Friday, February 25, 2011

The Way of All Flesh

Star Trek: First Contact (1996, directed by Jonathan Frakes) finds the Next Generation crew coming into their own. Unburdened by establishing a linkage with the previous series (and with accomodating William Shatner's ego), it has more room to breathe, establish the narratives for its characters, and generally tell an unforced narrative. It's one of the best of the Star Trek films; it's the Next Gen crew's Wrath of Khan. You cold make a case for First Contact as the best of the Star Trek movies. While the previous films have always had a level of rollicking adventure, this one tackles more existential themes. I like that it doesn't have an allegorical ax to grind, which has often been the Achilles Heel of Star Trek. Instead, it tackles science fiction qua science fiction, as a crucible for examining the human heart in conflict with itself rather than as a sociological funhouse mirror.

The story finds the Borg invading human space at last. The Enterprise had already encountered the Borg, a race of cyborgs who destroy whole races in order to absorb their technology and biology into their own collective, six years earlier. In that encounter, Captain Picard was captured by the Borg and assimilated into them. Star Fleet, understandably, doesn't trust Picard and relegates the Enterprise to patrolling the Romulan Neutral Zone while it does battle with the Borg cube ship. Picard, sensing that the battle is going badly, ignores his orders and joins the battle anyway. His knowledge of the Borg turns the tide, but they escape into a time warp. The Enterprise follows. The Borg's intent is to travel back in time to prevent the inventor of warp technology, Zefram Cochrane, from making his maiden flight, which is the lynchpin to the founding of the Federation. The Enterprise's dual task is to make sure that history is maintained, and to fight off a Borg invasion of their own ship...

What we see coalescing in Star Trek: First Contact is the organization of the Next Gen films around basically three characters: Picard (Patrick Stewart), Data (Brent Spiner), and Worf (Michael Dorn). This replicates the pattern of the original series where the three main protagonists were Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Oh, the original series went out of its way to give its secondary players their places in the spotlight--a tradition continued and amplified here--but the stability of the trio ultimately asserts itself. I should note, however, that the Next Gen characters tend to be more interesting as a group than the original crew, so these diversions aren't nearly as annoying as, say, Chekov's encounter with the US Navy in Star Trek IV, or Uhura's fan dance in Star Trek V. Also, Next Gen's actors are better. This is especially true of Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart, who commands the stage like Shatner never did. He has a voice for commanding armies. First Contact makes great use of this, in the main by giving him a foil to play against in Lily Sloane, Alfre Woodard's character, a mid-21st Century survivor who is singularly unimpressed with Picard, and by giving Picard a thorny crisis of identity. At some point, Picard's resolve against the Borg turns into an obsession. Woodard's character reminds him that one mustn't become a monster to fight monsters. "And he piled upon the whale's white hump, the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it," Picard quotes when he realizes that she's right.

The film also provides the series with its first really satisfying villain since Khan. The Borg queen, played with disturbing playfulness by Alice Krige, represents a bondage freak version of sexuality. She's a sci fi version of the Cenobites from the Hellraiser movies, who promises damnation, but such sweet delights in damnation. Picard, of course, will have none of it, having experienced the loss of his self six years earlier, but Commander Data is another matter. Assimilation into the Borg for Data would represent his true introduction of this imperfect flesh and all the pleasures and pains that go along with it. In the very first episode of the TV series, Commander Riker is introduced to Data and ends the encounter with "Pleased to meet you, Pinocchio." The Borg Queen is The Blue Fairy to Data's Pinocchio. Or perhaps she's a conflation of The Coachman and the Blue Fairy: she'll make you a real boy, but then it's off to Pleasure Island to have your humanity stripped away. The back and forth between The Borg Queen and Data has the feeling of some kind of S&M courtship: "Is it becoming clear to you yet? Look at yourself, standing there, cradling the new flesh I've given you. If it means nothing to you, why protect it?" And further:

"Borg Queen: Are you familiar with physical forms of pleasure?
Data: If you are referring to sexuality, I am... fully functional, programmed in... multiple techniques.
Borg Queen: How long since you've used them?
Data: Eight years, seven months, sixteen days, four minutes, twenty-two...
Borg Queen: Far too long."

