On November 22, 1996, Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise traveled back in time to the 21st century to prevent the insidious Borg Collective from ruining our future. They succeeded, and we’re still getting over it.
Twenty years on, Star Trek: First Contact remains one of the high points of boldly going into the final frontier. The success of the film hits the perfect Trek-movie trifecta: Take a beloved adversary from the TV show, add in references to Moby Dick, and wrap the whole thing in a time travel plot. As Picard notes in the movie, “Money doesn’t exist in the 24th century,” but in the 20th, First Contact seemed to exist in time when the Star Trek franchise was printing money. Back then, Star Trek was arguably at the most mainstream, pervasive peak in its entire existence. Both Voyager and Deep Space Nine were on the air, while The Next Generation crew had achieved the impossible by becoming the faces of Trek, displacing the “classic” crew.
In 1996, children who played Star Trek didn’t pretend to be Kirk and Spock, but instead, Picard and Data. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert said, “I doubted the original Enterprise crew would ever retire, because I didn’t think they could stop talking long enough.” But retire they did, and after the mixed bag of Generations, this movie became the Trek to beat.
Part of this is because First Contact was deeply connected to Star Trek continuity. It brought back the Borg: roving space hivemind automatons who today seem like apt metaphors for internet addiction. Having them travel back in time to change history added another awesome layer to their villainy. But this also connected to the original series, too, by revealing that the very first alien species to reach out to Earth was, in fact, the Vulcans. With this adventure, Star Trek pretend to be an ass-kicking space action movie, but got to eat it’s idealistic cake by signing off with a touching, and earned, “live long and prosper.” Considering the film was also lovingly directed by Trek actor Jonathan Frakes, the entire thing felt like a warm family affair.
Of course, the driving force of First Contact is without a doubt Patrick Stewart’s tortured Captain Ahab routine. And though many fans have complained (this one included) that big-screen Trek movies often lean on stories of revenge, First Contact was unique in making our hero the one beset with this attitude.
Even in 1982’s brilliant Wrath of Khan, the audience is never sure why Khan is so pissed. But, if you had watched Picard be turned into a Borg in the TV show, then it was easy to take his side in First Contact. As the 21st century engineer, Lily, Alfre Woodard’s performance nearly steals the show too. Because after comparing Picard to Moby Dick’s vengeful and obsessed Captain Ahab, Lily gets maybe the best line in the whole movie: “Actually, I never read it.”
In the year it was released, First Contact helped celebrate the 30th anniversary of Star Trek. And now that we’re celebrating the 50th birthday of Trek, First Contact still seems brand new. On the anniversary of its release, make it so and rewatch it today.