Category Archives: cult movie review

From the Archive: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

As I’ve mentioned before, I often receive e-mails asking me to review specific films. One of the most oft-requested reviews is for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), which is widely-regarded as the worst Star Trek film to feature the original cast.


I don’t know this for certain, but I strongly suspect this particular review is requested in the hope that somehow, in some way, this poorly-reviewed William Shatner film might be rehabilitated in popular imagination. For instance, requests for a review of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier spiked after my positive review of The Motion Picture. My supposition thus leads me to believe that a lot of Star Trek fans must — secretly? — enjoy the oft-derided fifth film, and are seeking valid, well-enunciated arguments in support of it.

 I can relate to that.  Big time.

After all, I am a Star Trek fan, and can see the silver-lining in every Star Trek movie. So I am happy to enumerate the aspects I appreciate and admire about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

However, for the record, it is also necessary for me to note where and when things go dramatically wrong with the movie. So — to quote Joss Whedon — this review isn’t going to be all “hugs and puppies.”

That fact established there are indeed many components of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier worth lauding and I will explain in detail below why I feel that way.


Let’s start, however, with a brief re-cap of the plot. The fifth Star Trek picks up with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew on vacation on Earth — in the paradise-like setting of Yosemite — when a dangerous hostage situation unfolds in the Neutral Zone. There, on Nimbus III — on the “planet of Galactic Peace” — a Vulcan renegade named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) has taken hostage the Romulan, Klingon and Federation counsels. He has done so with an army of devout “believers.” Sybok’s gambit is to capture a starship so he can set a course for the center of the Galaxy and find the mythical planet Sha Ka Ree (named after Sean Connery), where he believes “God” awaits.

An unprepared U.S.S. Enterprise, with only a skeleton crew aboard, is assigned to rescue the hostages. The attempt fails, and Sybok commandeers the Enterprise using his particular brand of Vulcan brainwashing to persuade the crew to follow him. In particular, he frees each man he encounters of his “secret pain.” Kirk soon learns that Sybok is Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy) half-brother, a heretic who rejected Vulcan dogma and came to believe that emotion, not logic, is the key to enlightenment.

With a Klingon bird of prey in hot pursuit, the Enterprise passes through the Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy and encounters a mysterious planet. There, on the surface, awaits a creature who claims to be “God.” Kirk questions the Being, and soon a vision of Heaven goes to Hell.

Because It’s There: The Search for the Ultimate Knowledge; The Search for a Film’s Noble Intentions

From Captain Kirk’s effort to climb El Capitan at Yosemite National Park in the film’s first scene to Sybok’s probe through the foreboding and mysterious Great Barrier, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier concerns, in large part, a typically-Star Trek conceit: the human quest to reach a higher summit and to find at that apex a new or deeper truth about our existence.

When Mr. Spock asks Kirk why he would involve himself in an endeavor as dangerous as climbing a mountain, Kirk answers simply, “because it’s there.” That’s a simplistic but apt shorthand to describe one of our basic human drives. What our eyes detect, we want to explore, to experience. Enlightenment, for us, is often attained on the next plateau.


Sybok terms his search for “God” the search for the “ultimate knowledge” and he too seeks to climb a mountain after a fashion: penetrating the Great Barrier which protects a secret at the center of our galaxy. The means by which Sybok conducts his quest are not entirely kosher, however (kidnapping diplomats and hijacking a starship). But his quest, though coupled with his vanity, is sincere. An outcast among his Vulcan brethren, Sybok believes that if he can “locate” God, his beliefs will be validated, and thus perhaps re-examined by those who made him a pariah.

At one point late in the film, Kirk seems to suddenly realize that Sybok and he share a similar drive; that he has stubbornly refused Sybok the same liberty he affords himself, not merely to “go climb a rock,” but to see, literally, what awaits at the mountain-top. Upon this realization, Kirk gazes knowingly at an old-fashioned captains’ wheel in the Enterprise’s observation deck. His hand brushes across a bronze plaque engraved with the legend “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” a re-iteration of the franchise’s “bold,” trademark phrase.  In a world where so many sci-fi movies depend on black-and-white portrayals of “good” and “evil,” it’s quite bold that The Final Frontier actually establishes a connection — and one involving the meaning of life itself — between protagonist and antagonist.
It should be noted here, perhaps, that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is not out on some wacky limb, franchise-wise, in exploring the existence of “God,” or a planet from which life sprang. On the former front, the Enterprise encountered the Greek God Apollo in the second-season episode “Who Mourns for Adonis” and on the latter front, discovered the planet “Eden” in the third season adventure “The Way to Eden.”  In a very real way, The Final Frontier feels like a development of this oft-seen Trek theme, as much as The Motion Picture was a development of themes featured in episodes such as “The Changeling” and “The Doomsday Machine.”
What remains laudable about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, however, is that screenwriter David Loughery, with director Shatner and producer Harve Bennett, carry their central metaphor  — discovery of the ultimate knowledge — to the hearts of the beloved franchise characters. Star Trek V very much concerns not just the external quest for the divine, but a personal and human desire to understand the meaning of life.
Or, at the very least, the path to understanding the meaning of life.
What that desire comes down to here is one lengthy scene set in the Enterprise observation deck. There are no phasers, transporters, starships, Klingons, or special effects  to be found. Instead, the scene involves Kirk, Spock, Bones and Sybok grappling with their personal beliefs, with their sense of personal identity and history, even. Sybok attempts to convert Spock and McCoy to his agenda by using his hypnotic powers of the mind. “Each man hides a secret pain. Share yours with me and gain strength from the sharing,” he offers. One at a time, Kirk’s allies crumble under the mesmeric influence. Then Sybok comes to Kirk, and the good captain steadfastly refuses Sybok’s brand of personal enlightenment.
In refusing to share his pain, Kirk notes to Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) that “you know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!”
This specific back-and-forth is the heart of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The Kirk/Sybok confrontation embodies the difference between Catholic Guilt (as represented by Kirk), and New Age “release” (as represented by Sybok). In terms of a short explanation, Catholic guilt is essentially a melancholy or world-weariness brought about by an examined life. It’s the constant questioning and re-parsing of decisions and history (some call it Scrupulosity). And if you know Star Trek, you understand that this sense of melancholy is, for lack of a better word, very Kirk-ian.
As a starship captain, James Kirk has sent men and women to their deaths and made tough calls that changed the direction of the galaxy, literally. But he has never been one to do so blindly, or without consideration of the consequences. “My God, Bones, what have I done?” He asks after destroying the Enterprise in The Search for Spock, and that’s just one, quick example of his reflective nature. In short, Kirk belabors his decisions, so much so that McCoy once had to tell him (in “Balance of Terror”) not to obsess; not to “destroy the one called Kirk.”
What Captain Kirk believes – and what is crucial to his success as a starship captain — is that he must carry and remember the guilt associated with his tough decisions. He must re-hash those choices and constantly relive them, or else, during the next crisis, he will fail. His decisions are part of him; he is the cumulative result of those choices, and to lose them would be — in his very words here — “to lose himself.”  Pain, anguish, regret…these are all crucial elements of Kirk’s being, and of the human equation.
By contrast, Sybok promises an escape from melancholy. His abilities permit him to “erase” the presence of pain all-together. This a kind of touchy-feely, New Age balm in which a person lets go of pain (via, for example, ACT: Active Release Technique) and then, once freed, suddenly sees the light.
Sybok’s approach arises from the counter-culture movement of the 1960s (the era of the Original Series), and might be described — albeit in glib fashion — as “Do what feels right” (a turn-of-phrase Spock himself uses in the 2009 Star Trek). But Sybok is a master of semantics. He doesn’t “control minds,” he says, he “frees” them. Left unexamined by Sybok is Kirk’s interrogative: once freed from pain, what does a person have left?  What remains when a person’s core is removed?  An empty vessel? 
Isn’t pain, borne by experience a part of our core psychological make-up? The New Age depiction of Sybok in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier led critic David Denby to term this entry “the most Californian” of the Star Trek films (New York, June 19,1989, page 68).
In countenancing the false god of Sha Ka Ree, these belief systems collide. Sybok — freed of pain and self-reflection — is unaware of his own tragic flaws. Eventually he sees them, terming them “arrogance” and “vanity.” But Kirk, who has always carried his choices with him, is able to face the malevolent alien with a sense of composure and entirely appropriate suspicion. Kirk is able, essentially, to ask “the Almighty for his I.D.” because he has maintained his Catholic sense of guilt. He’s been around the block too many times to be cowed by an alien who wants to appropriate his ship.
The lengthy scene in the observation deck, during which Sybok attempts to shatter the powerful triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy is probably the best in the film. Shatner shoots it well too, with Sybok intersecting the perimeters of this famous character “triangle” (of id, ego, and super-ego) and then, visually, scattering its points to the corners of the room when doubt is sewn.
And then, after Kirk’s powerful argument and re-assertion of Catholic Guilt, the triangle (depicted visually, with the three characters as “points”) is re-constructed. Sybok is both literally and symbolically forced out of their unified “space.”
In point of fact, Shatner uses this triangular, three-person blocking pattern a lot in the film. Variety did not like the movie, but noted the power of this particular sequence in its original review: “Shatner, rises to the occasion,” the magazine wrote, “in directing a dramatic sequence of the mystical Luckinbill teaching Nimoy and DeForest Kelley to re-experience their long-buried traumas. The re-creations of Spock’s rejection by his father after his birth and Kelley’s euthanasia of his own father are moving highlights.”


