Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Star Trek: First Contact

Star Trek: First Contact
Released November 22, 1996


The Borg have launched a new assault on Earth, this time traveling to the past in the hopes of derailing Earth's first contact with the Vulcans, and thus all of Federation history. Picard must face not just a mortal enemy but his own personal scars the Borg left in their last encounter. The Enterprise crew must now stop the Borg again while finding a way not to interfere in the unfolding of a pivotal moment in human history.

 Can you guess which one is the red shirt?


Kevin: Movies, especially the more recent ones, present a particular problem for Star Trek. There's a tendency to tell a more action-oriented story with a single Big Villain, and neither of those are what Star Trek does really well in the television series. Complex races of opponents and slow, layered drama are a luxury of having a dozen hours over several years to tell a story rather that 120 minutes. Because of that, I tend to give a little more leeway to the movies, provided the villain-focused, action adventure is well-executed. Star Trek 2009 and Into Darkness, even setting aside their transgressions against the franchise, are actually bad movies, being visually, aurally, and above all, narrative messes. First Contact, however, I think succeeds in making the big action film that properly "fits" in the Star Trek universe. I saw this in the theater with my father the weekend it opened, and I loved it then, and I love it now. From a purely entertainment perspective, I don't think anyone could really have a complaint. The action is paced well, broken up with actually funny comic relief. The violence is intense, but I would argue at no point leg-crushingly-gratuitous. Before I get into the meat of analyzing it as Star Trek, and to preemptively rebut criticism that I am giving this movie a pass I would unwilling to extend to Into Darkness, this is a good movie. The movie is not perfect, and we'll get to those issues, but I would be hard pressed to say there was a single scene in which I not completely and genuinely entertained, and I never had to shut off my brain once.

Matthew: I agree on the overall quality of the movie qua movie. What are the elements that make up a good movie? Well, a comprehensible plot and narrative structure are chief among them. You have to be able to follow the action on screen and understand what just transpired, be able to form expectations of what is to come, and to enjoy finding out whether those expectations are met or subverted. First Contact sets out its story motivators and goals in relatively quick succession, letting us know that the Borg have changed human history and that the Enterprise has gone back to stop that. That's not to say there aren't pleasures and discoveries along the way - the way the "first contact" event with the Vulcans was worked in was very pleasurable, and wasn't immediately apparent from the beginning. Then, another key element is pacing and tone - once expectations are set up, the way things play out has to fit tonally with the type of plot we've been given. I've just been watching 20 (!) Hitchcock movies in a row, and he was a master at working all of the elements of a film, from lighting to music to comic relief, into a cohesive whole that keeps you engaged. But one of his movies, "Topaz," a cold war thriller from 1969, fails to integrate music successfully, undercutting one of the key suspense sequences near the end. That's all a long way of saying First Contact succeeds. Comic relief is employed, with a "split crew" structure of some people on the surface. Rather than sabotaging the momentum of the movie, it is worked in well and actually relieves us from the techno-zombie warfare transpiring above. Into Darkness was so frenetic that it rendered itself nearly incomprehensible, which only exacerbated the problems with its convoluted setup.

I will address here what I think is some laziness in the plot - the mechanism for time travel. Time travel stories are a big, messy barrel of fish, and this is no exception. If the Borg have this technology, why do they only use it once? It seems like they should be able to try it dozens, hundreds, thousands of times until successful. And then... how did they get back again? You know, without fundamentally and irreparably breaking the universe by introducing easily replicable time travel?

Kevin: The Borg Queen....I am ambivalent on her creation. I actually like the idea that a hive mind would have some kind of focal point or central processor or something to organize the chaos, but I do have a problem with the idea that she would then have an ego and an agenda much like every other villain in every other movie. And Voyager really went off the deep end with it, didn't it? I don't think it destroys the Borg, but it definitely takes them down another notch from the flawlessly terrifying villain of "Q Who" and "Best of Both Worlds, Part I." I like all her scenes with Data and the back and forth in the dialogue was good, but overall, "she" is a less interesting villain than "they" were before she was introduced. As for the Picard characterization, I actually don't have a problem. I think any degree of psychological recovery could be undone by being re-attacked. I would expect a similar response if Picard were trapped in a room with a Cardassian interrogator again. You could argue the build-up, explosion, and resolution of his obvious PTSD attack were a little quick, but again, I can take that as a concession to the limited time of a movie. The only real sin is that, while Woodard knocks the scene right out of the park, it really should have been Beverly in the conference room.