This subplot, along with Picard's horror at being re-assimilated by the Borg, go to the heart of why the Borg are Star Trek's most terrifying nemeses. They are us, ultimately, after humankind's technology has stripped us of our humanity. Where the Romulans and the Klingons have always been the Indians to the Federation cowboys, The Borg are the pods from the Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the siren song of Videodrome rolled into one. Long live the new flesh.

The other concurrent storyline--almost an afterthought, really--follows Zefram Cochrane's date with destiny. He's not interested in glory. He's interested in drinking himself stupid, listening to old rock and roll, and hitting on pretty girls. While the scene with Troi getting drunk as she gets close to him is awkward, James Cromwell's performance as Cochrane keeps the whole thing from collapsing into cutesiness. Cromwell and Woodard constitute the best guest stars the series has ever had, at least in terms of performance (Ricardo Montalban is in another class, really).

This is all juggled by director Jonathan Frakes in a way that makes it look easy. There are so many loose plot threads to manage that it's a miracle that this has enough time for arresting stylistics. But it does. The opening shot, in particular, is a corker, beginning in the depths of Picard's eye and pulling back through the vast cathedral of a Borg cube ship. Likewise, the Gothic tech look of the Borg--especially the H. R. Giger-ish Borg Queen--is horrific, ornate, and fascinating to look at. This is the first of the Star Trek movies, too, to really take advantage of the advances in CGI special effects. This is very much the best-looking of the Star Trek movies, and it's the first one since the Star Trek: The Motion Picture that doesn't look like it was done on the cheap. Sadly, that would not be the case with the next two installments. But that was still in the future. First Contact remains the the Next Gen crew's blaze of glory. It shines very brightly, indeed.


glendaP said...

It's funny how people see things differently. I thought this was one of the worst movies in the series, except maybe the first one (the Motionless Picture). I don't see the things you do about existentialism and humanity, I just see Brent Spiner crying for a lead role. Frankly, I think he's got all the arrogance with none of the ability to mock himself that defines the Shat.

I guess my biggest problem with Star Trek now is that it isn't Star Trek anymore. I like the show but I don't even try to compare it to the original series. The movies have nothing to do with it either, besides the name.

cinemarchaeologist said...

Gotta' go with glendaP on this one, and maybe even take it further. TNG isn't "Star Trek," and, to state the matter bluntly, TNG just sucks. Boring, bloodless characters blandly going where the crew of the real "Star Trek" series boldly went before. The show where any effort at human drama and problem-solving is replaced by meaningless technobabble.

The story behind it is that Gene Roddenberry spent the '70s cooking his brain on chemical amusements, and just didn't have anything left in the tank (or much of a tank, either). He'd totally lost his grasp of the concept of what he'd created. The "Motionless Picture" (good name for it) was the last time he had any real creative control of the real "Star Trek," and that abomination became the blueprint for TNG, which he launched years later when he was in even worse shape. I have a sincere love of the original series going back to some of my earliest memories, and TNG was always, to me, like this tragic monument to how far a once-great creative force had fallen. It's where he finally got to stick in all the nonsense his baked brain had accumulated over those years.

I'd strenuously object to the idea that TNG had better actors. Patrick Stewart is every bit as good as you say, doc, but he was terribly mistreated by the TNG writers, and most of the rest of the TNG cast can't hold a candle to the original. In their defense, a lot of this is due to the fact that their characters were written so badly, and the show, through both the series and the movies, had an ironclad rule that they could never improvise anything (meaning they weren't really allowed to act at all).

(The harsh restrictions imposed on all of the Trek sequel series is what led Ronald Moore to revolt and intentionally create the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA revamp as the anti-TNG--it became the best series of its kind since the original Trek.)

