Contact (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Contact is likely to change a lot of perceptions -- not only about the role of humankind in the universe, but about what special effects can do for a movie when they're used in the service of a story, rather than the other way around. Contact is that rare big-budget motion picture that places ideas, characters, and plot above everything else. The film takes the richness of astronomer Carl Sagan's bestselling 1985 novel and re-invents it for the screen, retaining all the power and fascination of the book while adding a visual aspect that will not disappoint devoted fans. Contact is as close as recent Hollywood productions have come to a perfect example of cinema. All the elements are not only in place, but effectively realized. This is the kind of motion picture that restores one's faith in what can be produced when a large budget is used wisely.

The participation of a superlative cast and crew doesn't always guarantee success, but, in this case, the high expectations have been met. On the acting side, Contact stars two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster alongside rising star Matthew McConaughey and veterans James Woods and Tom Skerritt. The film is directed and co-produced by Robert Zemeckis, whose last effort was 1994's box office smash, Forrest Gump. And, until his death in December 1996, Sagan served as a story consultant and scientific advisor.

As an on-again/off-again amateur astronomer, one of the first things I noticed about the film was its technical accuracy. This is undoubtedly the result of Sagan's influence. All the details are correct (at least as far as I was able to determine); there are none of the movie cop-outs that film makers occasionally resort to in order to lower the intelligence level of the script. Contact is believable in part because it doesn't replace true science with vague terms and gobbledygook. In his novel, Sagan was careful to make everything, even the most farfetched parts, theoretically feasible. Although the movie changes and condenses significant aspects of the original material, it remains true to this vision.

Contact opens with an unforgettable sequence that takes the viewer on a tour of the universe. It starts out in a familiar corner of space, with Earth filling the screen. Then, constantly accelerating, we pull back. The moon passes, then Mars. We zip through the asteroid belt, then speed past Jupiter, through the rings of Saturn, and out into places beyond. Once the Oort cloud is behind us, we careen past stars and galaxies, proceeding ever farther away from our home solar system. It's an amazing trip that only takes several minutes, but presages the wonders that Contact's final half-hour holds for the viewer.

After this eye-popping trek, we return to Earth during the early 1970s, where we meet 9-year old Ellie Arroway (Jena Malone), a budding scientist with a fascination for short wave radio (she likes hearing messages from far away) and astronomy. Her father, Ted (David Morse), is an English teacher, and has schooled Ellie in the beauty of the stars. Following his sudden death, an event that leaves Ellie orphaned, she decides to devote her entire life to pursuing the mysteries that her father opened her eyes to.

When we next encounter Ellie (now played by Jodie Foster), she's a promising researcher for the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, working on a giant radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Ellie's obsession is to find evidence of life on another planet. Despite the scorn of her colleagues, she spends hours on end listening for that proof. While in Puerto Rico, she becomes involved with a religious scholar, Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey). The two have a short, passionate affair that ends when Ellie's former mentor (and the President's national science advisor), David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), pulls the plug on the SETI project in Puerto Rico. To maintain her work, Ellie is forced to seek private funding, which she receives from a multi- billionaire eccentric named S.R. Hadden (John Hurt). Armed with as much money as she needs, Ellie rents time on New Mexico's VLA (very large array) radio telescope range, and, while there, discovers a message from the star Vega that indicates intelligent life. Once the signal is confirmed, the VLA becomes the center of a media blitz, and, along with the reporters, National Security Advisor Michael Kitz (James Woods) arrives, ready to militarize the project and push Ellie out.

Although Contact is rightfully being billed as the story of humanity's first encounter with an extraterrestrial life form, at its heart, it's really more about Ellie and her quest for meaning in life. In her own words: "For as long as I can remember, I've been searching for some reason why we're here -- what we're doing here, who are we?" Ellie's trajectory places her on a collision course with answers to those questions, and it's the development of her character, and the resolution of this particular aspect of the story, that makes for a satisfying conclusion. In the end, the science fiction elements become subordinate to the personal ones.

In its own unique way, Contact offers a little bit of almost everything: drama, romance, suspense, and science fiction. It touches the emotions and the intellect. There are glorious special effects, wonderful acting, and a couple of impressive pyrotechnic displays. The plot contains the most believable approach to this subject matter ever presented in a movie. In addition to the scientific aspect, there's the media feeding frenzy, the fierce in-fighting to gain control of the project, the international ramifications of the U.S. taking charge, and the religious implications of life on another planet. One of the key, recurring struggles presented in Contact is that of science versus religion, and how the conflict between these two seemingly-divergent disciplines reveals the importance of both faith and facts to human well-being.

As he did in Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis makes excellent use of special effects. The standout sequences are those that take place in deep space and give us an awe-inspiring perception of how incredibly vast the universe is. But digital trickery, both subtle and obvious, is used on other occasions, as well. In fact, Zemeckis returns to one of his most talked-about Gump gimmicks as he puts words into the mouth of President Clinton. By carefully editing clips of Clinton speeches and using a little creative dubbing, Zemeckis makes it seem like the President is directly addressing the specific situations that arise during the course of Contact.

The cast is strong. Tom Skerritt and James Woods take what could have been one-dimensional characters and develop them into something more. We don't exactly sympathize with them, but we understand their viewpoints. Matthew McConaughey's performance is nicely-understated; it's easy to accept him as a charismatic, sincere, New Age religious leader. But the star of the film is Jodie Foster, who brings all of her considerable ability to the part of Ellie, and infuses the character with passion, intelligence, and courage. Foster deserves another Oscar nomination for her work here.

In its approach and discernment, Contact couldn't be farther from a number of recent "first contact" motion pictures (including, but not limited to, Independence Day, Star Trek: First Contact, and The Arrival). Instead, in different ways, this movie recalls some of the best science fiction films. It has a measure of the awe and spectacle of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and an element of the mystery and hope offered by Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In fact, Contact can stand on the same level as these and many other classics, and that is one definition of a great movie. If Contact falls short in any area, it's an inability to fully develop all of its many subplots, but, given the time limitations of the medium (the running length is already 2:30), that's understandable. This is one of 1997's finest motion pictures, and is a forceful reminder that Hollywood is still capable of making magic.

Contact (United States, 1997)

Ranked #4 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1997
Run Time: 2:30
U.S. Release Date: 1997-07-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1