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Note: the review essay contains many serious spoilers.
1997's Contact is a grandiose, serious Science Fiction film that uses the real-life search for extraterrestrial life to address the big issues tackled by some of the biggest titles in the genre: Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky's Solaris. It has a lavish budget, top actors and enough cameos from real television and news personalities to convince many that its fantastic story is actually happening. Although Carl Sagan's story brings up a number of fascinating ideas, it resolves its quest for "the secrets of the universe" in an even less satisfying way than its predecessors. Plus, it introduces the hot-button political issue of Faith vs. Science in such a way as to make us think that the whole point of the enterprise has an ulterior motive.
Young Eleanor Arroway (Jena Malone of Into the Wild) loses her beloved father (David Morse) at an early age, but continues with her love of astronomy. Twenty years later, Ellie (Jodie Foster) is furious when a powerful scientist-lobbyist, David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) cancels her search-for-intelligent-life program, but she continues with private funding thanks to the help of her collaborator Kent (William Fichtner). To Ellie's surprise, she's awarded a generous private grant from the reclusive billionaire S.R. Hadden (John Hurt). When Ellie detects an intelligent signal from the Vega constellation, her project is hijacked by the opportunistic Drumlin. Further government decisions are plagued by input from security advisor Michael Kitz (James Woods) and Conservative Coalition leader Richard Rank (Rob Lowe). Analysis of the Vegan signal uncovers a fantastic hidden code, a blueprint to construct a device that the earthlings assume is meant to transport a passenger to Vega. Thanks to "respected spiritual advisor" Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a man with direct contact to President Clinton, Ellie is not barred from the project completely. Billions are spent to construct the colossal "machine" laid out in the blueprints. Will Ellie win the highly politicized competition to see who will be the first to travel to another star?
Contact is an exciting story with some genuinely spectacular visuals. Yet it quickly paints itself into the same corner that has befuddled filmmakers since the beginnings of the science fiction genre: visualizing the unknowable. When it comes time to actually depict extraterrestrials, few directors have succeeded. Strangely enough, Steven Spielberg's generic little men from mars movie is one of the more successful attempts. Stanley Kubrick couldn't crack the problem and fell back on light-show glitz and an abstract space-prison visualized with imagery from Last Year at Marienbad. Robert Zemeckis' Contact goes the way of Journey to the Seventh Planet and Solaris, stories in which advanced aliens probe the brains of invading astronauts. Instead of an alien world, the Earthmen are confronted with hallucinations fashioned from their own memories and desires. Thus Ellie finds herself on a moonlit seashore, meeting her own father. She realizes full well that the she's being tricked with an illusory, hologram-like bubble: the Aliens show her nothing of their world. If she did make a physical journey, she should ask for a refund. Ellie's odyssey may have only transported her mind across the universe. The alien contact in this movie is wholly interior. So little comes of the experience, it might as well be a message from God, as communicated to Joan of Arc.
The faith angle is the key. The first part of Contact is more or less a replay of the much- ridiculed 1952 "God Lives on Mars" science fiction film Red Planet Mars. In that picture married scientists scouring the heavens decode Martian radio signals into an intelligent sequence of numbers. In Contact Ellie ascertains that she's talking to authentic Vegans because their first message is a string of prime numbers. Identically to Red Planet Mars, Ellie is muzzled by a secrecy-minded U.S. administration with a strong "faith guided" agenda. In both movies the world's economies and cultures experience a violent upset, and a media circus gathers at the site of the discoveries.
Contact's faith-based main theme is the same as that of Red Planet Mars. Both movies take the position that God and Science are mutually exclusive belief systems, an issue that in the last decade has become a frustrating and unnecessary social debate. Contact promotes this patently false conflict. Scientists are just as spiritually inclined as any other group of people. The real trouble is not between God and Science, but between rationalism and the doctrines of churches seeking political power.