While discussing Shatner, I should also add — no doubt controversially — that Shatner boasts a fine eye for visual composition. The opening scene on the cracked, arid plain of Nimbus III, and the follow-up scene set at Yosemite reveal that he has an eye not just for capturing natural beauty, but for utilizing the full breadth of the frame. As a director, Shatner came out of television (helming episodes of T.J. Hooker), but his visual approach doesn’t suggest a TV mentality. On the contrary, I would argue that there are moments in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier that are the most inherently cinematic of the film series, after Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Abrams’ big-budget reboot of 2009.
What Does God Need With a Starship? Pinpointing the Divine inside The Human Heart and in the Natural World

I’ve noted above how Star Trek V: The Final Frontier involves the search for the ultimate knowledge, and uses two distinctive viewpoints (Catholic Guilt embodied by Kirk and New Age philosophy embodied by Sybok) to get at that knowledge.

What’s important, after that “quest” is the film’s conclusion about the specific “ultimate knowledge” gleaned from the journey.
In short order, in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the angry Old Testament-styled God-Alien reveals his true colors and demonstrates a capricious, violent-side. After Kirk asks “what does God need with a starship,” “God” is wrathful and violent. And this is what the site Common Sense Atheism suggested was really being asked by our secular, humanist hero.
“One might ask, “What does God need with animal sacrifice? With a human sacrifice? With a catastrophic flood? With billions of galaxies and trillions of stars and millions of unstoppably destructive black holes? What does God need with congenital diseases and a planet made of shifting plates that cause earthquakes and tsunamis? Isn’t the whole point of omnipotence that God could make a good world without all these needlessly silly or harmful phenomena?” 
Moreover, why should humans obey the commands of someone as capricious, jealous, petty, and violent as the God of the Jewish scriptures?
This critical line of thought reminds me of my experience seeing Star Trek V: The Final Frontier in the theater with my girlfriend at the time, a devout Jew.
Afterwards, she was utterly convinced that Kirk and company had indeed encountered the Biblical, Old Testament God. And that they had, in fact, destroyed Him. Her reasoning for this belief was that “God” as depicted in the film actually looked and acted in the very fashion of the Old-Testament God.
On the former, front (God’s appearance), The Journal of Religion and Film, in a piece “Any Gods Out There?” by John S. Schultes, opined: “This being appears in the stereotypical Westernized figure of the “Father God” as depicted in art. He has a giant head, disembodied, depicting an older man with a kind face, flowing white hair and booming voice.”
On the latter front — behavior — there are also important commonalities. The Old Testament God was cruel, self-righteous, unjust, demanding, and acting according to a closely-held personal agenda (moving in a mysterious way?) without thought of courtesy or explanation to humans. Consider that the Old Testament God destroyed whole cities (like those of Sodom and Gomorrah), and that it’s his plan to kill us by the billion-fold in the End Times, if we don’t believe in him. The Old Testament God is indeed one of violence and punishment.
And this is precisely how Star Trek V: The Final Frontier depicts this creature. He wants to deliver his power — his violence and judgment — to “every corner of creation.” Naturally, Kirk can’t allow this brand of subjugation…even it comes from God.
Over the years, I have come to agree more and more with my former-girlfriend’s assessment. The alien portrayed in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier may indeed be the Old Testament God of our legends. Just as Apollo was indeed, Apollo of Greek Myth in “Who Mourns for Adonis.”
And, in fact, Captain Kirk kills God here. (Or rather, it’s a cooperative venture with the Klingons…). In doing so, Kirk frees humanity (and the universe itself) from the oppression of superstition, judgment and tyranny.  Ask yourself, keeping in mind Gene Roddenberry’s visions of humanity and religion (expressed candidly in the TNG episode “Who Watches the Watchers”): is that Star Trek V’s ultimate message?
The ultimate knowledge, according to this Trek movie is that God only exists “right here; the human heart,” as Kirk notes near the film’s conclusion. Accordingly, The Journal of Religion and Society explains that this conclusion represents a narrative wrinkle true to “the collective history of Classic Star Trek,” a re-assertion of Roddenberry-esque, secular principles. In his essay, “From Captain Stormfield to Captain Kirk, Two 20th Century Representations of Heaven, scholar Michel Clasquin concludes:
“In “Final Frontier“, Heaven turns out to be Hell: the optimism is deferred until the heroes have returned to the man-made heaven of the United Federation of Planets. The film ends where it began: with Spock, Kirk and McCoy on furlough in a thoroughly tamed Earth wilderness. This, the film tells us, is the true Heaven, the secular New Jerusalem that humans, Vulcans and a smattering of other species will build for themselves in the 24th century, a world in which the outward heavenly conditions reflect the true Heaven that resides in the human heart.”
Clasquin’s point here absolutely demands a re-evaluation of the book-end Yosemite camping scenes of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Many critics complained that the film takes a long time to get started, since the crew must “laboriously” be re-gathered from vacation.
However, if Star Trek V: The Final Frontier’s point is that “God” resides in man’s heart (and is, in fact, man himself) and that the Garden of Eden, or Heaven itself is “a tamed Earth wilderness,” — a finely-developed sense of responsible environmentalism, in fact — then these two sequences of “nature” prove absolutely necessary in terms of the narrative. Heaven on Earth is within our grasp, the movie seems to note. We don’t have to die to get there. We merely must act responsibly as stewards of our planet (or in Star Trek’s universe, planets, plural). The human heart, and the Beautiful Earth: these are Star Trek V: The Final Frontier’s (atheist) optimistic views of where, ultimately, Divinity resides.  If you desire a Star Trek movie with some pretty deep philosophical underpinnings, look no further than William Shatner’s The Final Frontier.

