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
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
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
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
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