It has been awhile since Hollywood has delivered a serious science fiction drama. Most recent forays into SF tend to gravitate toward comedy (i.e. Men in Black, The Fifth Element), or action/thrillers (i.e. The Lost World, Face/Off). In addition, there has been an alarming tendency (particularly with the recent waves of “event” films) to showcase special effects over substance. That’s not to say that these trends necessarily doom current SF films to mediocrity, in fact, several of the recent entrees have been very enjoyable. Heck, even one of the most flagrant abusers of the genre, Independence Day, is a kick to watch. But it isn’t until a well-written and intelligently acted drama like Contact comes along that you realize how truly substance-starved the genre truly is.
Based on Carl Sagan’s book, Contact takes a scientific look at what would happen if an alien civilization were to make contact with Earth. Not in the unlikely form of flying saucers or invasion ships, but as a series of messages from outer space. On a deeper level, it is a film about spirituality and its place in a scientific world.
Jodie Foster stars as Dr. Ellie Arroway, the radio astronomer who makes the discovery, and leads the team to unravel and understand the mysterious message from the heavens. As a young girl, her father (David Morse) instills in her a strong sense of scientific curiosity. His loss wounds her deeply, shattering her faith, yet causing her to search for scientific proof of something more. In a sense, she spends her life in an attempt to reestablish contact with her father.
Matthew McConaughey portrays Palmer Joss, Ellie’s one-time lover and confidante, now a religious leader and spiritual advisor to the president. Palmer and Ellie have a delicate relationship. On the outset, it seems as if they are intellectually opposites: the deeply religious vs. the agnostic. But during their attempts to win eachother over to the other side, you realize that they share the same goal but maintain a different perception of the optical illusion of reality.
Contact is filled with a superb supporting cast. Tom Skerritt is the closest thing to a villain in the piece as David Drumlin, a former associate of Ellie’s, now her rival. James Woods and Angela Bassett portray presidential advisors with differing agendas. John Hurt seems to enjoy his offbeat role as the eccentric billionaire S.R. Hadden. Jake Busey has a small, but intriguing, role as a doomsday prophet who strikes a nerve with Ellie. Rob Lowe’s gimmick casting as a Southern religious leader is the only role that doesn’t really work, but, luckily, it isn’t pivotal.
Director Robert Zemeckis is proving himself a master of the subtle FX shot. He revisits his Forrest Gump tricks of merging actors into Presidential footage and multiplying extras for mass-crowd shots. In addition, there are several eye-boggling computer assisted “impossible” tracking shots that impress. He paces the story well, and manages to hold your interest throughout Contact’s 2 1/2 hour length.
Contact stays true to the basic story and scientific spirit of Carl Sagan’s work, but diverges in several fundamental (but better) ways. The book was so obsessed with the scientific details that the characters got buried. The film, while still maintaining most of the scientific details, manages to create lively and interesting characters. In addition, Sagan’s work was set in the near future, and full of all sorts of predictions that have failed to come true. The film, though set in the same time period, has the luxury of knowing the capabilities of modern technology and the realities of the current political world.
There is only one scene in the film which irritated me: the final conversation between Angela Bassett and James Woods. Not that it is poorly performed, or even poorly written, but it seems to exist merely for the intent of unnecessary clarification, and actually dispels some of the mystery of the film’s conclusion.
With its intelligent dialogue, Contact is one of the few films this summer that don’t require you to check your brain at the door, and that’s a welcome change. In any season, however, Contact, with its fine acting and excellent special effects, is a film worth seeing.