“All I Can Say is, They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To: A Movie Shattered (not Shatnered…) by Poor Execution”

William Shatner handles many of the visual aspects of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier with flair and distinction. His impressive efforts are badly undercut, however, by three catastrophic weaknesses. The first such weakness involves studio interference in the very story he wanted to tell. The second involves inferior special effects, and the third involves slipshod editing.


On the first front, William Shatner sought initially to make a serious, even bloody movie concerning fanatical religious cults and God imagery. His plan was shit-canned in large part, by Paramount Studios.  Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) had just proven a major success, and the Powers That Be judged this was so because the movie evidenced a terrific sense of humor, particularly fish-out-of-water humor. The edict came down that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier had to include the same level of humor.

Frankly, this edict was the kiss of death. The humor in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home grew organically out of the situation: advanced people of the 23rd century being forced to deal with people and activities of the “primitive” year 1986.  The scenario there called for fish-out-of-water humor, and no characters were sacrificed on the altar of laughs.


Above, I described the thematic principles of Star Trek Vseeking the ultimate summit both externally and internally, and discovering that the Divine is inside us — or is, actually, the Human Heart. So how exactly, does Scotty knocking himself out on a ceiling beam, or Uhura performing a fan dance, or Chekov rehashing his “wessel” shtick fit that conceit?

The short answer is that it doesn’t. Such humor had to be grafted on here, and it shows. It’s forced, awkward, and entirely unnecessary. The inclusion of so much humor actually runs counter to the grandeur and seriousness of the story Shatner hoped to tell.

And then — in a typical bout of bean-counter nonsense — what does Paramount do next? Well, it advertises and markets Star Trek V: The Final Frontier with the ad-line “why are they putting seat belts in theaters this summer?” suggesting that the movie is an action-packed roller-coaster ride! This is after they demanded the movie be a comedy! Talk about assuring audience dissatisfaction. Tell audiences that the movie they are about to see is super-exciting and action-packed, and then give them Vulcan nerve-pinches on horses, Uhura and Scotty flirting with each other, and crewmen singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”  Quite simply, The Final Frontier’s marketing campaign didn’t do a good job of managing audience expectations.

The second aspect of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier that damages it so egregiously involves the special visual effects. A movie like this — about the search for God, no less — must feature absolutely inspiring and immaculate, awesome visuals. We must believe in the universe that includes Sha Ka Ree, and the God Creature.

Originally, Shatner envisioned Sha Ka Ree turning into a kind of Bosch-ean Hell, featuring demons and rivers of fire. But what we get instead is a glowing Santa Claus-head in a beam of light, and…a much too familiar desert planet.
What’s worse is that many visuals don’t match-up. When Kirk’s shuttle flies over the God planet initially, the surface of the world looks like a microscopic landscape (a sort of God’s Eye view of the head-of-a-pin, as it were). But when the shuttle lands the planet just looks like a terrestrial desert. This is Heaven?

Perhaps Star Trek V could have surmounted this problem, since the TV series was never about special effects anyway, but about ideas. But the special effects in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier fail to even adequately render believable and “real” such commonplace Star Trek things as starships in motion or photon torpedo blasts. Watching Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a little bit like watching Golan and Globus’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1986): the cheapness of the effects make you wince, and stands in stark contrast to a franchise’s glory days.


And the editing! Oh my, to quote Mr. Sulu. 
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is edited — in polite terms — in disastrous fashion. During Kirk, Spock and McCoy’s escape on rocket boots through an Enterprise turbo shaft, the same deck numbers repeat, in plain view. 
When Kirk falls from his perch high on El Capitan the movie cuts to a lengthy shot of Shatner — in front of a phony rear-projection background — flapping his arms.
And just take a look at how Kirk’s weight, make-up, hair-cut, and disposition shift back-and-forth in his final scene with General Koord and General Klaa aboard the Klingon Bird of Prey. This mismatch was due to post-production re-shoots when the original ending was deemed unacceptable.

Forget the script (which might have worked without the studio-demanded humor). Forget the acting (which is pure Star Trek ham bone — and, in my estimation, perfect for a futuristic passion play), it’s the editing that scuttles this film.Whether it’s allowing us the time to notice that Sybok’s haircut and outfit change on Sha Ka Ree, or permitting us to linger too long on visible wires in two fight scenes, Star Trek V’s cutting is just not up to par.


There’s a Star Trek fan out there on the Net who has taken it upon himself to re-edit Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and you know something? It’s a worthy enterprise. Preferably, Shatner should do a director’s cut, and trim his misbegotten film down to a mean, lean eighty-five minutes. The worst editing, effects, and jokey moments would be excised, and audiences would be surprised, perhaps, how visually adroit, how dynamic, how meaningful and even spiritual this Final Frontier could be sans the theatrical release’s considerable problems.

