decide to tell the truth to Cochrane he responds with "You people are all astronauts on some kind of... star trek?". Lovely.
|Zefram (James Cromwell) is well played too.|
Oh, and I haven't said anything about it yet but the effects are really cool in this movie. They're so good in fact I've written the comment "cool effects" twice in my notes. One of the best ones, though I am jumping ahead of myself a bit here, is when the Borg Queen torso gets attached to the rest of her body, it looks practically flawless. For a movie from 1996 it looks exceptional.
So speaking of Borg then, back on the Enterprise it seems like the Borg managed to beam themselves off the sphere and onto the Enterprise just before it was destroyed. They've made themselves comfortable on deck 16 and are, as they're known to do, slowly assimilating their way through the crew. After some running around and losing track of each other, Picard ends up with Lily and Data ends up with the Borg Queen. One of my favorite scenes in the entire movie is when Picard tries to explain the situation to Lily who not only has no knowledge of the Borg but also has to quickly get accustomed to the fact that she is running around on a starship from the future. She exclaims "Borg? Sounds Swedish.". Then as they run into the Borg she corrects herself, "definitely not Swedish!". To me as a Swede this joke really hit home and I remember the entire movie theater bursting out laughing.
Data also gets a lot of good scenes with the Borg Queen, who seems fascinated by him. The emotion chip that Data implants in the previous movie gets a lot of use here as the Borg Queen grafts skin onto Data to let him feel both pleasure and pain. Sexy stuff is sort of insinuated, they definitely share a kiss, and overall their shared screen time together is great. They're so different, yet so similar (both being semi-humans seeking perfection in their own ways), and that is pretty much what the Borg Queen seems to think as well. Yet again everything is superbly delivered by Brent Spiner and Alice Krige who play Data and the Borg Queen respectively. She uses the emotion chip to break down Data's will, or at least so she thinks. But I am getting ahead of myself again.
|How un-Borg. But what is Borg anyway? I have so many questions!|
Picard finds out that the Borg are trying to rebuild the deflector dish into a subspace transponder, allowing them to hail the Borg of that time (though they are still in the Delta Quadrant) to come to Earth and mess things up. Cue another great scene where Picard, Worf and random red-shirt person who will die, gear up to go onto the outside of the ship to see if they can throw a spanner in the Borg works. They do it by literally removing the entire deflector dish from the ship, and the scene where the Borg, still working on the dish like nothing has happened, slowly float out into space is just brilliant and hilarious. There is a great attention to detail all over this movie too - when they put down their weapons at one point in the scene you can hear the click when the weapons magnetize on the hull, explaining why they don't just float out into space. The soundscape when they walk out onto the hull reminded me a lot of TMP too, which is a big plus in my book.
Speaking of weapons and the Borg though, there is something that doesn't really make sense in this movie. It's been well established at this point that the Borg adapt to any kind of energy weapons once they've taken a couple of shots. Throughout the movie we see how Worf tells Picard that he's remodulated the weapons to allow them to get a couple of more shots off. Then every now and then we get to see some hand to hand combat, and a scene where Picard shoots down some Borg in the holo-deck with some holo-bullets (which should count as energy weapons really). Overall it's portraid like the regular weapons aren't very useful and physical weapons work a lot better. So why not always use them? Equip everyone with a Bat'leth or a Magnum pistol and suddenly the Borg will have a lot harder time adapting, I'm sure. Maybe this is explained somewhere in the Star Trek lore, but it's not explained in this movie.
Back on Earth Cochrane is starting to feel that the whole thing is getting all too much. Laforge tells him about Universities named after him, statues raised for him and so on. Cochrane admits later on that he only did any of this for the money (and naked ladies that would come with the money) in a scene that adds a lot to the Cochrane character. Overall they've managed to make all the characters feel a lot more real and human than they generally do in TNG, something that series really struggles with if you ask me. All the main characters in the movie get their own little character development scene where we get to see that they are multi-faceted and not perfect. I've mentioned Cochrane's and I'll get to Data's.
