Opened: July 11, 1997 | Rated: PG
An intellectually and theologically challenging, $100 million summer blockbuster? Who'd have imagined?
Smack in the middle of a movie season that has offered little more than explosions and one-liners, "Contact" is an extraordinary film that taxes the brain in the most delightful ways.
Adapted from late astronomer Carl Sagan's novel, the film explores deeply the scientific and dogmatic quandaries that arise when Earth receives a powerful signal from space, proving the existence of extra-terrestrial life.
Starring Jodie Foster as a radio astronomer beset by a compulsion to search the sky until she discovers this stellar beacon, "Contact" defies the familiar constraints of science fiction from it's first moments.
Opening with a silent look at Earth from space, the scene quickly becomes an assault of transmitted noise -- a loud garble of all our planet's radio and television signals that drift into space. The shot pulls back into the solar system then out into the galaxy, the layers of noise dissipating with distance. The sequence illustrates how far our oldest transmissions have traveled and sets the stage for the signal heroine Ellie Arroway (Foster) receives.
Director Robert Zemeckis builds Ellie's development as an astronomer through flashbacks of her childhood, when her father encouraged her study of the stars and her HAM radio hobby.
After years of star-gazing, she happens on the signal while settling in for a night of listening to space static at the Very Large Array, a collection of huge radio telescopes in New Mexico.
Ellie is lying on the hood of her car wearing earphones, patched in to the telescopes via modem and beautifully framed in the shot with the giant radio dishes behind her.
Suddenly amidst the white noise a powerful throbbing sound comes through. She jumps in her car and speeds toward the control building, screaming coordinates into a walkie-talking to her colleagues inside as they position the dishes to receive the same sound.
"Who do we call now?" one astronomer asks. Scared, focused and giddy all at once, Foster answers with a shudder in her voice. "Everybody."
The adrenaline this scene creates is fantastic and sets a mood of wonder that carries through the film.
Soon the scientists and government officials are buzzing around like flies. Buried in the signal Ellie discovers design schematics for a small space craft, presumably to carry one occupant to the star Vega, the signal's source.
The rest of the film focuses on the scientific, moral and theological implications of building that craft -- which draws public awe, evangelical ire, and even terrorism.
"Contact" aims high with it's brainy approach. It doesn't dumb down the science involved and it poses complex questions while still spinning a compelling story.
But the film stops just short of it's incredible potential, due in large part to Zemeckis' attempts at capturing the same magical realism that made "Forrest Gump" a hit.
For instance, instead of casting an actor as the President of the United States, Zemeckis uses computer effects to blend footage of President Clinton into some of the film's scenes. The result is laughably generic clips of the president making vague speeches that clearly have nothing to do with the events in the movie.
Zemeckis also resorts to the tiresome technique of narrating his story with fake news broadcasts. Probably 20 minutes of "Contact" is shot through the wavy lines of television screens while CNN staffers take turns rehashing events. (If you ask me, CNN loses real-life credibility every time they lend themselves to fiction.)
But when it comes to capturing Carl Sagan's spirit, "Contact" succeeds spectacularly. Every thread of the story is thought-provoking and the science is sound, but the focus remains on people more than plot.
Ellie is flanked by a stable of supporting characters who challenge her in science and religion as she fights to become the person who travels to Vega in craft built from her discovery.
She is financed and supported by a Howard Hughes-type industrialist (John Hurt). She butts heads with the Secretary of Defense (James Woods), who wants to militarize the project, and with a government scientist (Tom Skerritt) who once cut funding for her alien search.
A romance develops between Ellie and Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a brilliant and contemplative ecclesiastic who makes her question her agnostic insistence on only believing in what is scientifically proven.
The story couldn't be more rich, and both Foster and McConaughey give profound performances.
"Contact" is very nearly fantastic but the last 30 minutes of the movie become a scientific cop-out, hinging more on magic that logic. Although this is partially true to Sagan's original story, the fact that the conclusion plays like sentimental version of "2001" is entirely due to Zemeckis' meddling. Stanley Kubrick he's not.