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'First Contact': A Stellar Fantasy

By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 22, 1996

"Star Trek: First Contact" is director Jonathan Frakes's first big-screen outing, but you'd never know it. He has a film director's eye and storytelling drive. The movie's plot -- in which half the crew is on Earth trying to ensure that a space launch takes place and half are up on the Enterprise battling the evil cyborgs known as the Borg -- is just serviceable. The excitement comes from Frakes's direction -- his liveliness, and his pleasure in looking at, and showing us, events and images. In his hands, "First Con tact" isn't just an action-adventure movie, it's a fantasy, with some of the horror and mystery of a ghost story or a fairy tale.

The filmmakers made a wise choice when they picked the Borg as the villains in this first movie to put the cast of TV's "Star Trek: The Next Generation" at its center. The Borg are scary. The Borg are terrific. A judicious dose of the Borg would enliven any narrative. A squirm-inducing mixture of flesh and machine, they travel the universe in a cube-shaped spaceship -- whose aerodynamic impossibility only makes it seem more wonderful -- and lay waste to all in their path.

Mentally, they're collective, as if they were a hive of insects. The new twist in the movie is to give that hive a queen bee: Alice Krige, sporting a Medusa-cabled bald head and a black metal body. Krige's queen is a major space babe and the most luscious dominatrix fantasy since Michelle Pfeiffer donned her cat suit in "Batman Returns." She sets her evil eyes on the android Data (Brent Spiner) and proceeds to give him all sorts of lessons in what it really means to be human.

The queen makes her first appearance not quite all in one piece, and in her disembodied state she's like a sorceress-serpent out of "Arabian Nights." Her regal, ghastly entrance is one of several points at which the movie has some of the hushed visual splendor of a great silent film. One sequence, outside on the hull of the Enterprise, actually is silent: In space, no one can hear your dialogue. In the peculiar gravity of space, this action sequence takes place at about one-tenth of regular speed, yet Frakes preserves its tension, creating a spooky set piece.

Herman Zimmerman's production design is rapturously technological, especially the hideously metastasizing machinery of the Borg hive. The Borg, designed by Deborah Everton and Michael Westmore, are as horribly magical as gargoyles, and the semi-metallic queen harks back to Fritz Lang's silent classic "Metropolis" and its wicked female robot with her silver breasts and lewd wink.

The queen also takes a swipe at Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), responsible and upright successor to the adolescently impulsive Capt. James Kirk. The two captains met in the last, sluggish Trek movie, "Star Trek: Generations," and as Kirk, William Shatner hammily stole the movie from the reticent, stage-trained Stewart. (His Picard seemed always to be dodging aside, somewhat embarrassed, to make room for Kirk to emote.) But Frakes was Stewart's TV costar and sometime director on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and he knows how to spotlight his captain.

A onetime Royal Shakespeare Company member who made his first American impact as the wolfish Sejanus on "I, Claudius," Stewart has narrow, intelligent eyes and a natural dignity. He was perfect as the benign paterfamilias of his ethnically diverse crew, a sort of Platonic ideal of the White Male. He was also, like the show, just a tad dull. Though the stories were often highly inventive, "Next Generation" was almost too civilized. At some point the creators must have realized this, because they gummed up the orderly works good by creating the Borg -- just the sorts to get, literally, under the reserved Picard's skin.

Handsome and calmly commanding, Stewart looks heroic, but there's something oddly vulnerable about him: In action sequences, you sometimes notice how small and potentially damageable he is. Unlike Kirk, Picard has nerves; part of the movie's suspense comes from our finding out whether he'll give in to them. Kirk was a boy's book hero. Picard is a more modern protagonist, an adult who can suffer.

The movie isn't all as good as its inspired parts. The Earth sequences are pretty weak, partly because Frakes appears in them as a character, Cmdr. Riker. He's nowhere near as good an actor as he is a director, and he's not a particularly inspired director of other actors: Alfre Woodard, as a feisty pilot, and James Cromwell, as a reluctant genius, know how to take care of themselves, but a lot of the work here, especially from the TV cast members, is a little cute. As Riker, Frakes himself is often annoyingly twinkly and humane. Who'd have guessed that under that blandly boyish exterior there lurked a heart of darkness? There are moments of visionary beauty in this film that rank with "Metropolis," with Josh Meador's interior vistas in "Forbidden Planet" and Irvin Kershner's and Ralph Quarrie's work in "The Empire Strikes Back" -- that is to say, with the best fantasy films ever made.

Star Trek: First Contact is rated PG.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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