CONTACT—-“You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”
Directed & produced by Robert Zemeckis, the $90,000,000 1997 take on Carl Sagan’s bestselling 1985 novel emerges as a thoughtful, stirring, eye-popping and ultimately hopeful adventure quest, anchored by the passion in Jodie Foster’s stellar performance. A hit, #15 in the U.S. that year, grossing $100,920,000, with another $71,000,000 around the globe, it’s certainly the most humane of the year’s science-fiction offerings. *
Astronomer ‘Ellie Arroway’ (Foster, 34), after years of searching, discovers pulse signals emanating from the star Vega (25 light-years from Earth), which are revealed to provide blueprints for construction of a machine seemingly capable of sending an astronaut to the signal source for a meeting with who—or what—is dialing in. Initially, Ellie is sidelined when the government and her glory-stealing superior ‘David Drumlin’ (Tom Skerritt) take over the project, and is further hurt when her romantic link ‘Palmer Joss’ (Matthew McConaughey), a Christian philosopher, sides with them. The mammoth project to build the transport device ends in spectacular disaster, but a second attempt, sponsored by reclusive billionaire ‘S.R. Hadden’ (John Hurt,) rightfully puts courageous and undeterred Ellie in the pilot seat for a solo journey into the deep unknown.
“Mathematics is the only true universal language.”
Michael Goldenberg and James V. Hart adapted Sagan’s work. His 432-page book was originally conceived in 1979 as a script, which he developed with Ann Druyan (his wife, she also co-wrote Sagan’s TV series Cosmos). Despite illness from myelodysplasia, Sagan was on hand during much of the shoot, until he passed away at 62; the movie is dedicated “For Carl“.
A dazzling three-minute opener backs away from the Earth and reliably familiar nearby planets into the boundless reaches of the Universe. Radio transmissions from our past recede into a silence that’s stunningly effective as an expression of our cosmic insignificance and the strutting arrogance of our specie, and an obvious indication that there’s more than enough room out there for “others”, whatever “they” may be. The shot finishes by bringing us back down to our relatable, emotional level, introducing our protagonist. Her journey, to try and progress beyond belief to knowledge and maybe realization starts among other flawed humans who have their own pursuits. Though it has no shortage of drama, wit and spectacle, the story allows in some brains and wonder: in confronting the tension struggles waged over science and religion, faith’s insistence and the intellect’s curiosity, we actually get a movie for grown-ups. With one helluva explosion, courtesy of Jake Busey’s believably eerie fanatic.
Foster should have been Oscar-nominated. Though she doesn’t get to be a quip-ready Rebellion Princess or engage in sexy action scenes, displaying weapons prowess while half-clothed, she positively shines quiet dignity and determination, along with energy, heart and obvious smarts, making Ellie one of the great, enduring heroines of the sf genre, one that too often falls back on the trope of Women Kicking Ass like Men.
Location work was done in Arizona, New Mexico (the shots of the ‘Very Large Array’ near Socorro), Puerto Rico (the Arecibo Observatory) and Fiji (the Vegan ‘beach’). Cinematography was by frequent Zemeckis collaborator Don Burgess (Forrest Gump, What Lies Beneath, Castaway). The score was the work of Alan Silvestri, who’s done the music for every Zemeckis picture since Romancing The Stone. One lone Oscar nomination came, for Sound, losing to Titanic (fair enough). At 150 minutes, lengthy, but it never lags.
With James Woods (effortlessly nasty as usual, here an acidic government prick), Angela Bassett (prestige add-on, a rather thankless turn as a Presidential advisor), David Morse (Ellie’s deceased father), William Fichtner (a nice change-of-pace, as a blind astronomer colleague of Ellie, based on Kent Cullers), Jena Malone (10, Ellie as a child), Rob Lowe (conveying smarm as a right-wing religious phony), Tucker Smallwood, Max Martini. Numerous TV news personalities make appearances, and footage of then-President Clinton is cleverly shoehorned in for topicality. Fallout had the White House express displeasure; CNN nixed its commentators from further pay-for-play acting gigs.
* The other science-fiction sagas on screen in ’97—-The Lost World: Jurassic Park (amusement park thriller), The Fifth Element (flashy nonsense), Starship Troopers (epic action satire), Alien: Resurrection (the ugly one in that series), Event Horizon (nasty and needless) and Gattaca (smart but chilly) .
In an article from SETI.org, representing the SETI Institute (SETI being the ‘Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence’ group portrayed in the movie) they wrote “Contact is indescribably more accurate in its depiction of SETI than any Hollywood film in history.” Naturally enough, a movie that tries to work complex ideas and battling philosophies and ethics into an entertainment vehicle runs smack dab into the cross-laid minefields of “experts” who feel duty-bound to either praise or deride the presentation. We’ll leave the strident types to their self-pleasing tirades (unless it concerns the validity of milkshakes, in which case they should be hunted down and killed without mercy). Ever watch a movie with a geek? Don’t.
A few thoughtful and objective observations we will include————Foster: ”The idea of someone searching for some kind of purity, searching for something out there that she can’t find here, was something that was very, very close to myself…I process everything through my head first. I cope through my head. I cope with the disappointments in my life and the pains of my life by using my intellect. That doesn’t make me less vulnerable, but I do a good job of hiding it. And that’s what this woman (Ellie) is about.”
Zemeckis. ”It’s not about aliens; it’s about us…about what happens when the very foundation of what we believe about our system is shaken. You look at pictures of the NASA missions in Life magazine. The most compelling photos are those of the earth. The reason to go to the moon is what? To look back at the earth.”
An extensive and quite interesting take can be found in a piece written by Larry Klaes. http://www.coseti.org/klaescnt.htm