Let’s face it, modern criticism often thrives on hyperbole, so it’s fun and dramatic to declare that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is one of the ten worst science fiction films EVER! The only problem is, it’s not necessarily true.
I don’t even know that The Final Frontier is actually the worst Star Trek film, to be blunt, especially after watching Generations and Nemesis recently.   Star Trek V: The Final Frontier conforms to Muir’s Snowball Rule of Movie Viewing. Allow me to explain. Because Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is perceived by the majority of critics and Star Trek fans as “bad,” everything about the film gets criticized, when — in point of fact — many other Star Trek movies feature many of the same goofy errors. For instance, I have read some Star Trek fans complain vociferously about the fact that the Enterprise travels to the center of the galaxy here in a matter of hours.
The fact that in First Contact, the Enterprise gets from the Romulan Neutral Zone to Earth in time to join a battle against the Borg, already in progress, goes unnoticed or at least uncommented upon. So, the starship got there in like, you know, a few minutes, I guess. But because First Contact is beloved and generally evaluated as good, it generally doesn’t garner the same level of negative attention or scrutiny. When it fails in a spot here or there, it gets a pass.

Whereas, by contrast, the details in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier definitely draw heavier scrutiny. The “bad movie” snowball, once rolling down a hill, just grows larger and larger. We forgive less and less.  Every aspect of the film is nitpicked and called into question, deservedly or not.  It becomes harder, then, to register and recognize the good.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is an ambitious failure. But ambitious may be the operative word here. The movie certainly aimed high, and hoped to chart some fascinating spiritual and philosophical ground that feels abundantly true to the Star Trek line and heritage.

But plainly, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Again, I renew my call for a Shatner-guided 85 minute version.  One closer to his original vision, with improved special effects, and better editing.  A new official release, re-modulated as I suggest, may be the only way for opinion-hardened Star Trek fans to see the good points of this admittedly problematic entry in the film canon.

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)



“Damn it, Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain! 


Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

Cult Movie Review: John Carter (2012)

I grew up reading the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the author’s Princess of Mars “pulp” novels, so I was saddened to see the cinematic adaptation of the saga, John Carter (2012) bomb at the box office last spring. 

But — as difficult as it is for our money-focused, bottom-line-concerned, consumer modern society to recognize such things – financial success isn’t necessarily the most important aspect of a movie’s legacy or artistry.

And in regards to John Carter, I reckon that general audiences missed the boat – and a nice treat — by giving the film a pass.

In short, John Carter is a beautifully-conceptualized and gorgeously photographed “sword and sandals-” in-space epic.  Only the fact that virtually every sci-fi blockbuster from Star Wars (1977) to Attack of the Clones (2002), to Avatar(2009) has cribbed mercilessly from the Burroughs’ epic burdens the picture with an unfortunate surface impression of sameness. 

At this point, frankly, we’ve probably seen enough desert planets (Star Wars [1977], Dune [1984], Star Trek V: The Final Frontier[1989], Stargate [1994], Star Wars: The Phantom Menace [1999] etc.) to last us all a lifetime. 

Yet if you gaze underneath such familiar visual trappings, you may detect that John Carter possesses a droll, sure-footed imagination, and the rollicking senses of humor and, yes, joy, that many recent space adventures have deliberately forsaken in favor of darkness, angst, and doubt.

Directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo [2003], Wall-E [2008]), John Carter is yet another one of those recent releases that met a cruel reception from reviewers; a reception that speaks more trenchantly about those reviewers and their own shortcomings than those of the film in focus. 

For instance, some critics were quick to term John Carter an Avatar “reject” without considering the fact that Burroughs’ John Carter practically originated the sci-fi adventure genre a century ago. 

Other critics only wanted to discuss inside baseball and reinforce a behind-the-scenes story:  The film was too expensive at 250 million dollars!  The director had shifted from animation to live action…why? 

Finally, some dunderheads even suggested that John Carter is incomprehensible, and that it is too “hard” to follow the film’s story.  I wonder what these same critics would have made of Star Wars when it first premiered in 1977.  

Who are these Jedi Knights we keep hearing about?  Who are all those aliens in the cantina? Why all this endless talk of an Imperial Senate that we never actually see?  Boring….  

But the cardinal sin is this one: So many critics focused on what was happening behind-the-scenes (admittedly, a marketing disaster) or the film’s “familiar” subject matter that they didn’t actually contend with the specifics of the film’s text itself, or with the creative and often amusing ways that John Carter tackled its narrative. 

In short, director Stanton adopts a stance of quirky individualism and wonder throughout the film, humanizing his lead character by deploying unexpected editing flourishes and off-kilter compositions that visually mirror the hero’s quest.

So yes, narrative-wise, the story of John Carter has been re-purposed many, many times. No point denying that.

But perhaps in recognition of that very fact, Stanton infuses his silver screen effort with a strong sense of romance, a quality of unfettered joy, and even a keen eye for detail that plays, finally as tribute to the genre’s history. 

Beyond those laudable values, a mild updating of the material (to include elements of the second Carter adventure, Gods of Mars) provides for an interesting commentary in our modern, twenty-first century era.  In particular, the film’s “civilized” villains — the god-like Therns — mirror how the rich and powerful manipulate religion, technology and even PR sleight-of-hand to drive an agenda that may be good for them — the few — but are wholly tragic for the rest of us, the many.

As Jeffrey Anderson insightfully wrote of John Carter at The San Francisco Examiner,this is a film that absolutely “celebrates the concept of adventure.”  

It’s a shame that for a lot of folks, that’s not enough.
“You are ugly, but you are beautiful. And you fight like a Thark!

Following the Civil War, confederate Captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) of Virginia goes in search of gold in the west. After running afoul of U.S. cavalry officers and Apache warriors, Carter hides in a cave and comes across a device that can transport him to another world…to Mars.

Carter wakes up on the dying planet — here called “Barsoom”— to find excessive strife.  And oddly, the gravity differential on Mars has granted Carter the strength, speed and agility of a superman.

Still, John is quickly captured by the warrior-like, green-skinned, twelve-foot tall Tharks, and trained as one of their number.  But a usurper to the throne, Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church) makes trouble for the Tharks’ noble leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) after he allows Carter and his daughter Sola (Samantha Morton) to escape from captivity.

Soon, John teams up with a beautiful “Red” princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) to help defeat a conquering warlord named Sab Than (Dominic West).  The daughter of Helium’s king (Ciaran Hinds), Dejah is slated to marry Than unless she can find another way to repel his war fleet, and defeat his new, awesome power “the ninth ray.”

