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1.  Steve Rhodes review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
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Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

Blind astro-audio specialist Kent Cullers (William Fichtner) lampoons, "Dr. Arroway will be spending her precious telescope time looking for." "Little green men," says Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) completing his sentence.

CONTACT is director Robert Zemeckis's latest and most ambitious production ever, tackling nothing less than the question of whether we are alone in the universe, as well as whether there is a God, and whether it matters what your opinion is on the subject.

Robert Zemeckis is known for high concept movies with big name stars. Most of his films, like ROMANCING THE STONE, the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy, and FORREST GUMP, have been both critical and financial successes. Since he became famous, his only flop has been DEATH BECOMES HER.

CONTACT has a galaxy of stars (Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods) and many minor, but still luminous celestial bodies (Angela Bassett, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt). Moreover, Michael Goldenberg's script is based on a novel by our era's most famous proponent of the cosmos, Carl Sagan, and on a story by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. In short, the film's credentials are impeccable.

Few films glorify the unknown and relish ambiguity to the extent that CONTACT does. It even dares to pose many more questions that it ever attempts to answer. Most audiences, including the one at my press screening, have applauded at the film's conclusion. Still, some viewers will undoubtedly walk out complaining. More than that I cannot say about the ending without revealing key aspects of the story's resolution.

The film starts with 9-year-old Ellie, played in an incredibly moving performance by Jena Malone, calling far away on her ham radio as well as gazing at the stars with her dad, Ted (David Morse). Her mom died at childbirth, and in a traumatic scene soon after the film opens, her dad dies too. Although rated PG, this cerebral film will probably bore younger kids for whom it is also inappropriate. Beside the death of a parent, for which Ellie thinks herself partially responsible, there is also a scene where the heroine goes to bed with a guy as soon as she meets him.

Jodie Foster, who has given few mediocre performances in her career, stretches herself with this one. Foster, who has tough down pat, usually has trouble looking vulnerable. Dr. Arroway, a relentless researcher who searches deep in space for signs of intelligent life, is made human by Foster. With her pony tale, glasses, and make-up Ellie usually looks like a harmless, but attractive nerd. She rails against the establishment as personified by the President's National Science Advisor, David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt). ("Ellie, still waiting for E.T. to call?" he chides.) When he cuts her funding, she goes on a frenzied search for private capital. Although outwardly resolute, her nerves speak of an inner fear of losing it all.

When the inevitable call from space comes, Zemeckis stages it so that Ellie is away from the command center. This way he can build the tension as she races back barking a constant stream of orders on her cell phone to her fellow researchers.

Easily, the best part of the show is not the acting but the science. How an alien civilization chooses to communicate is certain to fascinate everyone, especially those of us with backgrounds in the language chosen -- mathematics. You will never guess who appears in the first television transmission from deep space. Only a highly imaginative script would dream it up and complement it with a plausible explanation.

James Woods, arguably the best villain in the movies today, plays the President's National Security Advisor, Michael Kitz. Kitz wants to militarize the project immediately. He has seen enough science fiction movies to know that aliens mean destruction.

In the past, Matthew McConaughey's skills as an actor have revolved around his ability to look pretty while delivering his lines in a haughty manner with a whispery enunciation. His bland performance in CONTACT as Palmer Joss, a "man of the cloth without the cloth," is consistent with the rest of his career. The writer on issues of religion and technology pens such words as, "We shop at home, we surf the Web, at the same time we're emptier." His character and the whole pseudo-religious babble of the story should have been eliminated. The movie even has Rob Lowe, of all people, show up as a ridiculous Christian theologian named Richard Rank, an obvious put-down of Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition.

The script has the good sense to include some humor to accompany the picture's seriousness. "So there's life on other planets," opines Jay Leno in his nightly monologue. "That's sure going to change the Miss Universe contest!" And near the spot where Dr. Arroway heard the transmission from space, people encamp Woodstock-style in a scene straight out of MARS ATTACKS! or INDEPENDENCE DAY.

The best small role in the film belongs to John Hurt as S.R. Hadden, a Howard Hughes-style recluse and engineer extraordinaire.

And the picture's best technological gadget is the contraption built to whisk away someone to visit the aliens. Who decides who will be the lone astronaut is another of the film's conundrums. In perhaps its least believable part, the panel includes a theologian. And in the piece de resistance, belief in God is made a litmus test for space travel.

CONTACT drags frequently and runs too long at 2:30. It is rated PG, but kids will probably need to be 9 or 10 to appreciate it. I recommend this highly inventive film to you and give it ***. A version without the pseudo-religious aspects and without McConaughey would have earned a higher rating in my book.

Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes

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