- Directed by Robert Zemeckis
- July 11, 1997
After years of searching the skies, a scientist intercepts a signal from an alien civilization. Now she must deal with the global and personal ramifications of this momentous discovery.
Contact is one of those thinking science-fiction films. It is not about space aliens or spaceships or cool battles but rather what would happen if we had in our hands as a species undeniable proof of alien existence. It is about the cultural conflicts between science and religion and how they would come to the forefront should alien contact be confirmed.
Jodie Foster stars as scientist Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Ann Arroway who has faith that there is life out there but not faith in spiritual things. She has been struggling with the death of both of her parents since a very young age. It is clear early in the film that the death of her mother from complications from childbirth left a hole in her heart. And then early in her life her father (David Morse) died rather abruptly from a heart attack leaving her an orphan all alone in the world. Her search for extraterrestrial life can be seen as an attempt to find meaning in those deaths as well as find something “spiritual” for herself. She has faith that there are little green men out there, but she cannot believe that there is a God. It is through her perseverance and hard work that the alien signal with the plans to the big machine is found.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Palmer Joss who is Ellie’s romantic interest. He is much more spiritual than she can bring herself to be. Palmer starts as someone Ellie met casually while in Puerto Rico but eventually finds himself on a council advising the president on who to send to meet the aliens-a position she is competing for. His ability to believe puts her at odds at times with him. He studied to be a Jesuit but decided to be more secular in his life though that has not stopped him from believing.
The great Tom Skerritt is as close to a villain as we get in this movie as Dr. David Drumlin. He does not see the value of Ellie’s research and only gives a hoot about it when it is clear that she is right and being involved will advance him professionally and possibly historically. I am not sure if you could necessarily call him a villain. He is more the office jerk who will steal glory whenever possible.
James Woods is in this as national security advisor Michael Kitz and his James Woods level in this movie is at about a seven. Asshole hindrance but not asshole villain. He is just so good in those types of parts. Kitz is not there because he cares one way or another. He is just looking out for himself and looking at how it might advance his career path. Aliens might be a threat but how will being wrong hut him either way?
Significant to all this is reclusive (and revealed to be dying) billionaire S. R. Hadden played by the late, great John Hurt. He keeps Ellie going through funding her research and then providing answers when her and her team become stumped while decoding the alien signal. The character is a bit of a McGuffin and seems to have easy answers to the film’s difficult questions. That bothers me a bit. Then again that type of character always irritates me.
Jake Busey has a small but important part as a religious fanatic making brief appearances throughout the movie after the signal is first detected up to the point it is decoded and the device it instructs to build is built. He’s very good as a religious fanatic but there is one scene when his character is discovered having infiltrated the test run of the device and turns away from the camera that Ellie is watching him on. The big reveal of his face on the monitor was met with a laugh when I saw this in the theater and it is pretty funny still. Not belly laugh funny but enough to get a chuckle out of you. He just has this weird look on his face.
This is a character driven piece by Robert Zemeckis based on the book of the same name written by Carl Sagan. Zemeckis was probably one of the few people at the time who could do deep science fiction well. Any competent director can helm a script and give a decent product at the end. Zemeckis though could always add something special to his work. And this has something special.
This movie is about the characters and what they are going through. It is about how this event which would be the biggest moment in human history affects the entire world. How it would touch on us personally as well as our politics and our beliefs. People do not abruptly come together. There are competing interests and political considerations and Contact gives this all a very realistic feel. This movie touches on faith and emotional scars and politics and space aliens. How many movies do you know of that do that?
The script for this film is amazing. The dialogue is genuine and the story benefits from interspersing real footage into the fictitious narrative. They use CNN heavily. Networks back then were not too concerned with having their reporters appear as fictitious versions of themselves in movies. I personally disagree with that, but it does also add too authenticity.
I do draw issue with the alien encounter at the end. I always thought it was like the aliens were jerking the assorted civilizations the contacted around a little bit. “We are going to talk to one representative and then send them back with no substantive proof.” The crafting of the ending was meant to imply that Ellie had POSSIBLY hallucinated and that Hadden may have been responsible for everything (a massive hoax) since he conveniently decoded how to assemble the plans correctly. Other than that the film is just great.
Contact the great bit of science-fiction film making. It has good special effects but more importantly it has a great story with a fantastic cast. This is definitely a watch it!