What is this I hear about summer movies in general? They are all brainless and
plotless? Excuse me, people, but don't forget that the smaller films are
usually the smarter ones. It's true that Hollywood rarely delivers anything
beyond the dumb and dumber set during the summer (or the year, for that
matter). The summer of 1997 had not been as horrendous as most, and one of the
smartest and most thought-provoking films of that summer was "Contact."
Jodie Foster stars as Dr. Ellie Arroway, a serious-minded scientist who studies
extraterrestrial life. She believes life exists in some distant galaxy, and
studies chiefly with the world's largest radio telescope located in Arecibo,
Puerto Rico hoping to establish some alien contact. When her research project
is terminated, she persuades the government to fund a project to investigate
the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Ellie ends up in Socorro, New Mexico
where they have a field of 27 huge disc-shaped radio telescopes where she might
get some signal. And she does, and the whole world, including the government,
the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security counsel, is eager to know what it
is about. At first, Ellie hears deep vibrating signals. Then she receives an
alien signal in the form of the first televised image - Hitler's appearance at
the 1936 Olympic Games. Then she gets another visual signal that may be
instructions to build a ship.
"Contact" is based on the 1985 novel by the late Carl Sagan, and the film
doesn't betray Sagan's beliefs or his ambiguity. There are no green-eyed
Martians, no Men in Black with big guns, no laser shows, and no mother ships.
"Contact" presents us with the possibility of intelligent life in other
galaxies or stars namely Vega - Ellie makes contact with the signals but not
with the life forms (unless the ending of the movie suggests otherwise). When
the ship is built, there's controversy as to who should be sent aboard - a
believer in God, or a non-believer like Ellie? If the universe reveals God
doesn't exist, then where does civilization stand? If God does exist, should
Ellie be the one to go for the 2001 ride through the cosmos?
"Contact" lumbers a bit with two needless subplots: the introduction of Matthew
McConaughey as a religious scholar who has a brief affair with Ellie, and a
bald Timothy Leary-like scientist (John Hurt) who has been supporting every
move she makes. McConaughey appears and disappears too soon before he reappears
in the last half of the film - his function is to let Ellie know that if she
stands by her beliefs, she should not be travelling in space. However, I was
struck by Ellie's decision in the first half not to speak to him after their
affair - it seems McConaughey forgot they ever had one. The Hurt character also
has little function except to imply he may have created all the mumbo jumbo
about alien ship designs to Ellie just to get the ship built. Hurt's
performance is too over-the-top for this film and he seems to have drifted in
from "Even Cowgirls Get The Blues" minus the long fingernails.
Nevertheless, "Contact" works quite well for two reasons: Jodie Foster's
strong, fully realized performance, and the credible, well-written script.
Foster makes Ellie into an independent, vulnerable, tough-minded, no-nonsense
heroine still harboring deep feelings for her father (David Morse) who passed
away when she was young. Ellie's emotional clinging to her father is questioned
by McConaughey at one point when she wants proof of God's existence:
McConaughey: 'Did you love your father?
> Ellie: 'Of course.'
> McConaughey: 'Prove it.'
The screenplay by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg huffs and puffs
frequently, providing as much information as possible. It is quite ambitious
covering Ellie's place as a scientist and as an atheist, and her relationship
with her father; the government and the rest of the free world's involvement in
what may be a revolutionary moment in science or mere hocus pocus; the
religious cults who try to take action against building an alien ship; and the
final trip itself that may leave you thinking for days as to what is truth and
where are the boundaries between time and space. The script is certainly well
devised and constructed but as aforementioned, there are too many subplots that
distract from Ellie's ascension or descent as an important scientist. I could
live without director Robert Zemeckis's "Gump"-ist attitudes by digitally
showing Bill Clinton's opinion of this alien contact. There also too many
scenes of real-life CNN anchors commenting on the action - one or two would
have been sufficient, but the whole staff? Ellie's hard-working staff is not
given much screen time making it seem as if she's doing all the hard work
"Contact" is clunky but it is still fine entertainment and briskly directed by
Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump"). The opening sequence pulls back from earth
through the galaxies, the stars and other planets hinting that something else
might be out there while we hear various pop songs and then utter silence. It
is eye-opening and breathtaking, including the last twenty minutes where Ellie
makes her rickety voyage into space in an alien pod that will take her to,
presumably, the alien designers. The film benefits greatly from the astounding
supporting cast including Tom Skerritt as David Drumlin, a scientist who wants
to go in the pod mission; James Woods as an edgy (what else?) National Security
Advisor; and Angela Bassett as a straight-arrow debate official. It is really
Jodie Foster who makes the movie her own - ambitious, stubborn, scrupulous,
skeptical. Carl Sagan should be proud.
Copyright © 1997 Jerry Saravia