Thursday, January 17, 2013

Star Trek: First Contact

The Borg launch a new, concerted attack against the Earth, and the Enterprise-E is instead sent out to patrol the Neutral Zone because Starfleet is concerned that Captain Picard's personal history with the Borg will override his judgment in battle.  As the Enterprise crew learns that the battle is going poorly they disobey orders and head to Earth just in time to lead a renewed attack on the Borg ship and defeat it, but not before an escape pod gets away.  This pod travels back in time to 21st century Earth and takes the Enterprise along with it, where the crew discovers that the Borg has changed the future and converted the entirety of humanity into members of the Borg Collective - they've managed to do this by destroying the capability of Zefram Cochran (James Cromwell) to launch Earth's first warp ship, therefore delaying humanity's first contact with alien lifeforms long enough for the Borg to take over instead.  The Enterprise destroys the pod but, unknown to them, survivors infiltrate the Enterprise and begin assimilating its crew.

A group on Earth led by Riker, Geordi and Troi work to salvage Cochran's work and attempt to launch the warp ship at its designated historical moment, while the rest of the crew of the Enterprise battles the Borg menace on the ship.  Data is captured by the Borg and meets the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), who attempts to reverse engineer him into a Borg, grafting human flesh on to a mechanical body.  As more and more of the ship is lost to the Borg, Picard's officers plead for him to destroy the ship and the Borg along with it but he refuses, a fact which Cochran's colleague Lily (Alfre Woodard), who had been brought aboard the ship for medical attention, realizes is due to Picard's desire for vengeance against the race that once assimilated him.  Picard, confronted with the reality of his obsessive quest by Lily, acquiesces to his officers and sets the ship to self-destruct, but he is thwarted by the Queen and the newly-assimilated Data.  As Cochran's ship lifts off from Earth, the Queen orders Data to fire on it, but he proves to be a disloyal member of the Collective, and deliberately misses Cochran's ship before destroying the Borg Queen and the rest of the threat aboard the Enterprise.  The warp ship, having safely completed its flight, returns to Earth, and a Vulcan ship touches down that night, proving to humanity that it is not alone in the universe.  The Enterprise travels back to the 24th century, having defeated the Borg and restored humanity's future.

I feel very comfortable stating, without qualification, that the Borg are the most interesting villain in the Star Trek universe.  They have a clear goal, one which makes a certain kind of twisted sense from their point of view, they are (within reason) an unstoppable force, they have no particular reason to ever listen to a rational argument for why what they are doing is wrong, and they are weird and creepy looking in the best body horror tradition.  The Klingons or the Romulans or any of the other Bad Guy races in the Star Trek universe can be effective here or there, but too often rely on the sort of implied racism that says that any entire group of people can simply be thoroughly incompatible with the ideals of civilized society, a dumb and reductive idea.

I've read that the producers of the series had trouble figuring out how to deal with the Borg after they'd been introduced.  The Borg were supposed to serve a role closer to, say, the Klingons, being an antagonist that the Enterprise would scrap with on a regular basis, but they were such an effective and terrifying enemy that the writers realized they had to pull them back a little bit, because if they showed up too often the Enterprise would have to thwart them again and again, robbing them of much of their power.  So they only ended up showing up a handful of times in the Next Generation series (although I understand they were much more of a major antagonist in the Voyager series).

The big screen adventures of the Next Generation crew were tailor-made for a Borg-related story, and the second film in the series was the perfect time to introduce them to a film-going audience.  Get the first film jitters out of the way and then dive back into the series with a film built around Picard and crew's most terrifying enemy.  And I think parts of this film hint at what might have been, but on the whole this has been the most disappointing film in the series so far.

The biggest problem here is that it's not simply a Borg story.  In Star Trek II, two very different plots (the Genesis device and Khan's quest for vengeance) were sandwiched together into a film that managed to be more than the sum of its parts.  In First Contact, two different plots are again sandwiched together (the Borg menacing Earth, and the inaugural flight of Earth's first warp drive) but the two stories are so completely divergent, and so wildly different in tone, that the film never coalesces into a satisfying whole.  One group of characters is down on Earth having wacky adventures with the perenially-sloshed creator of said warp drive, and the other group is up in space basically re-enacting an Alien flick in Star Trek guise.  The horror of what's happening in space never bleeds into the goings-on down on Earth at all (no one even knows what's happening to the Enterprise, only that they can't get in touch with them), and the goofy good vibes of Zefram Cochran and his band of misfits continually sucks the terror of the Enterprise-based scenes right out of the film.  One or other of these stories should have been the film all by itself, and when I say one or other of them I mean the Borg stuff.  This film promises the Borg, and by all rights its fans deserve the Borg, and no one really cares about seeing humanity's first meeting with the Vulcans.  That's fan-fiction territory, not Big Screen Adventure territory.  I'm sure Zefram Cochran was one of those names with whom fans were familiar, it was probably dropped here or there in the original or Next Generation series, but sometimes less is more when it comes to doling out backstory.  Cochran's story is supposed to provide a lesson about the way that our heroes are simply mortal men, with all the flaws inherent to that fact, but that's quite frankly kind of a trite idea, and it's only explored on a surface level here anyway.  It could have been written out of the movie without doing it real harm, but it's here and it keeps reminding you that more interesting things are happening elsewhere.