Attempting to find a way home to Earth, Carter comes to the rescue of Dejah, and learns that Helium and even Sab Than are being manipulated by dark, shadowy overlords known as Therns.  Their agent on Barsoom — Matai Shang (Mark Strong) — reveals that his people feed on societal divisions and strife, and are manipulating the planet Barsoom towards total disaster.

As Dejah’s wedding day nears, Carter must recruit the savage Tharks to his valiant cause, and he tests his mettle in a Thark arena against a monstrous white ape…

“We do not cause the destruction of a world, Captain Carter. We simply manage it. Feed off it, if you like.”

John Cartereffortlessly cruises through a two-hour plus running time, in part because director Stanton doesn’t hew to tradition or convention in terms of visual presentation. Specifically, Stanton takes full advantage of unconventional editing techniques – jump cuts, for instance— to craft humorous montages out of small moments that might have been neglected or ignored in another director’s hands

Take for example, John Carter’s repeated but futile attempts to escape the U.S. cavalry.  Stanton stages these moments with fierce abandon and with flourishes of heroic music on the soundtrack.  Carter leaps into action and attempts to break free.  But the editing sets up a joke/punch-line dynamic.  After Carter lunges into action, he gets smacked down…hard.  This happens repeatedly (perhaps three times in all), and each attempt only lands Carter in deeper trouble: bruised, bloodied, and finally incarcerated in prison. 

But the persistent jump cuts from the initiation of Carter’s daring escape gambits to the unfortunate results of his efforts prove very funny, and quite unexpected.  They almost immediately announce the film’s intention to play the story not as camp, but as good, entertaining fun.

Yet the sequences featuring these jump cuts reveal character traits ably as well.  Carter is resilient and indomitable, even when he doesn’t possess the upper hand.  This is a trait that will come in handy on the desert plains of inhospitable Barsoom. 

Also, the moments of Carter jumping up – and getting smacked down hard – play as direct and deliberate contrast to those later moments on Mars when the gravity difference allows the protagonist to leap into the sky….and successfully fly into action.  On Barsoom – where he belongs – nothing can hold Carter back.  The pointed contrast with the earlier jump-cut shots thus represents a visual recognition of destiny achieved.

Another great moment occurs as Carter teleports to Mars and attempts to stand-up and walk for the first time.  Again, the unexpected occurs:  he falls down.  Once, then again, then again and again.   Carter is not instantly portrayed as a physically-competent superman, able to conquer natural forces in a single bound 

Instead, we see him fall flat on his face over and over, looking every bit the fool.  Again, this off-kilter moment reveals something of the main character’s resilience.  It would have been easy (but wrong) to omit Carter’s physical training, and just have him emerge on Mars a superhero  Instead, we get another humorous montage that reminds us of Carter’s human nature.  He may get to be a superman in time, but first he has to take his licks, looking like an idiot.  We understand why he’s humble and righteous, not arrogant and over-confident.

Stanton finds other ways to puncture any unnecessary solemnity.  The Tharks continually refer to John Carter as “Virginia,” even after he asks them not to, and they also give him a kind of alien bull-dog sidekick that he can’t escape from. In both instances – again – viewers are asked to reckon with a hero with feet of clay, with frailties and limitations.  It’s no fun, after all, if our hero is unbeatable, or if power comes too easily to him.

Another good joke comes later in the film: Carter’s inability to stick a landing while piloting a Martian flying machine.  This comedic situation serves the same function as all the other jokes, making Carter relatable and bearable to us in the audience instead of some unsympathetic ubermensch.

For me, the emotional honesty and dynamic lyricism of Stanton’s directorial approach comes to the forefront in another unconventional but magnificent moment.  During a fierce battle with Tharks, Stanton deploys incessant cross-cutting to flash back from the height of the savage attack to a character defining moment in the past when Carter returns home from the Civil War and discovers his family – his wife and child – murdered. 

The cross-cutting is vitally important here because it permits us to understand why Carter has again embraced war (“a shameful thing,” he notes at one point).  When he kills – and kills on a near-cosmic scale – he is remembering the tragic loss that destroyed his life, his very identity. Sword blades slicing through the air cross-cut with images of a shovel striking dirt…digging a grave.  Again, director Stanton has found a way to adroitly and economically visualize this hero’s essential character.

I also very much appreciate the “fan” homages that Stanton delicately and unobtrusively threads into the picture.  Eagle-eyed viewers will recognize, at one point, a familiar expanse of Vasquez Rocks, where Captain Kirk famously fought his green-skinned Gorn opponent, in Star Trek (1966 – 1969). 

And one scene set in a canoe directly mirrors a moment in the Forbidden Zone with Charlton Heston on an inflatable yellow raft, from Planet of the Apes(1968).  John Carter is veritably seeded with these canny visual allusions to previous genre classics, thus graciously noting that it is part of a longstanding continuum, even if Burroughs was really an initiator, not imitator, of the literary “pulp” adventure.

Above, I mentioned the social commentary embedded in John Carter, and there’s no doubt of its presence.  Several times during the course of the film, for instance, we witness the workings of what can only be called a large “fracking” machine, one damaging and degrading the very stability of Barsoom.

Furthermore, the Thern leader – an advanced would-be God – notes that he “manages” and “feeds off” the destruction of worlds while “societies divide.”  This is a wicked metaphor for the very debate we see playing out in our national dialogue about the role of “vulture capitalists,” like those at Mitt Romney’s Bain.  Such men champion “creative destruction” and shepherd the chopping-up and selling-off of resources…so that they alone profit.  This is indeed the very dynamic we see played out with Matai Shang, a creature “managing” the destruction of Barsoom for his own benefit.

Another element of that dynamic, of course, is the 1% argument we associate with the Occupy movement.  The Therns represent only a few people, but their agenda rules the planet as the various, diverse denizens of Barsoom battle over dwindling resources such as water, or new technologies such as the ninth ray.  The many are distracted by manufactured wars or partisan divides while the vultures fly in and feast on a world (or country’s…) natural wealth.

In no way is this movie a “message” picture, but as always, great art reflects the dynamics of the time period in which it was produced.  Like John Carpenter’s yuppie aliens in They Live (1988), the Therns of John Carter are both resource-guzzlers and puppet masters, managing a largely-unaware, highly-distracted population.  Some of those avenues of control involve the sowing of racial division (humanoids versus Tharks), and the manipulation of religious rituals, namely marriage.  Again, one need only to gaze at current headlines to see how some political forces “feed” on such disunion in real life.

Outside this commentary, John Carter also boasts an opinion about — as reviewer Anderson noted – the very concept of adventure.  John Carter escorts viewers from the last American (mythic) realm of adventure – the Old West – into the new frontier of space adventure.  This conceit from Burroughs’ literary canon is so brilliant because it connects our past to our future, and reminds us that our mythology’s forms may vary or shape-shift over time, but that the human content remains largely the same.  Like many a Western icon, John Carter is the stranger who rides into a new town, and finds injustice there.  He rectifies that situation because – as an outsider – he has no “dog in this hunt,” to turn a phrase used in the film.