Matthew: On Picard, I just have a hard time seeing how he can regress from the Picard of "I, Borg" to this one. The "kill em all" question has already been asked and answered. Is it an interesting character question? Sure. Does it serve the movie? Yes. The more Melville the better, as far as I'm concerned. But it strikes a weird note for those of us who have followed the character. Speaking of which, the reassimilation question has been given short shrift here, too. Picard ruthlessly offs Ensign Lynch without so much as a by-your-leave. The problem? Picard himself was "cured" of his assimilation. He should have had a line of dialogue indicating that the stakes were too high and the time didn't exist to take such a compassionate line with assimilated crew members in this case. Instead, he comes off as callous at best, deranged at worst, to an astute fan of the franchise.

OK. The Borg Queen. What I see happening here is a desire on the part of the writers to personify the menace within this plot. The problem is that the Borg's key feature, and its most terrifying one at that if you ask me, is its lack of personality. Again - does it serve this individual movie? Yeah, I guess. You can have dialogue between protagonist and antagonist in a way that does some things. But then, have zombie movies ever needed a "CEO Zombie" to debate things with? And for what it's worth, I think the Data questions (e.g. his loyalty to humanity) in this story have already been asked and answered as well, in "Descent." So I'm just sort of left scratching my head and wondering whether the sacrifice in terror was justified by the gains in storytelling. My opinion is "no."

Kevin: What I continue to love about this movie, otherwise, is the fine attention to detail as a piece of Star Trek. Going back to this event in Star Trek history is a fun choice as it's one we've never scene, but it doesn't feel like "prequel" filler. Scenes with Barclay, the EMH joke, the Dixon Hill on the holodeck are all pitch perfect continuity nods. Whenever the writers needed to flesh out a scene, they found a way to do so drawing from the pretty deep well of Trek's previous stories. Their inclusion is organic and interesting and it gratifies the long time viewer. Moreover, particularly in scenes like Picard and Data with the Phoenix and the final scene with Cochrane and the Vulcans, the tone of Star Trek is right there, front and center, almost like its own character in the movie. The whole point of this adventure was to maintain the Star Trek world we loved, so it helped to see glimpses of it in the story. I'll discuss this more in detail in the production section, but even the unexpectedly beautiful opening credits and orchestral but far less martial theme music reinforce the care taken to make sure this felt like the Star Trek that inspired us as children. So, if nothing else, and in a way the Abrams films never even attempted, for whatever shortcomings I may find in the plot, I still always feel like I am watching a piece of real Star Trek, created and cared for by the small army of people that entertained me for the seven seasons and one movie that came before it.

Matthew: I agree wholeheartedly here. Like you, I saw this at its release (prior to its release in fact, at a Hollywood screening for college press), and even way back then there was absolutely nothing to draw me out of the moment, or make me feel uncomfortable as an uber-fan (which I think my having watched every episode a dozen times on self-made VHS tapes would qualify me for). The fan service is rife, but in each instance it is employed perfectly and appropriately to its source material. That's what you gain by hiring ACTUAL TREK WRITERS to make your movie, I guess. But beyond that, each time it's done it actually serves the movie, even for non-fans. Barclay is funny, whether you're a fan or not. First contact with an alien race is inherently interesting, not just to Trek nerds. Patrick Stewart shooting a tommy-gun while wearing a tuxedo is just plain cool.


Kevin: Patrick Stewart gave the audience a master class in acting like you are having a slow build to a PTSD breakdown. Whatever the issues with the scripting, I think he sells the breakdown and buildup and release really well. I liked his interaction with Lily. The scene in the cargo room was charming. Speaking of Alfre Woodard, the short shrift her character's presence gave Crusher aside, she was great. She read as an sympathetic avatar for the audience without being a Mary Sue, and like other humans from eras past, like Edith Keeler in The City on the Edge of Forever, it's great to see that optimism and hope our main characters have. It creates the through line between the past and present for the Star Trek universe.

Matthew: For the main crew, this is a Stewart/Spiner show. They certainly did fine. Frankly, I'm not a big fan of Stewart yelling and smashing things. I vastly prefer his quieter moments, of which there are several here. Spiner does a more restrained take on some of his late season TNG work, and it's fine. Actually, LeVar Burton really nails his few scenes, especially with Cromwell. It's too bad he wasn't given more to do. I agree that Alfre Woodard was quite good. Really, there's not a bad piece of casting in this whole movie, and everybody brings their A game. I don't think anyone gives us anything transcendent, but we can't expect that out of every script, can we?

Kevin: Spiner is great and completely restrained in the best way. Alice Krige infused the Borg Queen with the exact amount of allure and malice to make her, as a character, interesting, issue of Borg infrastructure aside. The scenes really crackled and I enjoyed her every moment she was onscreen. Planetside, James Cromwell is just great. My favorite scenes are definitely his meltdown about the statue and the final scene with the Vulcans. His humanity, in all its virtues and flaws, really shone through, which since that was the point of his character is to the actor's credit.