Bullet points:

Jonathan Frakes gets the opportunity to direct the film, and his debut as a director is more confident than Leonard Nimoy's was for Star Trek III.  The jarring tonal shifts throughout the film are the script's fault more than his.  My one complaint is that he tends to rely on cliche, particularly when he's doing the horror portion of the film.  There is actually a shot of a woman looking directly at the camera and screaming, like this without the plunger (which is from 1963):

The credits continue to be a horrible, pointless time suck at the opening of the film.  This film's credits are maybe the worst of the whole bunch.  There isn't even a starfield, just a blurry blue blob as each credit moves from extreme close-up to in-focus.

The opening shot, on the other hand, is one of those things that allows me to say that Frakes is indeed pretty confident, and it conveys a lot of information with no words - it opens on a shot of Picard, in a machine pod, and as the camera slowly zooms out we see hundreds and then thousands of identical pods, each housing a Borg.  This shot tells us about Picard's history, and it tells us about the nature of the Borg, all without any words being spoken.  The scene gets less interesting as dialogue is introduced, because no matter how good of an actor Picard is, he can't help but deliver his Borg lines with his Shakespearean inflections.  It is also unfortunately followed by a nested dream sequence, and if I never see another nested dream it'll be too soon.

This film introduces new uniforms.  Everyone now has a grey yoke on top of a black tunic, with the color underneath the yoke presumably identifying which department they work in (rather than the mishmash of black top/colored yoke or colored top/black yoke uniforms they had in Generations.)  It's a nice clean look, and I for one like it quite a bit.

There are some changes at the beginning of the film that are basically uncommented on.  They are now on the Enterprise-E (Star Trek V made a big deal about the Enterprise-A, but this film doesn't linger, it simply establishes its existence and moves on), and Geordi no longer has his weird eye visor thing, having had it replaced by similarly weird blue contacts.  I appreciate the absence of expository dialogue about these facts.

Neal McDonough is occupying the Memorial Wesley Crusher Console on the bridge in one of his first film roles, and he gets a decent amount to do in the film.  I will refer to him as Ensign Blue Eyes going forward because I forget his character's name.  An almost unrecognizably young Adam Scott also shows up briefly, as the helmsman on a ship that Worf is commanding.

I guess they fixed Data's dumb emotion chip problem where it made him act like a lunatic?  It never comes up, and he is much more subdued with his emotions in this film.  Data's place in the movie is much improved over what they saddled him with in Generations - he still gets a spotlight subplot, but it's a bit subtler, and he doesn't have to be the awful "comic" relief at any point.

After the bulk of the battle with the Borg Cube takes place offscreen, the Enterprise comes in to act as classic Napoleonic reinforcements, but it does so inadvertently (since the Enterprise wasn't supposed to be anywhere near the battle).  Either Starfleet doesn't have the wherewithal to come up with a good reinforcement plan, the sort of thing that should be written in to any tactical plan, or they're working on a much deeper level than is immediately apparent to stop the Borg threat.

In the midst of a battle against humanity's most lethal enemy, it's good to know that Riker still has time for a bit of comic jackassery with Worf (who gets dragged back to the Enterprise through transparent script shenanigans.)  Frakes gets a bit more to do here than he did in Generations, and while I think Riker can sometimes be too smarmy for his own good, it's still generally more good than bad when the script gives him stuff to do.

The time travel mechanics in this film are a total mess.  The Borg go back in time just because, and their plan, which involves stopping the launch of Cochran's warp ship and using that as a jumping off point to assimilate all of humanity, has never really made sense to me.  I could go into a long, discursive discussion about this nonsense but I don't see the point.  The time travel aspect introduces Cochran, and I think Cochran doesn't need to be here at all, so I'll just leave it there.

