Ahead, Warp Factor 8


This is a test. This is only a test. Can anyone outside the hard-core faithful tell the "Star Trek" movies apart? One featured whales, but was it "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" or "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier"? And at this late date who remembers just what it was that made Khan so angry in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"?

That blurring is not likely to happen with "Star Trek: First Contact," the eighth movie in a series that may yet see more episodes than Andy Hardy. Blessed with clever plot devices and a villainous horde that makes the once-dread Klingons seem like a race of Barneys, "First Contact" does everything you'd want a "Star Trek" film to do, and it does it with cheerfulness and style.

Still working largely with the cast of the now-defunct "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "First Contact" has all the paraphernalia Trekkers (apparently the name of choice) have come to expect: Lights flash, temporal vortexes get created and people say cutting things like, "You do remember how to fire phasers?"

And, as created by a core of "Trek" veterans (including, among others, producer Rick Berman, director and co-star Jonathan Frakes, writers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore, and production designer Herman Zimmerman), this movie's themes place it squarely within the boundaries of Gene Roddenberry's original "Star Trek" culture of one-world idealism.

And did anyone mention those villains? Making their big-screen debut are the Borg, bad to the bone and proud of it. Part human, part synthetic (and realized with appropriate menace by costume designer Deborah Everton and makeup wizard Michael Westmore), these unstoppable high-tech zombies are not just making conversation when they tell their adversaries, "Resistance is futile."

So arrogant they take no notice of anyone not in attack mode, so flexible they adjust and overpower any weapons system, the Borg are master assimilators, determined to glom onto, absorb and destroy all life forms in the galaxy.

They're so good at it, in fact, that on the TV series the Borg temporarily assimilated Enterprise Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. "First Contact" opens with a powerful visual reference to that experience, what the "Trek" people are calling "the longest pullback in science-fiction history," as Matthew Leonetti's camera goes (via 120 feet of dolly track and sharp special-effects work) from a close-up of Picard's eye to his puny place in the unimaginably large Borg Collective.

Because of that experience, when the Borg invade the Federation in the 24th century, Picard is kept away from the front lines. But he finds a way to join in and eventually discovers the Borg headed toward Earth and into the past, to mid-April 2063 to be specific. Their nefarious scheme soon becomes obvious: to change history by stopping First Contact, the great day when humans on Earth sent up a rocket at warp speed and connected with the rest of the solar system.

Naturally, Capt. Picard is not amused. In fact, the commander is almost never amused, but as played by the exceptional Patrick Stewart, whose wide range includes Shakespeare and Dickens, his presence and ability to say "Get off my bridge" like he means it is formidable. If whoever first beamed him onto the show isn't getting profit participation from dollar one, there is no justice in the Federation.

At this point, "First Contact" splits in two. The softer part of the film moves to Earth, where a team is sent to find Zefram Cochrane ("Babe's" James Cromwell), the man who invented warp drive, and his partner Lily Sloane (Alfre Woodard), and help them get their epoch-making rocket airborne.

Picard stays back on the Enterprise, trying to fight off an attempt by the rest of the elusive Borg to take over his ship. Though they pride themselves on their collective consciousness, the Borg turn out to have a fabulously evil, Medusa-like queen bee (a convincing Alice Krige), and her encounters with both Picard and human wannabe Lt. Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner) are delicious and chilling.

A page-turner with the right kind of pulp sensibility, "First Contact" works in cultural references from "Moby Dick" to Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride," and a way has even been found to get the Vulcans back into the picture. If the "Star Trek" brain trust continues turning out movies like this one, living long and prospering is not going to be a problem.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some sci-fi adventure violence. Times guidelines: a particularly nasty group of villains.


'Star Trek: First Contact'

Patrick Stewart: Capt. Jean-Luc Picard

Jonathan Frakes: Cmdr. William Riker

Brent Spiner: Lt. Cmdr. Data

LeVar Burton: Lt. Cmdr. Geordie La Forge

Michael Dorn: Lt. Cmdr. Worf

Alfre Woodard: Lily Sloane

James Cromwell: Zefram Cochrane

Alice Krige: The Borg Queen

A Rick Berman production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Jonathan Frakes. Producer Rick Berman. Screenplay Brannon Braga & Ronald D. Moore, based on a story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga & Ronald D. Moore. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti. Editor John Wheeler. Costumes Deborah Everton. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design Herman Zimmerman. Art director Ron Wilkins. Set decorator John M. Dwyer. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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