Unfortunately for John Carter, period sci-fi adventure movies almost never succeed with the public, as I’ve reported in the past.  The Rocketeer (1991), The Shadow (1994), and The Phantom (1996) all failed too, because, I suspect, at some level we desire to see our modern, technological corollaries up there on the big screen in science fiction adventures, not anachronistic men from an age long past.  Still, I enjoy how John Carter keeps one foot in the past and one in the future.  The very idea is reflected in Carter’s tomb inscription: “Inter Mundos.”  That phrase meaning “between worlds” describes not just the film’s two separate planets, but its two distinct traditions of myth and adventure.

John Carterfeatures gorgeous photography (particularly in the scenes set on the river of Isis), but more importantly, highlights a charming romance.  Carter and Dejah fall in love – with all the expected sparks and hardships– and for once in a movie of this type, the scenes resonate and provoke interest rather than inducing winces.  The film possesses that otherworldly quality of charm, to quote Harve Bennett, and you can detect that charm in the fun (but not annoying) bull-dog sidekick, in Tarkas’s humorous dialogue, and most importantly in Stanton’s selection of shots and editing techniques.  

On the latter front, just consider that if the Carter/Dejah romantic scenes did not work so well, the triumphant punctuation of a scene in which Carter appears to return to Earth would not play as nearly effectively as it now does.  As it stands, it’s a great and surprising twist, and one told with a sense of convincing and confident simplicity; a simple tilt of the camera towards the ceiling.  To me, this scene represents one of those perfect movie minutes when all the elements work precisely as intended, and the audience is really drawn into the world of the characters.

Finally, I would like to report that I felt like Tars Tarkas did while watching this film – that when I saw John Carter I believed it was a sign that something new can come into this world.  

That didn’t happen, exactly.  Our culture is too saturated with similar films, perhaps, for John Carter to achieve escape velocity as a Star Wars-sized, tradition-busting, fad-inducing, trend-setter. But at the very least, I’m satisfied that I’ve seen in John Carter a refreshing change of pace in terms of modern blockbusters.  It’s a well-made and wholly joyful film, and it deserved a better reception. 

John Carter is one of the few cinematic heirs to Star Wars that actually includes all the elements I have sought and treasured in space adventure movies since May of 1977: heart, soul, humor and wonder.   If those sound like qualities you can buy into, I recommend the movie wholeheartedly.

Now if someone would just make a movie of another favorite “pulp” adventure from my childhood: E.E. “Doc Smith’s The Skylark of Space (1915).

Movie Trailer: John Carter (2012)

Cult Movie Review: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Star Trek: First Contact(1996) is likely the finest of The Next Generation feature films.  In part, this is so because the film combines an extremely popular villain, the Borg, with an extremely popular idea in the franchise: time travel


In part, First Contact also thrives because the film is more action-oriented and visceral than some of the other entries in the canon. The screenplay, by Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore also goes through fewer contortions than Generationsdid to fashion its compelling tale.  Where Generations seemed confusing and contrived, First Contact feels stream-lined and sleek. 

Perhaps most importantly, Star Trek: First Contactwhile occasionally gory and quite violent – remembers that the core of Star Trek’s appeal does not rest in warfare and hatred, but rather in the exploration of the “human adventure.” 

By ending on the high note of humanity’s first contact with the Vulcans, First Contact honors Star Trek’s important legacy of hope and promise.  This vision of a better tomorrow (and of a better humanity, to boot), differentiates the franchise from virtually all other space adventures, and makes the film a pleasure to watch, even fifteen years after its theatrical release.  An average Star Trek movie can excite you with space battles, certainly, but only a very good one can tap into the inspirational nature of Gene Roddenberry’s celebrated creation.

Accordingly, film critics approved of and admired the film, and First Contact remains one of the best-reviewed Star Trek films in the saga’s history.  Variety wrote: “Star Trek: First Contact”is a smashingly exciting sci-fi adventure that ranks among the very best in the long-running Paramount franchise. Better still, this is one TV spinoff that does not require ticket buyers to come equipped with an intimate knowledge of the small-screen original. Fans and non-fans alike will line up for this wild ride, and many will be repeat customers.”

Lloyd Rose at The Washington Post praised Jonathan Frakes’ direction, and opinedThere 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.

As a reviewer and unapologetic Trek fan, I boast deeper reservations about First Contact than Rose apparently did, and feel that while the film is indeed the best of the Next Generation cinematic efforts, it still falls short of the cinematic majesty and scope of The Motion Picture(1979), or the sheer emotionality and humanity of The Wrath of Khan(1982). 

Part of the reason that Star Trek: First Contactdoesn’t work on the same rarefied level as those aforementioned titles is that many of the earthbound scenes involving James Cromwell’s recalcitrant Zefram Cochrane boast no effective foil for the mischievous inventor of warp speed technology.  Riker, Troi and Geordi are beloved characters to be certain, but they are never really established effectively in the script as larger-than-life personalities with the heft to match Cochrane note-for-note and blow-for-blow.  As a result, the film’s pace lags badly every time First Contact returns to Earth and the Borg are shunted off-screen.

By contrast, the Borg themselves (itself?) are incredibly effective in design, concept and execution.  They are visually-inspired, dynamic villains, and First Contact benefits strongly from their presence, even if aspects of their culture (namely the Borg Queen) now seem contradictory and unnecessarily muddled.   As a longtime Star Trek fan, I was also disappointed with some of the shoddy continuity in the film, especially because in most cases the flaws were unnecessary and could have been easily rectified in post-production.

But such quibbles aside, Star Trek: First Contactremains a fun and involving science fiction adventure.  It’s an eminently sturdy entry in the long-lived franchise, and comes close to recapturing successfully the character chemistry that made Star Trek: the Next Generation so beloved an endeavor.
“A group of cybernetic creatures from the future have traveled back through time to enslave the human race… and you’re here to stop them?
In the 24th Century, the cybernetic Borg attempt a second invasion of Sector 001, the home of the human race.  Instead of warping to planet Earth to join the battle, however, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the U.S.S Enterprise-E are ordered to stay away.  Starfleet fears that Picard’s traumatic experience being assimilated by the Borg could make him an “unstable element” in the critical defense of Earth.

With his crew’s support, Captain Picard ignores Starfleet’s orders and assumes control of the fleet battling the Borg Cube.  Able to hear the Borg’s thoughts, Captain Picard pinpoints the cube’s weakness and destroys it, but not before a Borg escape craft opens a temporal anomaly and travels into Earth’s past.

