In comments recently, reader Brian Malbon forwarded a theory that's probably been expressed before, somewhere, but I'd never really thought about it, and I hope he'll permit me to paraphrase: the best Star Trek movies are the ones that are least like Star Trek, but which use the Star Trek universe as a springboard to explore other types of narratives. That may or may not entirely hold in every case, but it could not possibly be any truer in the case of Star Trek: First Contact from 1996, the second of four films featuring the cast from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the best of them by such a lopsided margin that it's a bit embarrassing to talk about it. It also breaks away from the tone and even, in important ways, the narrative continuity of the series to such an extensive degree that I honestly don't know whether it was designed for the fans or in defiance of them. And it is, above all else, an honest-to-God horror movie wedged into the Star Trek universe, and that alone is enough to make it very nearly without precedent in all the decades of the franchise's existence.

It's a bit self-conscious about this, in fact, and if you stare at the concept for more than a few minutes it becomes really obvious how calculated it all is. The time-travel scenario, as it did in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, helps to make a stand-alone film with increased appeal for non-fans: the choice of villain especially allows for the most intense action that could be brought to bear on the talkiest and action-light of all iterations of Star Trek. At the same time, that villain was one of the most famous and popular among fans of anything from The Next Generation, and the time period being visited was sufficiently important in the series' timeline as to suggest something of the epic to the hardcore fanbase. It was a win-win situation, and Paramount won: without adjusting for inflation, First Contact was the second-highest-grossing Star Trek film before the 2009 reboot.

If the film itself is a little bit generic, more of a popcorn sci-fi action film than a faithful adaptation of the characters from the series, that's probably all to the good: Star Trek: Generations demonstrated pretty clearly what hewing too closely to the paradigm of the series looked like in movie form, and it's not the sort of thing you'd like to have two of. First Contact absolutely does not feel like a Next Generation story, and the characters are frequently "off" in some way, but it's also deeply entertaining and quick-moving, two things that no other Next Generation movie can claim to be.

The differences from Generations are apparent immediately: where that film opened with a prologue, and then a languid, go-nowhere "meet the cast" sequence, First Contact plunges right into its freaky PG-13 body horror with an unusally well-timed "it was a dream!" fake-out in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), late of the U.S.S. Enterprise-D and now finishing his first year aboard the Enterprise-E, has nightmares about the time he spent six years earlier a prisoner of the cyborg zombies calling their collective identity the Borg. These nightmares have been triggered by the recent arrival of a Borg attack ship, which fairly quickly manages to decimate the defense force put in place to protect Earth, and the Enterprise arrives just in time for Picard's tactical knowledge the save the last scraps of the fleet, while allowing a single sphere-shaped vessel to escape and create a time vortex. No sooner does it disappear than Earth is transformed into a mechanical hell, and the Enterprise is just able to sneak into the temporal slipstream to go back to whenever and stop the Borg from doing whatever hideous thing they did to humanity's past.

Getting to this point takes less than 15 minutes. That's already as much plot as is contained in the first two-thirds of Generations (with markedly better time-travel mechanics, to boot), and considering that both films were written by the same team - Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga, who co-wrote the story with franchise overseer Rick Berman - it's kind of amazing that one film could be so brutally abrupt with its exposition and set-up (to the point where I wonder if a neophyte viewer would actually have figured out what in the hell the Borg are by the time that it matters that we know), when its immediate predecessor was such an aimless, low-impact slog through a plot that has no real dramatic stakes to speak of. Sure, First Contact is yet another "the Earth itself is in danger!" plot, but it's exciting, and bombastic, and presented so quickly that you get to give up on following the nuances of the plot closely and just dig in for the the thrill of it.

The rest of the film doesn't entirely pay off the way the opening sequence promises: on the other end of the time vortex, it's 4 April, 2063, the day before humanity's first faster-than-light spaceflight and first contact with an alien race. The Enterprise crew quickly figures out that the Borg plot involves sabotaging this historic event, and they arrive just too late to prevent an attack on the Montana camp where Zephraim Cochrane (James Cromwell), inventor of the warp drive, is about to make his legendary flight, though with the timeline already having been massively screwed over, they dive right in to fix things. Unfortunately the surviving Borg have managed to sneak onto the Enterprise, shutting its systems down with a portion of the crew on the planet surface. For most of its running time, then, First Contact is two movies running in tandem: on Earth, Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), chief engineer Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), and ship's counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) attempt to fix Cochrane's vessel, the Phoenix, while also getting the craven drunk ready to accept his role as godfather of humankind's future. On the Enterprise, Picard, Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and acting security adviser Worf (Michael Dorn, brought back from TV's Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in a way that very nearly seems natural) lead an attempt to stop the Borg, while science officer and android Data (Brent Spiner) is captured by the Borg, with the attempt made to bring him over to their side by offering the promise of hybridising him with organic materials just as they are. A femme fatale Borg Queen (Alice Krige) figures into all this, in a way that you really just can't square with the earlier depictions of the Borg at all, but Krige is so great in the role that I take the approach of not caring.