FIRST CONTACT was the one in which the TNG creators were trying to duplicate the original. It isn't TNG's version of THE WRATH OF KHAN; it's TNG's very poor effort to ape THE WRATH OF KHAN and ST4. This is even reflected in the trailers (which, among other things, falsely posited the notion that we'd be seeing Stewart go Kirk-hardcore on the Borg). The Cochrane storyline is there to duplicate ST4, and does, indeed, seem entirely out-of-place (like an afterthought, as you put it). There's no coherent vision (beyond trying to copy past success) guiding any part of this dreadful mess of a movie.

Those behind the film franchise have wisely abandoned TNG. The recent Trek revamp, for all of its shortcomings, was easily the best STAR TREK we've gotten since ST6. The only Trek we've gotten since then, really.

I hope I don't sound like a raving loon in writing about all of this. If you detect, shall we say, a hint of the fanboy in these words, it isn't your imagination, but I'm certainly never one to judge something based on those sorts of standards--if something earns it, I'll still love it. TNG just isn't lovable.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Obviously, I disagree with you both, but I'm in the position of not really liking TOS (or William Shatner) all that much. But that's apples and oranges, I guess.

I will take issue with the notion that the recent revamp was "the best Star Trek since ST VI", though, because, frankly, I'm on record as having hated that movie, and not because it hews to a version of Trek that I dislike, or whatever, but because it had a screenplay that was written by morons. I'd place it on the level of ST V, actually. Maybe a shade lower because it takes itself so very seriously. To be more blunt, I thought it was a bright shiny polished turd.

Mykal said...

Dr. Morbius: A bright, shiny polished turd, you say? Really, there's no reason to sugar coat it like that, say it plain. ;-)

Anyway, I have to say my fav Star Trek film was Nemesis, mostly for the cool performance by Tom Hardy as Shinzon - also for the cool concept behind the story. Plus, I have always liked the way the Star Trek franchise uses CGI (introduced in FC) modestly and effectively – until the aforementioned last polished turd, that is.

Fantastic review on First contact; which I liked as well for all the same reasons. I feel the need to defend Shatner, but the actor himself makes it so hard, what with being such an ass hole and all. All my arguments sort of boil down to "He's Captain Kirk, goddammit!" which really does count. On his best days, Shatner could summon up a real aura of noble; plus, I can't help but feel Patrick Stewart is kind of a classic Old Vic blowhard.

Man, this franchise sure does go in for the Melville quotes, eh? I’d love to hear your thoughts on Nemesis. Turd? Not so turdy?

Per usual, nice work.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Mykal. I'll be getting to Nemesis soon enough, but I have to find a copy of Insurrection first. Netflix doesn't have it, it doesn't appear to be available locally for rent, and I really don't want to buy it. I'll figure something out, I'm sure.

cinemarchaeologist said...

"I'll figure something out, I'm sure."

Tell you what: I'll check my dungeon, where the remnants of my late, lamented video store still molder, and if I still have my copy of the lamentable INSURRECTION, you're welcome to it.

I should also note that the fact that the recent TREK revamp was easily the best Trek we'd gotten since ST6 doesn't mean it's great Trek. In the land of diarrheal puddles that is the TNG movies, even a well-polished turd can rule.

(I liked it a lot more than you, though.)

cinemarchaeologist said...

Wow, that last line should, of course, say "I liked it a lot better than you did, though." The way it's written makes it subject to a VERY unfortunate misinterpretation.

GlendaP said...

I'm going to say my favorite of the new movies was Generations. Why? Shatner, of course. He gets not one but THREE death scenes, comes off as completely unfazed by the afterlife (something's missing here... toast!!), and gets to display his 'hold them and hit them' technique on McDowell. I love me some Stewart, thought he was the best thing going in Excalibur, but nothing matches the sheer camp that was the original series.

cinemarchaeologist said...

A follow-up: I checked the dungeon, and apparently, I don't have either INSURRECTION or NEMESIS anymore (sorry). I don't remember unloading them, but I must have somewhere.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

No biggie. I've already found a solution. Thanks for the offer, anyway.