The Best Star Trek Movie Isn’t Wrath Of Khan, It’s First Contact
First Contact is the best Star Trek movie for both resolving the past of TNG and expanding the franchise's future.
For decades now, it has basically been common wisdom among fans that the best Star Trek movie is 1982’s The Wrath of Khan, the movie that launched a hundred thousand memes of William Shatner screaming. After the relative failure of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Khan revitalized the franchise by bringing back a classic villain from The Original Series, focusing on human emotion over heady conceptual storytelling, and more than a touch of on-screen violence. However, one movie took that formula and did Khan one better: 1996’s First Contact.
First Contact was the second movie to star the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but in a way, it was the first to stand on its own. 1994’s Generations had essentially functioned as a bridge between the previous movies starring the cast of TOS (as well as a reassurance to audiences that 63-year-old William Shatner could still throw a fake punch), but First Contact became the best Star Trek movie because it focused on its own past instead of a previous generation’s.
Much as The Wrath of Khan brought back genetic superman Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban and his non-prosthetic chest) to face off against Kirk, only scarier and more insane this time, First Contact brought the Borg back to torment Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). The terrifying cyborg collective species had not significantly been seen since the fourth season of TNG, when the two-part episode “Best of Both Worlds” had transformed the Starfleet captain in Locutus, the blank-eyed mouthpiece of the invading Borg. Although three more seasons of the show had passed, First Contact essentially picks up from the Battle of Wolf 359 and its aftermath.
But First Contact is not the best Star Trek movie just because it follows up on one of the most beloved TNG stories ever. No, the Jonathan Frakes-directed film is the best because it actually manages to expand on such an iconic story, deepening the mental, physical, and spiritual trauma that Picard went through and challenging the show’s long-standing assertion that humanity had evolved into a more peaceful species by the 23rd century.
Of course, it helps that First Contact stars the single best actor to have ever graced the franchise, Patrick Stewart. In contrast to his restrained, cerebral portrayal of Picard in TNG, the captain we see here is a man full of repressed rage and suffering. Far from his perception of himself as a man of rationality, time-traveling to the 21st century (it is Star Trek, after all) exposes the raw, frayed nerves that his ordeal put him through. It is a tour de force performance from one of the greatest actors of a generation, plus one that allows him to be a surprisingly convincing action hero.
It also uplifts the movie that the Borg has never looked better than in First Contact. While the constraint of network television time and financial budgets portrayed the drones as eerie, chalk-skinned cyborgs, the movie allows them to be truly grotesque, disgusting threats. Unlike the brief scenes in TNG that depicted assimilation as a gradual, surgical process, First Contact employs nanites that turn luckless redshirts into gray-skinned, oozing monsters within moments.
One of the best parts of this particular Star Trek movie is how it ventures into new genres in a way that the franchise rarely does. The Borg clearly stand in for the relentless, existential threat of zombie horror, while the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), controversially introduced here, briefly turns the movie into a psycho-sexual thriller as she seduces Data (Brent Spiner). Then there are the scenes in which we get to see Worf (Michael Dorn) cut down drones with his trusty bat’leth and the chilling sequence in which Picard machine-guns a group of Borg down while screaming in rage.
First Contact leaped over Khan as the best Star Trek movie not only because it expanded on the formula that had made the latter movie a success, but also because it actually moved the franchise forward. While Khan killed off Spock, that was mostly a ploy to get Leonard Nimoy back in the franchise (or, as William Shatner claims, a power play by the Vulcan actor) and did not stick for long. In contrast, First Contact brought in a new Enterprise, brought depth to the backstory of the Borg, and resolved the greatest storyline of TNG. Star Trek: First Contact is currently streaming on HBO Max, so you can see for yourself.