One of these films is much better than the other, not because the scripting is especially bad, but because Frakes, joining Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner in the annals of Trek actors turned movie directors, is palpably less interested in the earthbound material. It's perfect serviceable, with some of the finest character moments in any of the Next Generation films, but for all the loving care lavished on the shipboard action scenes, the character drama revolving around Cochrane feels bland and perfunctory, with the three regular cast members stranded down in Montana giving considerably worse performances than the four who get to be part of the A-plot (in an especially weird twist, this happens only when they are thus stranded: Frakes is vastly better in his early scenes on the Enterprise bridge than he is anywhere else in the movie). Not that the cast of The Next Generation was full of great actors, Stewart obviously excepted, but even so, there's some troublingly dodgy work happening here, from Sirtis especially.

But up on the ship; ah! now that part of the movie is handled monstrous well. Somebody - Frakes, or cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti, or maybe even production designer Herman Zimmerman - was terribly excited to turn the corridors of the Enterprise into a haunted house, and the best part of First Contact lies primarily in feeling the slow burn of tension as the crew creeps around the familiar locations (mostly familiar: the new ship design is more metallic and militaristic than the TV Enterprise-D, and the contrast between its pre-Borg and post-Borg states isn't as severe), perverted and made into something muggy and evil. I wasn't kidding about calling it a horror movie: it is an unusually pure horror film, in fact, given that most of its emotional impact comes from watching the encroachment of something sickening and hideous into something normal, and it's certainly a credit to Michael Westmore's extensive redesign of the Borg makeup that they look as appallingly necrotic and moist as they do, which vastly increases the film's horrific touches.

When the film is trafficking in that kind of atmosphere, it's absolutely fantastic (there's a shot of several Borg emerging from a dark room, in which we first see only the lasers from their cybernetic eyepieces flashing in the blackness: it is maybe my single favorite shot in any Star Trek feature); when it is merely an adventure in fighting space zombies, it's still pretty great, thanks to one of the most brazenly cinematic scenes in the Star Trek films (a zero-gravity fight on the exterior hull of the Enterprise), and some kinetic, Bourne-style camerawork years before it became standard. When it is a character study, it works mostly because Stewart and Alfre Woodard (as a 21st Century woman who ends up on the ship to act as Picard's angry conscience) are two extremely gifted actors, and they can make melodramatic shouting seem genuinely hurt and wounded (even given his well-documented talents, it's impressive that Stewart could land the film's big "I AM SHOUTING THE FILM'S THEMES AT YOU" scene without it feeling unendurably campy - instead, it's possibly the best part of the movie). When it is a light planetside drama that feels awfully like an episode of the TV show, it is... fine. Even the Cochrane scenes, however less invigorating than the rest of the movie, are still better than the other three Next Generation films. But it's immensely clear that nobody's heart was in it, and given how much this plot feels like vintage Star Trek, while the Borg hunt feels like a sanitised version of Aliens involving Starfleet officers, that's an even bigger problem than it would already tend to be, structurally.

It is, by all means, fantastic popcorn movie: Jerry and Joel Goldsmith's score hits the sweet spot of pounding intensity and muted sentiment, the effects work, barring a couple of obvious CGI shots, is far better than you'd think based on the budget and the 1996 release date, and when he's bothering to come alive, Frakes finds some really excellent ways to capture the action and the character moments using an exceptionally kinetic camera (given the vastly indifferent quality of most Star Trek directing, his work here is comfortably above average). Nor is it the first Trek film that sacrificed fidelity to the source material to work better as an independent adventure movie. It is, however, the first Trek film that seems to be actively rejecting the feel of the source material, and that, plus the massive imbalance in quality between its two subplots, keeps First Contact just barely outside of the very top-tier of the film series. Good as it is, it's still not perfect, though none of the movies to follow it would come remotely as close to that benchmark.

Reviews in this series
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise, 1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Nimoy, 1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Nimoy, 1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (Shatner, 1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Meyer, 1991)
Star Trek: Generations (Carson, 1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (Frakes, 1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (Frakes, 1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (Baird, 2002)
Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams, 2013)
Star Trek Beyond (Lin, 2016)