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