James Cromwell and Alfre Woodard look like Mutt and Jeff next to each other.  They are supposed to be in Montana, which unsurprisingly looks a lot like a California pine forest.

Data is tasked with delivering a bit of exposition about how ironic it is that Cochran ushered in an era of peace by using a nuclear missile (which he repurposed into humanity's first warp ship).  I mean, I'm barely paraphrasing, he basically delivers that line uncut.  I guess that's the value of having a robot as a character, he can do the "As you know, you are the world's leading expert on human/alien brain transplants" without having to act his way through a dumb bit of exposition-as-dialogue, because a wooden reading of a brutal bit of exposition is what you are already expecting.

When the crew of the Enterprise has figured out that the Borg are taking over their ship, Picard gathers together a commando team to go down and meet them in force.  He tells the commandos not to hesitate to fire on the already-assimilated crewmembers.  But wasn't he brought back from Borg-hood?  If that's possible, why don't they just stun them and then de-Borgify them?  I'm sure there was some reason discussed in the "Picard goes Borg" episodes, but as it stands it just seems like a plot hole.

Marina Sirtis' British accent goes in and out really bad when she has to do her "act drunk" scene with Riker after having discovered the equally drunk Cochran.

Does Zefram Cochran use the phrase "you're on some kind of star trek" in this film?  Yes he does.

Alfre Woodard's performance is really kind of unnecessarily bugfuck.  She has to go toe-to-toe with Picard's full-on Richard III energy when he flips out about destroying the Enterprise instead of standing and fighting, so it works for that part.  The biggest problem is that her crazy energy is starkly in contrast with Cromwell's laid-back dudery.  It's not remotely clear how these two even became colleagues, and the film also suggests that they are also lovers.

The Enterprise's windows are forcefields?  Has this always been the case?

I have to deal with the Borg Queen.  There's probably a rule that, in any series which introduces a hive-mind type enemy, it will eventually throw in the idea of a queen.  The funny thing is, the way she talks it's not even clear that she serves as the classic "controls-the-troops" queen, but that's mostly because she talks in these incomprehensible philosophical riddles.  Whatever the case may be about her function, she is a pretty big miscalculation.  The terror of the Borg stems, in part, from their sameness, and from the fact that they're an inplacable enemy which can't be reasoned with.  But Alice Krige gives us a Borg Queen who has obviously thought long and hard about the Borg's mission, and can carry on long conversations about the nature of her species.  The Borg come from the same enemy family that zombies do, and zombies don't have queens, their threat is much more diffuse and therefore much more terrifying.  I'm sorry that the Borg Queen exists, and she really takes away from some of the horror which should be inherent in this film.

We get a scene of that self-indulgent noir character that Picard likes to dress up as on the holodeck.  He uses it to help neutralize an immediate Borg threat to him and Lily which, okay, that's moderately clever I guess but I'm pretty sure I could think of about 300,000 more useful programs if your goal is to stop the Borg than a 1940's detective novel.

Picard and co. determine that the Borg are using the Enterprise's deflector dish in order to send a message to the Borg of the 21st century to come to Earth, and Picard, Worf and Ensign Blue Eyes suit up for a spacewalk across the hull of the ship in order to stop them.  The tension in the scene is ratcheted up by some pretty transparent script chicanery.  The three men have to push a bunch of buttons and futz around with these big blocky solid-state chips in order to accomplish their goal of releasing the deflector dish from the ship, while the Borg slowly realize what they're doing.  Every time you need to work quickly, there's a stuck lever standing in your way.

Lily's entire purpose in the plot is to be the one non-Starfleet officer on the Enterprise, so that she can force Picard to admit that he's out for revenge against the Borg and that's why he won't agree to simply blow up the Enterprise.  A little bit of movie magic immediately fixes the problem, as Lily's forcing Picard to confront the reality of his quest for vengeance causes him to see it clearly for the first time, and he has an immediate about-face about his decision-making.  Suffice it to say that this is not how people actually work, but the character arc has to take this necessary next step, and it'll do it by hook or by crook, by which I mean by Stewart doing some capital-A Acting.

While the ultimate horror is happening to the Enterprise as its entire crew is slowly but inevitably assimilated into the Borg Collective, Cochran is flying his ship to the sound of "Magic Carpet Ride" by Steppenwolf.  I guess that particular jarring tonal shift is on Frakes more than the screenwriters.

After her flesh has been all melted away, and she's nothing but a metallic skull and spine, Picard snaps the remains of the Borg Queen's neck like a fucking boss.  You can tell Ahab to stop chasing the whale, but you can't convince him not to stab it in the eye a few times after it's been killed anyway.

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