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Captain Jean-Luc Picard is building up a head of righteous steam about the Borg, the evil race that once enslaved Picard and has now infested the Starship Enterprise with plans to do something very naughty to Planet Earth. Well, the Captain will not abandon ship. He will face up to the Borg, he says. "And I will make them pay for what they've done." As Patrick Stewart delivers this line with a majestic ferocity worthy of a Royal Shakespeare Company alumnus, the audience gapes in awe at a special effect more imposing than any ILM digital doodle. Here is real acting! In a Star Trek film! From the successor to William Shatner!

This is just one of the small wonders in Star Trek: First Contact, eighth in the big-screen series and second with the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Here, for a change, is an action movie that takes its subject but not itself seriously. It has a theme: the temptation to become something other and powerful, instead of cozy, ordinary you. It borrows not only from the Trek canon, but from other science fiction (eek!--there's a killer alien on board!). Yet First Contact is no grab bag of camp gewgaws; it stands proud and apart, accessible even to the Trek-deficient. This old Star, it seems, has a lot of life in it.

In the script by Rick Berman, Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore, the Enterprise is sailing through space, with its Frisbee contours and fabulous tail fins, toward mop-up duty in the Federation's war against its ugliest nemesis. The Borg are flying back to the 21st century to prevent the first rendezvous between humans and benevolent extraterrestrials, then to "assimilate" all earthlings and turn them into crusty, cranky robots. Picard, who has been denied active duty for the very reason he needs to fight--because of his earlier assimilation by the Borg--disobeys orders and, y'know, saves the galaxy. But not before his android Data (Brent Spiner) is captured by the seductive queen Borg (Alice Krige).

Under the suave direction of Jonathan Frakes, who also plays the Enterprise's second-in-command, the movie glides along with purpose and style. It also allows for a fun detour into a "holographic novel" set in the dear Deco days of Indiana Jones. But it's mainly a three-way tug of souls among Picard, Data and the queen of all the Borg. When she whispers to her onetime conquest Picard, "You can't begin to imagine the life you denied yourself," she opens the movie up to the ache of memory--to a good man's second thoughts when he considers the road not taken, even if it's the road to Hell.

For their sequel, the Next Generation stalwarts will do battle with a creature even meaner and mouthier than the Borg: the McEnroe.

--By Richard Corliss