The benign Palmer Joss character advances a warm 'n' fuzzy argument for spirituality: we're all lonely and searching for answers. He then insists that the only answer to this dilemma is blind faith. Contact stacks the deck by making Ellie repeatedly state her need for absolute proof in all things. It's as if nobody ever heard of Keeping an Open Mind or giving the other fellow the benefit of the doubt -- we all must choose sides in this war. Joss also lets loose with a whopper statement, claiming that 95% of the world's population believes in a supreme God. That seems wildly exaggerated.
Contact isn't as blatantly offensive as Forrest Gump, the feel-good movie that lets us know that the anti-Vietnam War movement was a shameful disgrace led by unhygienic hypocrites and drug addicts. Contact characterizes President Clinton as a hollow figurehead surrounded by a focus group of security experts and religious extremists that crowds Ellie out of her own program. Red Planet Mars used an actor who resembled Dwight Eisenhower, while Contact abuses the freedom of CGI to paste Clinton directly into scenes. It doesn't just look like Clinton, it is Clinton. The President's only speech on Ellie's discovery is an irresponsible digital montage of evasive hemming and hawing that makes Clinton seem disengaged and indecisive. Ellie never receives a personal meeting with the President, as his press secretary (Angela Bassett) restricts access as rudely as the gateman to The Emerald City of Oz. Ellie flunks the Clinton committee's "God" test by refusing to make Faith an official part of her mission. The impression given is that Clinton is running a do-nothing administration loaded with religious gurus.
Other characters are custom-carved to fit into Contact's narrow agenda. Palmer Joss is a boyfriend, a fallen priest, an advocate for humanist values, and sort of a Rasputin to the Clinton court. He lies to Ellie and betrays her by voting against her candidacy to become the first Vegan space pilot. Tom Skerrit's Drumlin is a hateful climber and credit-stealer who sabotages Ellie at every turn. His sincere non-apology for stealing her project pretends that his deceits were Ellie's problem all along. But the Faith Lobbyist and the Career Thief are not necessarily presented as villains. Contact serves up other Blue Meanie bad guys as a distraction -- James Woods' venal inquisitioner, Rob Lowe's fundamentalist ideologue and Jake Busey's terrorist madman. Politically speaking, this movie is as rigged as a Frank Capra Capracorn show from the Depression years.
A compelling heroine, Jodie Foster carries the determined truth-seeking spirit of Clarice Starling to a new level. But Eleanor Arroway falls into a depressing pattern that crops up far too often in lazy dramas, which I call the Olympics Syndrome. Ellie's desire to unlock the secrets of the stars can't be motivated simply by scientific curiosity or altruism, it has to stem from a deep, dramatic event or trauma in her childhood, just like those awful Olympics bios that emphasize an easily-grasped hook to "explain" an athlete's drive to win -- a devastating injury, a brother in a wheelchair, a parent's dream of citizenship. In other words, in a movie about a garbage man, the garbage man must become a garbage man because his family was lost in a garbage accident, or he vowed to rid the world of garbage after making a promise to his grandmother. You know, "This time it's personal". Ellie is driven to penetrate to the other end of the universe to reunite with her dead father, a revelation that appalls any thinking viewer. She's not really a scientist, just a frightened child who wants to break the rules of Life and Death (= God). In Science fiction terms this is far worse than a cop-out. "It's all a dream" would be preferable. "Maybe it's best not to know" would work better. The spirit of Science Fiction always wants the curtains pulled back so we can see the Wizard for ourselves. Contact pulls a fancy card trick and then tells us to Have Faith.
Contact puts together an exciting show, but doesn't disguise its pulp Sci-fi origins. The science on view is always 'exciting' -- when not reclined like James Dean under their satellite dishes listening to the cosmos, scientists drive recklessly back to the lab and throw delicate equipment around willy-nilly. They spit out instant explanations for complex phenomena, just as in the old-fashioned movies. Challenged to verbally defend her research, Ellie strikes back with an allusion to society's rejection of the airplane. Her argument is identical to the non-sequitur riposte of the astronomer in the original Invaders from Mars.
