Before beginning this review, I should say that a lot of people seem to like First Contact. Sadly I disagree. It's trying to be an action movie, with which there are three main problems: (a) the heroes, (b) the villains, (c) the entire movie. Oh, and the action's hardly all that either.
In fairness, though, it seems undeniable that the movie works if you're already familiar with the Borg. The TV series presumably sets them up nicely and the Star Trek fans with whom I've discussed this film all enjoyed it. Unfortunately I'd never seen any Borg episodes before this and this was my first experience of them... and they didn't work at all. They're hilariously stupid, in a plot that's very nearly as dumb and annoyingly so. Star Trek fans disagree, but that was the impression I came away with.
First of all, it's Star Trek. Even if they'd hired the world's greatest writers and directors, this would still have been a millstone around the necks of any action movie ambitions. Is it exciting? No, it's Star Trek. Is it scary? No, it's Star Trek. Could it be gritty? Not if, heh, not if you, heh heh, not, not even if youwahahahaha, I'm sorry it's GRITTY HAHAHA GRITTY HE SAID GRITTY (gasp) ahahaha... sorry, no, it's Star Trek.
That's not enough, though. No, it's specifically Star Trek: The Next Generation. Bloody hell, they're boring. It's all so bloody civilised. The show's so in love with its characters that it frequently forgets to get on with telling a story. On a grittiness scale of one to ten, ST:TNG is hovering around "bunny slippers". Here they think they're making an action movie... but they just can't help stopping that action for pointless, dull scenes with Troi, Riker et al. It's not horrific, thrilling, frightening or indeed anything really. It's just a misshapen and misconceived movie that doesn't know what it's doing and so hasn't managed to unplug itself from the kind of writing they used to pad out TV series. Dear heavens above, give me the original series or DS9! Please.
I think I've worked out my problem with these guys, incidentally. They're all basically the same character. It's the same problem that drags down the Star Wars prequels compared with the original trilogy. Everyone's generous, kind, enlightened and free of prejudice or indeed anything that might be in danger of making them human.
This brings us to the next problem, better known as Rick Berman, Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore. Yes, I realise Moore would later go on to give us the well-regarded revival of Battlestar Galactica, but here this writing team clearly didn't have a clue what it was doing. Generations is a mess even by its own writers' admissions, although frankly there are things I like about it and I prefer its script to First Contact's. Berman and Braga would of course famously go on to fan hatred as they slowly murdered the franchise. Not deliberately, I hasten to say. If they had, I'd have almost thought better of them.
Compare First Contact with the sequel that followed it. Insurrection is playing to ST:TNG's strengths. It's thought-provoking and concerned with ethical issues. Above all, it's nice in a good way. ST:TNG has always been toe-curlingly civilised whether you like it or not, so you might as well make a virtue out of it.
The final problem in action movie terms is the Borg. Superficially they're great. They look cool, they're nasty as hell and they can do that unstoppable Terminator thing. I'd never seen a Borg story before and I liked them. They're strong, distinctive villains and I'm sure they're better in the TV series, since these ones here have the brains of a popped balloon.
Wow, are they stupid! They're scary, high-tech and hard to kill, but their tactics are boneheaded. (a) If you can go back in time, why not do so on the other side of the galaxy, before travelling to Earth? You'll take out mankind before anyone even knows you were there, as opposed to first picking a fight with half of Starfleet? (b) "They'll ignore us until they consider us a threat." Huh? Picard and the Enterprise have a known track record of having defeated the Borg in the past. Let them potter around unmolested until they become a threat, yeah, that's smart! (c) Why stop halfway through the job of assimilating the Enterprise? Yes, you're calling for reinforcements. Always good. However if you keep on assimilating, you can make your own reinforcements! Wipe out all opposition on the ship, then get on with your evil plan. (d) Besides, the Enterprise is the only ship in existence that could pose a threat. Take it out! Gyaaah!
After my father and I had watched this film, Dad surprised me by claiming that the Borg weren't scary. I disagreed and Dad clarified his position by saying that their tactics were so silly that they didn't come across as threatening. The Klingons of the earlier Trek films were much more imposing enemies, despite the Borg's screen presence.
There are other problems.
1. Zephram Cochrane. Fun character, great performance, dull-as-hell scenes! Basically he's stuck in a B-plot with zero relevance to everything the viewer's really interested in. Furthermore, heavens above do those scenes make the ST:TNG regulars look annoying. His subplot is pointless. I understand the reason why the Borg went back in time, but not why this meant us having to suffer through scene after scene of some guy doing nothing of interest. It's a Big Historical Moment. Agreed. However if the Borg had gone back to the 15th century instead, would it have been relevant to devote great swathes of screen time to the emotional problems of Christopher Columbus? Zephram is a good character, but once the Borg get going on the Enterprise then all the Earthbound scenes are space filler, and not particularly interesting space filler at that.
2. Patrick Stewart! He's a good actor, so they give him a barnstorming speech... which unfortunately has been shoehorned into five minutes of false conflict solely for that purpose! "Let's blow up the ship and kill the Borg." "No, the line must be drawn here - oh, all right then." It's a good scene. For a few minutes he goes monomaniac and wants to commit suicide going toe-to-toe with the Borg. Patrick Stewart does strong work with a powerful speech, but it's all for nothing when ten seconds later, Picard changes his mind and retracts everything he said so that we can get on with the film. Phew, that was a close one, eh?
4. The Borg Queen. Ahahahahaha. Oh dearie dear. Actually there's no good side to her scenes. Why does she want to shag Data? Why would anyone want to shag Data? The back of my DVD box claims that the queen is "seductive", so clearly I've been given the wrong movie and I want my money back.
There was one bit I liked, though. Having the Vulcans at the end was a cool blast from the past, since that 1960s SF aesthetic has become more alien-looking than anything a modern designer could have come up with.
In fairness First Contact suffered because I'd had expectations. I'd wanted to see this movie. I'd been told that the Borg were the Cybermen done properly and that here we had a big-screen action movie with Jean-Luc Picard, lots of big guns and scary assimilating machine people. Heaven knows Hollywood gives us enough mindless action-packed blockbusters, but for once I was keen to see this one. I could see it playing inside my head. Unfortunately I got First Contact instead and wasn't impressed. Had it really been a Cyberman story, I'd be rating it somewhere between Revenge of the Cybermen and Silver Nemesis.
The Brannon-Braga-Moore team wrote Generations and First Contact, which are also the two worst attempts at movie scriptwriting in Star Trek. I'm tempted to say "amateurish". Berman got a story credit on Insurrection and Nemesis, but it's noticeable that the actual script duties on those films went to real writers instead. In this film they give us idiot Borg that lose all credibility once you've spotted the stupidity of their tactics. They give us an unfortunate ending "tug of war" sequence. They give us entire plot threads that don't earn their place in the film.
Then of course there's the problem of the ST:TNG cast. Especially Riker.