Caught in the energetic wake of the escaping Borg sphere, the Enterprise crew can only watch as Earth of the past is assimilated by the cybernetic organisms.  The starship follows the Borg to the past, to April of 2063 in an effort to prevent the change.  There, they learn that the diabolical aliens plan to scuttle Earth’s “first contact” with alien life forms following the successful test flight of Zefram Cochrane’s (James Cromwell’s) experimental warp ship. 

Picard realizes he must preserve the timeline, or the human race will become…Borg.

Before long, the Enterprise herself is infested with Borg invaders.  Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) is captured by the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), who requires the information stored in his android brain if she wishes to access the ship’s computer and stop Cochrane’s historic flight. 

Meanwhile, on Earth’s surface below, Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) must convince Cochrane to make his historic flight…

“I am the beginning. The end. The one who is many. I am the Borg.

The Borg are really no-brainers as movie antagonists.  The most beloved episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation remains the two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds,” concerning a Borg incursion into Federation space. The Borg are such popular villains because they promise a fate much worse than death. 


It’s one thing to be killed by drooling, murderous aliens; it’s another thing entirely to have your individuality wiped away and your intelligence sublimated into the Borg Collective.  In that state, your memories belong to the Borg.  Your physicality belongs to the Borg.  Your very soul…is theirs. 

Somewhere inside, you may want to struggle against the Collective or Hive, but you can’t succeed.  You must stand by and watch in a kind of living Hell as the Borg exploit your knowledge and exploit your body, perhaps even condemning your very loved ones to the nightmare of being “one” with the collective. It’s a horrid fate to imagine, let alone endure. 

The Borg threat also works remarkably well in the context of The Next Generation, a series that — through the inclusion of half-Betazaoids, Klingons, androids, the blind and other colorful characters — champions diversity as a worthwhile human ideal.

The Borg destroy diversity, making all life-forms conform to their vision of perfection, thus making them a perfect adversary for our colorful and very individual 24thcentury heroes.

Assimilation into the Borg group consciousness is such a powerful, frightening notion that it would be nearly impossible to ruin the threat of the Borg in a two-hour motion picture.  And yet, First Contact almost achieves the impossible by giving the Borg a heretofore unseen new ruler, a single individual called the Borg Queen. 

Now, let me be plain: Alice Krige is remarkable as the Borg Queen here.  She gives a performance simultaneously terrifying and sensual.  Similarly, her appearance is both frightening and incredibly sexy.  And yet the very idea of a Borg Queen represents a terrible undermining of the original notion of the Borg: a collective life form.

Now, suddenly – after several years of Next Generation episodes – we learn that that the Borg are ruled by an individual leader?  By the equivalent of a Queen Bee?  And worse, this Queen Bee is apparently seeking a human mate?  Here, it is plain she seeks not to make drones of protagonists Captain Picard or Data, but to make them her lovers and companions, co-rulers of the lower Borg caste. 

In one fell swoop, then, the terror and anonymity of assimilation is largely undone.  For one thing, the Borg can maintain individuality after assimilation, as the presence and personality of the Borg Queen prove.  For another, our heroes don’t face total erasure of individuality.  Instead, they get to hob-knob it with the sensual, if sadistic, Borg Queen.  There are some humans who may not consider that arrangement so terrible, frankly, given her overt sensuality…

I understand the (flawed) thinking that individuals make a “better” enemy in a movie than a group of bad guys, but the popularity of the Borg as a collective in the Next Generation TV series proves the fallacy of such thinking.  First Contact invents a new character in the Borg Queen that — while beautiful and menacing — totally undercuts the terror of the Borg equation.

Her presence raises important questions too.  How does the Queen exist in multiple dimensions at once, since First Contact suggests that she was present on the Borg ship with Locutus, although though we never saw her there in “Best of Both Worlds?”

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, how do the Borg survive (into episodes of Voyager) if their multi-dimensional Queen keeps getting destroyed?  How many Queens are there?  How does she die?  Does Star Trek now possess an un-killable character?   Also, because she can apparently be in more than one dimension at a time, why does the Queen have to bother with sending a message to the Borg of her time by sensor dish?  Why not just transition from one place to another, one time to another?

Another serious problem in First Contact again comes down to how writers Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga choose to highlight crew interaction.  Specifically, superficial “movie thinking” undercuts what could have been incredible scenes of conflict and drama between Enterprise team members.  

Here, Patrick Stewart delivers an incredibly well-written Moby Dick speech about the Borg, explaining in detail why he won’t fall back again, why he won’t let the Borg win.  Stewart does a terrific job with the material.  It’s the monologue of an obsessed, driven man, and it works quite effectively in terms of the character we love, even if it seems logical that he would have exorcised these Borg demons already, given the span of time between “Family” and First Contact.

But forget all that. Picard gets called on the carpet and called out for his obsession with Borg… by Lily (Alfre Woodard), a one-time guest star in the franchise.  She goes toe-to-toe with Picard and points out how his pursuit of the Borg doesn’t make sense.  She’s known him for maybe a few hours, when she makes the speech.


I’ll be blunt: this confrontation should have occurred between Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden).  She has known Captain Picard longer than anyone else aboard ship, she can speak from experience — not hear say —  that his orders usually make sense, and she boasts the standing as chief medical officer of the Enterprise to stop Picard in his tracks if he is acting in a manner that is dangerous to the well-being of the starship’s crew. 

If this were an original cast Star Trek movie, do you have any doubt that it would have been McCoy calling Kirk on the carpet over his behavior, as he did, explicitly in Star Trek: The Motion Picture(1979), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier(1989), to name just three incidents?  McCoy could do it because he was Kirk’s confidante, and because he had that standing as CMO to question a captain’s behavior.

Again, Crusher – who shares breakfast with Picard every day as we know from the series – is that person in The Next Generation universe.  Yes, Stewart and Woodard are powerful in the confrontation scene together, but it doesn’t resonate deeply in terms of Star Trek history, because Picard doesn’t get checked by one of his own, by one of his crew. These movies are supposed to be about how starship crews work together to resolve problems, right?  Shouldn’t the person who actually knows Picard be the one to question him?  You may recall, I had a similar problem with how Generations used Crusher.  She should have been Picard’s “Nexus” ideal, given their relationship there. And she should do her duty as CMO here, in First Contact. It’s not that I have a thing for Crusher (though I like her just fine).  It’s that as a member of the team, when there is an opportunity to use her character appropriately…she should be thus used.  And she never is.  In any Star Trek movie.  Even Chekov, Sulu and Uhura had moments in the sun in the original Star Trek films when there was opportunity.