The movie revives ideas familiar from other classic Sci-fi pictures, improving on some of them. The coded blueprint for the alien machine evokes the literal blueprints for the "Interociter" of This Island Earth; only the Howard Hughes- like S.R. Hadden can solve the alien puzzle. If Hadden can think outside the box, perhaps it's because he lives in an airplane and later in a space station. It seems that Hadden is also a sort of Mabuse character, a genius celebrity who does without a terrestrial address because his elitist machinations conflict with too many petty laws down here. Ellie keeps a date with Hadden in his mysterious airplane, just as does the scientist in This Island Earth.
The marvelous giant machine connects Contact with the colossal Space Gun of Things to Come (it even has a similar crane arm for the capsule). There's something wonderful about bankrupting the treasury to build a device when nobody knows what it does or how it works. A giant rounded structure on the horizon, the machine reminds us of the futuristic domes of Quatermass 2 and The Mysterians. The positioning of a second machine on Hokkaido seems inspired by You Only Live Twice, and just as impossible to hide from spy satellites, etc.
Equally excellent is Contact's well-coordinated "media-blitz" atmosphere of TV show snippets and interview bites, all with appropriate real personalities, helping to carry the film's hefty exposition chores. Things only get dicey when the scientists instantly recombobulate an alien signal into a perfect video image of Adolph Hitler at the 1936 Olympic Games ... a good idea to establish that the aliens have been listening to everything we've been broadcasting (they must have paid their cable bill). It's also a mystery why Zemeckis falls back on a tired montage of broadcast audio through the 20th century to establish the idea of radio communication in space. Starman, Explorers and The Abyss had recently exhausted that particular cliché. 1
Casual viewers might not pick up on the fact that Ellie's passenger chair is an item not called for in the alien plans, and is the probable source of in-flight vibration. The aliens apparently meant Ellie to hover weightless within the capsule, like the space-tripping lunar voyagers of H.G. Wells' original First Men in the Moon. She's saved when she unbuckles to recover a toy compass, a sentimental touch reinforcing the power of Faith -- i.e., follow Palmer Joss's guidance. As her 'moral' compass comes from a Crackerjack box, it's probably an inside reference to Zemeckis' screenplay for 1941.
After passing through the 2001- like wormhole, Ellie ends up talking to a) aliens who don't tell her anything, sidestepping her questions with talk of "baby steps" and "more later, be patient"; or b) herself, if we go with the minority opinion that the machine has simply transported her to an inner cosmic plane of higher consciousness; or c) God, assuming God treats Ellie as thoughtlessly as do the aliens. Since Ellie's boyfriend Palmer uses the same "waste of space" phrase Ellie did, the movie conflates Dad, Boyfriend, Aliens and God into one (male) uber-authority that tells us to relax, take a stress pill and simply have Faith.
The writers jam in one more reference when Cosmic Dad / Alien Spokesperson tells Ellie that his race is just as clueless as we are, and is simply passing on instructions from an unknown higher power. The aliens sent the signals and blueprint and don't understand how the machine works either. They're just following orders. This again relates to Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, where the seemingly all-powerful Overlords are revealed to be middlemen between Earth and some abstract higher power. Perhaps Clarke fell back on that twist because he'd painted himself into a conceptual corner as well. Contact's concluding cop-out is less satisfactory than the ending of Explorers, where a comical alien glob tells the unhappy space cadets, "Gee, I guess I won't have time to tell you the secrets of the universe and stuff". 2
Contact's final act dissolves into an undercover message film, with Ellie enduring a public show trial much like a beleaguered Frank Capra hero. The James Woods character is now an inquisitor and Ellie is Joan of Arc. Ellie becomes the focus of a trend cult simply because people 'feel' that she's sincere, further gumming up any rational search for the truth. Ellie's fantastic experience will be ignorantly rejected, or ignorantly glorified. In this mess of corruption and petty malice, the film says, choosing Faith is the best choice.