Matthew: Yeah, for as much as I think the Queen is a bad story idea, Alice Krige sold the heck out of it. She was alluring, dominant, repulsive, everything a zombie queen ought to be. Given the strength of her performance, I would have liked to see her character get more of the "limited existence" sorts of arguments with either Spiner or Stewart. I think she could have been a compelling spokesperson for a viewpoint that we would otherwise abhor. Cromwell is a pro's pro. He brings exactly what's needed to every role he's given. Officious snob? Got it. Salty smuggler? Easy. Inveterate drunk/inventor? Boom.

Production Values

Kevin: Overall, I think the movie succeeds on this front. This is definitely my favorite TNG music score, and it's in a neck and neck race against the TOS movies. The music behind the opening credits is beautiful and really adds a sense of emotional depth to the story. The opening titles themselves are also great. The "coalescing" effect was really well achieved, and again, I think it adds something to the film. Frakes seems to have cared about every aspect of the film, and whatever our lingering plot problems may be, you certainly can't argue that the problems were from a lack of care.

Matthew: The opening titles gave me goosebumps in the theater. That's a ringing endorsement if you ask me. The TMP theme might be the single best piece of Trek movie music, but it has been overdone since. This theme is beautiful, somber, evocative, and triumphant in the end. And you're right, the blue haze of the words was really artful. The whole thing gives you the impression that you're in for something a bit deeper than what we got, actually. Your point on details is well taken. The Borg sphere is really neat, the opening pull-out was well achieved, and all the little details of the planet sets are excellent. Using a real Titan missile silo was an inspired touch that added a lot - similar to Star Trek IV's use of locations. That's good company to be keeping.

Kevin: The Sovereign class ship is pretty. It's not my favorite, but it's certainly pretty to look at. I like the shallow angle and the elongated saucer. I like the angle of the warp nacelle pylons, too. The overall effect is a bit more militaristic, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing. The bridge stations are a little too spread out for me, and this may just be my childhood nostalgia for the Enterprise-D, but it just doesn't have the same sense of community.

Matthew: The bridge is a misfire for me. It is designed for a 2.35:1 frame, and that's fine, but the effect is jarring after watching, oh, 500 hours of 4:3 framed sets between 3 different shows. Engineering also pales in comparison to the D set, with too much verticality and not enough visual interest for actors to play off of. The model itself looks really cool, and the sequences on the deflector were inspired - exactly the sort of thing a movie should use its expanded budget for.

Kevin: The Borg make-up is good. Sure, the zombie cyborg became a standby of action sci-fi and horror, but that's not this movie's fault. I also think, given having recently seen the original Borg make-up in HD, I think the original design is actually closer than I thought when I first saw the movie. The battle scene was great, i.e. no lens flare and a sense of staging and pacing in the battle. One of my favorite effects in the whole film has got to be the Enterprise through Cochrane's telescope. The blur and twinkle and the sizing of the ship was great. If there was a misstep for me, it's gotta be the Engineering redesign. It's too big and dark and it doesn't feel like the same workplace that the D's did.

Matthew: That battle with the Borg cube was great. I agree entirely on choreography - having it play out from the Enterprise viewscreen was a great choice as fas as that goes - it places you in the battle both spatially and emotionally in a way that a shaky-cam CGI exterior shot just never will. As far as Enterprise sets that worked, I loved the use of the Voyager sickbay - it's probably the best sickbay in the franchise. The Dixon Hill scenario also looked beautiful. Speaking of redesigns, the new uniforms are a bit GrimDark for me. I don't need that kind of realism. I think a better-tailored TNG uniform would have been nice. But I do understand the desire to make movies look more "realistic" or something, and a desire to cover aging actors more effectively. But these unies are well behind TNG, TOS movies, DS9/VOY, and even TOS for me.


Kevin: This is a 5. I usually put this in third place behind Wrath of Khan and Voyage Home in any ranked list of the movies I create. The watering down of the Borg and the time-travel trope are problems to be sure, but in the end, I got a two-hour, well-crafted action story whose narrative thrust was preserving the Star Trek universe, and the story gave me more than enough to remember why that's a worthwhile enterprise. Pun absolutely intended.

Matthew: I'm stuck on a 4 for a total of 9. I agree that this is the 3rd best movie, but to me some of the story artifices just take it out of that rarefied realm of perfectly integrated action/sci-fi/character stories. Picard is too shouty, the time travel is too easy, and the Queen is too convenient. That said, I agree that it's a rollicking good time, and none of the flaws are grievous enough to derail the enjoyment of both fans and non-fans alike. 


1 comment:

  1. Well I went to go listen to the podcast and dropbox said your traffic was too high! Congrats although it leaves me angry cause I wanted a good discussion of my fourth favorite star trek flick after Final Frontier, Trek 2009 and Into Darkness. Just kidding it's Voyage Home, Wrath of Kahn, Undiscovered Country and then First Contact