Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Star Trek-First Contact: A 20th Anniversary Perspective

        Star Trek-First Contact celebrated its 20th anniversary one week ago today. It was a film that had a great deal riding on it. It would be the first motion picture to fully showcase the characters from Star Trek-The Next Generation. Not only that,but the events of the previous movie Star Trek-Generations necessitated the design of a brand new Starship Enterprise. Specifically NCC-1701-E. The movie's creators Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga (at the time working primarily on UPN's Star Trek-Voyager) also decided that the plot of the film should focus around the TNG era of Star Trek's most frightening nemesis: the Borg. 

The plot of the movie dealt with the new Enterprise E and its grew travelling back in time when a Borg vessel used a time vortex to assimilate humanity in its past-following an invasion of Earth that Starfleet had thwarted. The Borg had gone back to stop first contact,humanity's initial contact with an extraterrestrial species,the Vulcan's,following the first faster then light speed interstellar voyage by Zefram Cochrane. Through some interference on the part of the Enterprises's crew,the Borg's attempts to stop first contact are successfully stopped. And Cochrane,though initially reluctant,does make his warp flight before the Enterprise crew return to their now restored timeline.

All of the events that led up to the Star Trek universe had been the topic of many commercially released novels and fan fiction about the show prior to this movie. The character of Zefram Cochrane was even introduced in the original Star Trek TV episode "Metamorphosis". James Cromwell portrayed the role of Cochrane in this film. He is the catalyst for the movie's events. Not only that,but he was also the central element of the movies most enduring theme: what motivates idolatry. The crew of the Enterprise view Cochrane as a heroic figure from their time period. Cochrane himself is a damaged cynic who views his first warp speed flight as a chance to make his personal fortune.

One excellent character in the film is the wise and calculated astro physicist Lily Sloane,portrayed by Alfre Woodard. Her level head and no nonsense manner balance out the extreme actions of Captain Jean Luc Picard in the film. And that's a good lead in to my personal observations of the film. When First Contact's trailers were first shown on television in the summer of 1996,they came across as disappointing and unappealing. In fact,there was a long period where I had absolutely no interest in seeing the movie. My parents convinced me to give it a chance. After seeing it,my opinion was downgraded. However,time has given far more clarity to those angry and disappointed thoughts.

First Contact was actually one of the TNG era casts most successful films from a strictly commercial standpoint. However,the weakness I observed in the film is best summed up by what BBC film critic Emily Carlisle said of the film at the time. And that was that it was a more action and less character focused film than the majority of Star Trek movies. Even objectively,I'd have to look at the mid 1990's to try to explain some of this. At this point,the subersive and underground "mean people" culture of the 1980's had come into the mainstream of pop culture. In this highly sarcastic culture,Star Trek was often snidely referred to as a retro (even campy) joke from an idealistic past.

Star Trek in general was experiencing its 30th anniversary the year First Contact came out. And I was deeply involved in the literature about the writing and development of this film. Its creators made no bones about wanting to create a film for a more modern (and presumably less cerebral) audience. So in the film,the Borg are more overtly hostile and horror movie zombie like in nature. Also,Jean Luc Picard is almost totally out of character as a vengeful character acting more like Rambo,with an enormous dose of PTSD. Not to mention jokes about the normally gentle Counselor Troi getting drunk simply to curry favor with Zefram Cochrane.

As with any film,its all a matter of taste. I personally felt it represent the beginning of Star Trek's downfall. And still do now. A good part of that has to do that its action/catch phrase based nature essentially laid the groundwork for J.J. Abrams' modern day Star Trek reboots. So if someone loves Star Trek for its wit,characters and futuristic social commentary,this film really offers little for such an audience. If one views Star Trek as action driven sci fi in need of cultural updates to suit changing trends,this movie might just be for you. With Star Trek just about to reemerge from its 11 year slumber on TV in May of 2017,First Contact may eventually come to be seen a bit differently.