Worf suggests to Picard that they destroy the Enterprise and that way they'll get rid of all the Borg in one hit. Picard refuses and calls Worf a coward for trying to end the Borg battle the easy way. Worf is, understandably and understatingly, not amused but since the captain has said no, no one continues to question him even though they all agree that he is wrong. No one except Lily, remember her? The associate from Earth who found herself on the future starship infested with cyborg-alien. She straight up calls Picard "Captain Ahab" and after some back and forth shouting Picard gets the hint. He is taking things too personally. It's a great and believable scene, especially if you have seen the underlying story arc from the TV series.
|She ain't sugarcoating it.|
Picard starts the self-destruct sequence and in the meantime another countdown has started down on Earth - the rocket is ready to launch and make itself known to the Vulcans. These two plotlines have been running parallell to each other and now they're about to fuse together again, seamlessly. But it's not over yet. Picard realizes that Data is in trouble and sets out to save him. The Borg Queen realizes that the rocket is about to do a fly by and decides to shoot it down. The stakes are still high as we move into the final act.
Picard comes upon the Borg Queen in the engine room, where all the scenes between her and Data have taken place as well. Picard offers himself in exchange for Data to allow Data to escape while Picard keeps the Queen busy during the counting down for self-destruct (silently), but it seems like Data has already been converted to the Borg Queen's cause as he goes to set off some torpedoes aimed at the rocket that Laforge, Riker and Cochrane are in. They meanwhile have no idea that they are about to be blown out of the sky. They think the Enterprise have moved in closer to give them a send-off, as they still don't know about the Borg on board.
The shots are fired, everyone is holding their breath... and they miss. Data has tricked the Borg Queen into believing he was now on her side, instead he breaks open a couple of plasma conduits (something that was hinted at earlier in the movie) and as the plasma pours out onto the floor Picard and Borg Queen try to flee onto higher ground. The Borg Queen clings onto Picard when Data emerges from the plasma clouds and pulls the Queen down. Her organic compounds become destroyed, destroying her in the process. It's another great scene showcasing some really well made special effects. Data, who has had human skin grafted onto his arm and face now looks like something out of Terminator. And all that is left of the Borg Queen once the plasma has been vented is a twitching metal skull with spine. It's exactly the climax and finale this movie deserved and it is so well done. (And then Picard runs back to cancel self-destruct, of course).
|Maybe this is the evolution of the T800?|
Then we get the finale of the other storyline as well and it is equally good. We get two great finales in this movie! Cochranes FTL rocket has gotten the attention of the Vulcans and they land on Earth to speak to him. This is First Contact. It happens in 2063. I could possibly be alive then (I'd be 78). This point, while suitably low in tone in the movie, holds so much weight and significance to us as viewers and fans because it started everything. From this point on we've followed so much of what this fictional humanity becomes, and we've loved (almost) every second of it. I starts right there in that scene. Watching it is just so... cool.
|But… the germs? How do they talk without translators? So many questions!|
And that pretty much sums up this movie. It's cool. It makes the right choices, from the start and all the way throughout. When I was 11 or whatever, watching it for the first time in the cinema I was absolutely awe-struck by how entertaining this movie was. Now that I am *ahem* somewhat older and have watched it a couple of times more, I can really revel in all the details that come together to make this movie so... dang... good. It might not be perfect in the sense that it has some plot holes and leaves some questions open (like what happened to the Borg invasion back in their own time?) - but just like A Voyage Home you don't notice, and if you do you don't care, because the things that matter are the things that work. It makes sense, it looks cool, it is action, it is funny and it is everything that is great about Star Trek.
First Contact is probably my favorite Star Trek movie. I'll throw in a caveat that my nostalgia-goggles may tint my impression of it some still after all this time (nostalgia tends to get stronger over time anyway when I think of it). But rewatching it I had an absolute blast and when the credits were rolling I was genuinely thinking "you know what, I could watch all of that again right now". I might not be a huge fan of TNG, but I'll always love them for giving me this.
Images from amazon.com, startrek.com, memegenerator.com, memory-alpha.fandom.net, giphy.com and thewebsiteofdoom.com.