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Review by Andrew Hicks
3 stars out of 4

There have been so many movies in recent years about aliens that if any extraterrestrials ever do show up it will certainly be an anti-climax. CONTACT seems the exception -- no alien intervention could possibly be as anti-climactic as the last half-hour of CONTACT, a slow-moving film that builds up to a promising close encounter of the third kind and gives us an incredibly hokey dream-like sequence instead.

It's a shame, too, because I really admired CONTACT up to that point. It's one of the only intelligent dealings with the ramifications of searching for alien life and the inevitable conflicts that will arise between the elements of religion and science and the representatives thereof. This Carl Sagan adaptation takes the high road all through the lengthy setup, providing us with a protagonist in which we invest a lot of emotion.

We meet Ellie Airway, played by Jodie Foster (in her best performance since SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), at the tender age of 8, already initiating contact via short-wave radio with people in far off places and looking through telescopes at the stars above. It's the nurturing of her loving father that makes it all possible and, like any other movie in which one parent figures large, we see the death of the father. The young Ellie doesn't buy the priest's explanation that it was part of God's undecipherable master plan, setting up a lifetime (and a movietime) of conflict between Ellie's rational agnostic mind and people of faith.

The most interesting thing about CONTACT is this dichotomy and I'm sure it's by no personal bias of Sagan that the agnostic astronomer seems the most moral and emotional person in this diegetic universe. With a cast of one-notes like Tom Skeritt (the bastard-in-power who first cuts Ellie's funding then takes all the credit once contact with aliens is made), Angela Basset (skeptical White House female security agent) and James Woods (skeptical White House male security agent), that's hardly a surprise.

Then there's Matthew McConaughey, the sympathetic religious figure who also serves as the movie's love interest. The word "religious" in CONTACT denotes a person who believes in faith over science -- as McConaughey's pontificating hippie points out, some people _need_ to believe in God rather than resign themselves to the loneliness felt when they realize they're so small and minute. Ellie's flip-side view is that science is the universal language and the existence of aliens would allow humans to be part of a much more unifying cosmic force.

Lest the movie bog itself down too much beneath these sentiments, director Robert Zemeckis intersperses the same kind of media tricks that made FORREST GUMP seem in places like an important documentary. As Ellie receives a message from the great beyond, with visual instructions hidden behind images of Hitler (quite a unifying cosmic force his own self), the world takes notice. We see every CNN anchor ever hired pondering the ramifications of this contact, along with deftly-edited footage of President Clinton saying that this ground-breaking new discovery may alter the course of history. The real-life speech was about the advent of the Arch Deluxe burger, but a snip here and a morph there and suddenly he's talking about aliens.

To which degree you will like CONTACT depends on your interest of the topic. We've seen alien intervention treated a hundred different ways in the movies, but rarely has it seemed so real and possible than in CONTACT. Rarely also has it been flushed down the cosmic crapper by such a New Age ending that looks like a Shirley MacLaine music video than a Hollywood finale. CONTACT is miles removed from MEN IN BLACK but with about 100 extra IQ points and a refusal to give the audience what they crave.

Copyright 1997 Andrew Hicks

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