Contact is 2.5 hours of polished technical filmmaking that substitutes emotional appeals for reason. I felt as if I were being handed a Teddy Bear. 2001 was a cold picture, yes, but it was sufficiently intelligent to consider the universe as a non- human-centric creation. The audience deserves to be told that the cosmos is NOT ABOUT YOU, personally. Efforts to make it warm and fuzzy usually come with ulterior motives.
We may laugh at the political - religious hysteria of the old Red Planet Mars, but its makers are clearly sincere and committed. Of the two pictures, it's far more honest. Contact's soft-boiled gee-whiz message seems calculated to offend nobody while surreptitiously supporting the flawed premise that Faith and Science can't be reconciled. 3
Warners' Blu-ray of Robert Zemeckis' Contact bears a gleaming HD transfer that allows close study of the film's many superb special effects. The busy audio track is augmented with a separate 5.1 music-only track to better appreciate Alan Silvestri's score.
The disc is packed with extras. The making-of chores are covered in three separate commentaries. Jodie Foster has a track to herself, while director Zemeckis and producer Steve Starkey take a second. A third track features effects supervisors Ken Ralston and Stephen Rosenbaum. The effects men also comment on tracks explaining the genesis of four specific effects shots, including the opening cosmic zoom, the destruction of the alien machine and the Harrier Landing. Also included are computer mockups of the Hokkaido machine flyby, Hadden's plane and the space project control room. Two trailers finish the deluxe package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Contact Blu-ray rates:
1. Readers of vintage Mad Magazine know that the best use of this idea came from one of that magazine's cartoons from the early 1960s: when aliens first contact us by television, they announce that unless we stop sending them re-runs of The Gail Storm Show, they're going to destroy our planet!
2. Actually, the plot gives conflicting signals as to whether Ellie's trip was "real" or not ... but rushes through them quickly enough to lose many viewers. The eighteen hours of recorded static supports Ellie's story of a sustained space-time voyage: next time take a FILM camera, dummy. But Ellie's passenger chair is unaccountably intact after the capsule falls through the alien mechanism, apparently going nowhere. If the breaking of the chair didn't happen, it casts doubt on the reality of everything else Ellie "experiences". Contact throws its mystery in the air and goads us to ask ourselves, "Do You Believe?"
I just wanted to say yours is the most insightful piece I've ever read on this film. I agree with just about everything you say about it. I would point out though that your core argument against the film, which is the same as mine, that "Contact's soft-boiled gee-whiz message seems calculated to offend nobody while surreptitiously supporting the flawed premise that Faith and Science can't be reconciled" isn't actually a problem with Sagan's story. In fact the film reverses the intent of Sagan's excellent novel 180 degrees. The film, as you say, stacks the decks. The novel offers not just the Foster character but a wide spectrum of other crew on the mission, bringing a variety of perspectives. Its years since I read it so I wouldn't want to go into specifics. More importantly, the film negates Sagan's conclusion that science and faith can be reconciled, and actually in the novel point to the same end, in favour of a feel good New Age conclusion which suggests quite the opposite, that it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere. Which seems as hypocritical a transformation of a book's message as one can imagine. Unless the filmmakers just didn't understand the novel, which I doubt. The novel is utterly apiece with the decline into woolly thinking Sagan expertly dissects in his non fiction work The Demon Haunted World. Zemeckis and co. even massively downplay the spectacular galactic wonders at the heart of the novel, surely something the film could have done well.
One other thing. The story doesn't have its roots in pulp. The novel is an excellent piece of hard SF, well crafted at every level. It is so good it makes one wish Sagan had written more fiction. All the best, Gary
PS -- there are a handful of other good writers on film out there on the internet, but I find your writing to be the most knowledgeable, thoughtful and consistent out there. Long may you continue. ( Professional editor and writer Gary Dalkin's website is at http://www.garydalkin.com/ )
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