I’ve always believed this a major flaw in the Next Generation movies: they give the supporting cast members little to do, and farm out the dramatic work to guest stars inside of established characters.  The Moby Dick scene would have been infinitely more powerful if Gates McFadden – whom we know and love as Crusher – had been given the opportunity to stand up to Captain Picard.  I wrote above how Riker, Geordi and Troi don’t seem equal to the task of countering Cochrane here.  The same is true of Crusher in First Contact: she’s written like a doormat.  She remains on the bridge, without questioning orders, while Lily enthusiastically performs her job as chief medical officer.

This reveals — as we see time and time again – that there’s definitely a pecking order in the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies:  the men get better roles than the women do, and Picard, Riker, Worf and Data get the lion’s share of the drama, while the rest of the characters are afforded only brief moments that play as the equivalent of shtick.  Troi gets to play drunk, for example.  In First Contact, Crusher not only shirks her duty to hold Picard’s feet to the fire over a bad decision, she actually loses a patient (Lily again…) who is under her protection.  That’s the best the writers could come up with for a character who raised a son, overcame the tragic death of her husband, commanded the Enterprise from time-to-time and even headed Starfleet Medical?

In short, for First Contact, the writers decided to go out and invent a woman tough enough to challenge Picard, when a woman already in the Next Generation stable could have done it just as well, and it would have resonated far more with the Trek fan base.  All they needed to do was to write Gates McFadden a decent part.

In the introduction to this piece, I wrote about some careless errors in the film.  Let me name just a few.  At one point, Picard tells Lily the Enterprise consists of 24 decks. Later, Worf’s security chief replacement reports that the Borg control “deck 26.”  If we’re to believe Picard, that deck doesn’t exist.  By looping “24” over the “26” dialogue, this would error would not have occurred.  I just can’t believe that nobody was checking continuity on a major studio’s tent-pole franchise.

Other matters of concern include the origin of Zefram Cochrane.  He is a character from the original series episode “Metamorphosis,” and one with an entirely different look and origin (in terms of home planets, apparently) than what this movie establishes. But First Contact feels no obligation to explain the discrepancies in Cochrane’s biography. 

Also, since when can Captain Picard hear the voices of the Borg?  Is this a common side effect of those who have been separated from the Collective?  If so, did Hugh, the Borg refugees of “Descent” and Seven of Nine also hear Borg voices in their heads whenever they encountered them?

In spite of such problems, Star Trek: First Contact is a highly entertaining movie with many dramatic and visually-appealing high points.  


Prime among these is the zero-gravity sequence in which Picard, Worf and Hunt must battle the Borg on the exterior of the Enterprise hull, on the main deflector dish.  This scene is splendidly-directed, buttressed by incredible special effects, and it features an undercurrent of anxiety throughout, as the Borg – slowly becoming aware of Picard’sinterference – begin to menace the crew as the team works to stop them. 


I remember, circa 1994 or so, I was deeply disenchanted with the Star Trekuniverse and consequently looking back at Space: 1999 (1975 -1977) with much appreciation, because I felt that the world of the Enterprise had become too safe and predictable.  Space adventuring was no longer dangerous.   Now it consisted of vacations on holodecks, endless resources and material wealth, courtesy of replicators, and even families living on the saucer section while exploring the final frontier.  I lamented the fact that not once in Star Trek: The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine up to that point, had any main character been seen in a space suit, actually reckoning with the actual environment of space.  The crew members of Starfleet seemed to me too insulated from danger.

So I was delighted that Star Trek: First Contact included this zero-g sequence and put my qualms to rest, at least momentarily.  The zero-gravity action scene in Star Trek: First Contact reminds us that these men and women are in a dangerous profession, and that even with all the comforts of “technology unchained” in the 24th century, they must still sometimes go out into space with precious few resources to fight enemies, or attempt to repair their ship.   The zero-gravity fight scene is actually my favorite in the film because it is so tense, and because it features so many nice character touches, from Picard’s unconventional cleverness (blasting a Borg into space by shooting the deck of the ship…) to Worf’s “always be prepared” mentality, bringing a blade out into space with him.  It’s terrific stuff.

I also enjoy the climax of Star Trek: First Contact tremendously because it remembers that Star Trek isn’t always supposed to be about battling hostile aliens.  This is one of the reasons why I’m not all that impressed with Star Trek Online. It’s a game about going out to other worlds and fighting aliens, about firing phasers and engaging in battle.

For me, that’s but one small aspect of Star Trek, and not, for me, the one with the most appeal.  Star Trek: First Contact features great battle sequences, but more than that, ends on the high note of first contact.  It shows us an important and inspiring scene in human history, our first, peaceful meeting with extra-terrestrials.  In this case, the humans who broach that contact are fatigued from war, and not “perfect” (like our 24thcentury protagonists).  And yet they lead with trust and peace, and a wonderful, new era is opened up because of their willingness to go out on a limb.  Frankly, I find the final scenes of First Contact absolutely inspiring, reminding us of the better angels of our nature.  We can greet the unknown not with fear, paranoia and suspicion, but with hope and peace and trust. 

In ending the film on this high note, rather than the (admittedly-satisfying) defeat of the villainous Borg, First Contact remembers and honors the highest aspirations of Gene Roddenberry and the Star Trek saga.  Remember “the human adventure is just beginning?” the tag-line of Star Trek: The Motion Picture?  First Contact literalizes that motto, and shows us the wondrous beginnings of man’s odyssey to the stars, beginning with the first moments of brotherhood with another race.  It’s a fantastic and inspiring story-point.


I also appreciate the creativity involved in Data’s subplot in First Contact. I didn’t care for how Data was utilized in Generations…as a veritable bi-polar psychotic. Here, he seems more…balanced.  He faces temptation as the Borg perform an assimilation in reverse.  Usually, the Borg apply mechanical prosthetics to biological skin.  Here, they apply biological skin to a mechanical apparatus.  It’s an interesting idea, especially since Data suggests early on that he can’t be assimilated by the Borg.  The Queen proves him wrong, and in a diabolical fashion that tempts Data.  We never really believe he has turned to the dark side…but as Data suggests, a few seconds can feel like eternity when we’re uncertain of his exact motivations. 


I understand that Star Trek fans are divided on the subject of Frakes as a director.  He gets good performances from the cast here, and manages several action scenes nicely.  Judging by First Contact, he certainly seems up to the center seat…the director’s chair. 

Between the zero-g action, the up-lifting last moments of first contact, and Data’s unique experience being Borgified, it’s largely futile to resist First Contact, a high-point for theNext Generation cast at the movies. 

Movie Trailer: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Movie Trailer: The Grey (2012)