Contact (1997) / Sci Fi-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG for intense action, mild language and a scene of sensuality
Running Time: 150 min.
Cast: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, William Fichtner, James Woods, Angela Bassett, David Morse, John Hurt, Jenna Malone, Rob Lowe, Jake Busey
Small role: Larry King, Tabitha Soren, Geraldo Rivera, Jay Leno, Robert Novak, Geraldine Ferraro, Dee Dee Myers
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: James V. Hart, Michael Goldenberg
Review published December 26, 2013
Jodie Foster (The Silence of the Lambs, Foxes) stars as scientist Ellie Arroway, who has dedicated her life to searching for possible intelligent lifeforms outside of Earth and our solar system. An orphan from an early age, her faith in God has wavered since the days of trying to futilely contact her mother in heaven through the radio, replaced by a firm belief in science and facts as the pinnacle of what's true and right. While her faith that we are not alone in the universe is unwavering, as a scientist, she won't rest until she has absolute proof. Scanning the skies for radio waves of intelligent extraterrestrial origin, she and her team at SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) wait diligently for a message. That day finally arrives when they pick up a repeating signal emanating from Vega, a star system 26 light-years away. As the scientists work diligently to try to decode the message, the Earth erupts in a series of science vs. religion debates on what this all means, and who should be the one who represents our interests should we come face to face with the originator of the message.
Contact is based on a novel by Carl Sagan, who died in 1996, shortly before the film adaptation's release. Interestingly, the book had originally begun as an original screenplay by Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan (Francis Ford Coppola was also rumored to have been involved) in 1979, which he decided to convert into a novel (published in 1985) when the film production couldn't get off the ground. Despite his ailing health, Sagan was known to have worked with Contact director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future Part II, Part III) as an advisor to the film, including working on the outline of the story that would become the script. That's not to say that the film is wholly faithful to the book, as there are some major changes in the story, characters, and themes, but given how typical it is for Hollywood to squeeze out all of the rough edges that might lose audiences, it is perhaps the best one could hope for from a studio system with a $90 million budget on the line.
Contact is a rare feat in high-budget science fiction, in that it plays to its audience as if we are looking for intelligence and emotion rather than ironic dialogue and nonstop special effects. It also plays out with a modicum of plausibility, despite the fantastical nature of what might be the single biggest discovery in the history of humankind, with its world political view on the events, as well as the implications to the science vs. religion debate as it might be argued openly in the court of public opinion. One might say that much of the debate in this regard came from within Sagan himself as he wrote the story, as he struggled to resolve his belief in science with the majesty and design that is our universe.
Overlooked, perhaps due to its big picture science fiction backbone, is the phenomenal performance by Jodie Foster. She received a Golden Globe nomination, but the Academy Awards weren't as kind, though I certainly don't think it's any less strong than the Oscar-winning turn by Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets. The supporting cast is fine as well, but with the exception of Matthew McConaughey (Lone Star, Dazed and Confused) as some sort of spiritual leader that becomes a romantic interest of Ellie, most aren't given enough screen time to do much more than service the main plot. Some critics have commented that McConaughey, or at least his character of Palmer Joss, is a liability to the overall effectiveness of the story, especially as he's rather an amorphous religious figure that has been homogenized so as to not offend any particular faction from protesting the film. I think he's believable enough in the role if you just see him as a representative of the importance of spirituality rather than a hardliner for a specific religious view, even if he is a bit baby-faced (McConaughey was in his 20s at the time of filming) to buy as the leading adviser to the President on spiritual endeavors.
Contact does have some controversy surrounding it, in that it uses real-life footage from US President Bill Clinton, with generic dialogue injected from actual speeches taken out of context, but made to look as if he were a real actor in the film's cast. CNN, who are owned by the same parent company as Contact's studio, Warner Bros., also received a bit of blowback for contributing so much of their on-air talent, including use of their logo, to essentially be used as actors in a fictitious film endeavor. NASA's feathers were also ruffled by the assertion that astronauts are given cyanide pills in case they get into no-chance situations that would result in agonizing deaths. However, even if liberties are taken that are questionable from a certain point of view on the ethics of moviemaking, from a viewer standpoint, there is a welcome feeling of authenticity that cements the storyline due to these tidbits. It's a good sell, all in all.
While there is a broadly appealing aspect to Contact that should help it speak to general audiences, that doesn't necessarily mean that it isn't a thinking-person's science-fiction film -- at least as much as it can be and still be a populist-leaning film, anyway. It effectively captures the sense of mystery, wonder and sheer awe that would most certainly occur in the event of contact from an alien civilization, and does it with a, dare I say, down-to-earth sensibility that makes it wholly unique among films covering the subject matter. It's not a take-me-to-your-leader potboiler, and it isn't an excuse to see world monuments get destroyed by flying saucers. That's not to say that the effects aren't impressive, as the visuals are a definite strong suit. But they aren't the main selling point, unlike other sci-fi releases of the modern era. It's an appeal to us on an intellectual and philosophical level that is quite rare among movies; it's perhaps the best film on the subject since Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
©2013 Vince Leo