My viewing experience of Contact was very different to that of ID4 the previous year. For a start I wasn’t there on opening night, admittedly wary of whether Carl Sagan’s excellent novel would translate to the screen. Then on telly I saw a ‘review’ show – can’t recall the title – where they asked the public, usually 4 random young folk (early 20’s – ageist!) what they thought of a particular movie. They had seen Contact, 3 girls and 1 lad. The ladies thought Contact was “boring” (though one did concede it was well made, just not her cup of char); the nerdy bloke raved to the rafters. Still unconvinced, a couple of nights later I went along. If you’ve not seen the film, be aware this ramble will contain spoilers…
Contact (PG). Running time: 150m Director: Robert Zemekis. Screenplay: James V. Hart, Michael Goldenberg. Story: Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan. Starring: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, James Woods, Jena Malone, John Hurt, Angela Bassett, Adolf Hitler. Cinematography: Don Burgess. Music: Alan Silvestri.
Written by: Therewolf
There were maybe 15-20 people in the theatre, predominantly male (guess they saw the same telly show as me and trust to gender!). Disappointing turn-out. I found my expectations dropping by the second. Then Contact opened and I was aboard Mr Sagan’s Cosmos ship. Now, I could fill this whole review describing and conjecturing on this sequence alone but shall try – try – to rein it in.
Last in as the lights were dimming, box of popcorn placed on the floor as I got myself comfortable. Radio noise bursts around me. I look up to see Earth hanging in space. The din is incredible. The camera accelerates away from Earth orbit and embarks on a rapid journey of the Solar System. The sonic tumult, songs and broadcasts dipping in and out of range, begins to dial back through the years. This jumble of sound starts to thin as first, we leave our system behind – I try to keep our sun in view for as long as I can, cos that’s where I live and if it’s lost to sight I might never make it back. Then it’s gone. We spin away from our Milky Way galaxy and see it’s not just ours, there are thousands, millions… billions of them. So why do I still feel lonely? Earth has been screaming into a void and no one can hear us. There is a moment, in the silence, when you hear a solitary, ethereal voice from the background microwave – it’s the shiver-down-the-spine moment, the realisation you’re a long way from home. As the journey and the silence continue, it becomes a humbling experience, this drift through space and time, you feel small and insignificant, kind of lost. The stars, the galaxies and nebulae, they stream past, too many to count or comprehend, feels like the centre of the Universe and we start to hear sounds again. We see a reflection, then we emerge from Jodie Foster’s digitally composed iris looking out from young Ellie’s eye, already making her wise beyond her years.
When the sequence finished and I remembered to start breathing again, I realised that I was gripping the seat arms. I looked to the nearest fellow attendee quite a few seats away; he was slouched, shovelling popcorn into his cakehole like a mechanical digger shovels soil into a skip. It was surreal. We had just seen human existence defined on a cosmic scale. You don’t often see that coming from Hollywood. It’s an important, bravura piece of film making. How could the rest of Contact live up to that…?
Okay, the plot: Eleanor Arroway is an astronomer working within the SETI program (Search For Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). She’s struggling, ridiculed by her boss, David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), ridiculed by colleagues. When her funding gets pulled, then her scope time, her quest appears to be at a dead end. But then, in the nick of time, Earth (or is it for her personally?) is sent a message from the stars. There follows a power struggle as Drumlin moves in to undermine Ellie when it becomes apparent the message is in fact a blue print for a space-faring vehicle. This also grabs the attention of National Security Advisor Michael Kitz (James Woods) who is concerned the vehicle may be aggressive in some way. Despite reservations, they go ahead and construct The Machine. Drumlin gazumps Ellie by being picked to be the (un)lucky astronaut who gets to take a ride in the alien contraption when her ex-lover and Christian advisor to the White House, Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), sets her up with a theological question he knows she will duck. However, they’ve all reckoned without a crazy religious fanatic who gains entry to the launch centre and knackers the mission in spectacular fashion. All hope is lost until Ellie is contacted by reclusive billionaire S R Hadden (John Hurt) who has funded the construction of a second machine in secret…
For a start, I do like the various scenes at Arecibo and the VLA (Very Large Array), all the control room stuff, particularly when they detect the signal, characters running around spouting verbal hieroglyphics at each other. I get a kick out of that in films in general anyway. Mr Sagan apparently clashed with Zemeckis over the depiction of the signal discovery. You know, Ellie outside with her headphones on? Not how it’s done, apparently. Computers do all the searching, they can hear better, on every frequency. Seriously, what was Zemeckis supposed to do? Point his camera at a bleeping computer monitor? Or better still, a hard copy print-out. Ellie is obsessed, she knows the computers are searching better than she ever could but listening is how she thinks, how she deals with her life and her loss. And anyway, I think Zemeckis does okay, intercutting between Ellie and the hardware detecting the same thing and if you watch carefully, the computer spots the signal first. I think it’s genius that the first message from another species is our own footage of Adolf Hitler returned. The first and only reaction from the audience at the screening came when they realised the image they were seeing was that of a swastika. I think at this point, certainly if they hadn’t read the book, they thought Earth was about to be invaded by Nazi aliens! Kitz’s reaction is great, plus a little later on, draws this exchange:
“That they recorded it and sent it back is simply their way of saying ‘hello we heard you…,’” Drumlin ventures.
“Or, Sieg Heil, you’re our kind of people,” Kitz shoots back.
Jodie Foster is the heartbeat of Contact. She’s believable, sometimes unlikable, but driven. And, hell, she’s stunning in that evening dress, she goes from a duckling to a swan. The supporting cast, for the most part is solid if unspectacular, could’ve been stronger in one or two roles. Tom Skerritt does okay as Drumlin, just a total smarmpot, schmoozing his way into the hot seat. Angela Bassett is pretty much underused as Chief Of Staff Rachel Constantine. Maybe, instead of CG’ing around with Bill Clinton they could’ve made her President. William Fichtner plays Ellie’s blind friend Kent Clark (really?) and to be honest, I didn’t find him convincing. James Woods’s Kitz is a brilliantly understated performance. I love that scene between him and Constantine near the end, after the official inquiry has given Ellie a proper chasing and you see the attitude of a cagey politician come to the fore:
“I assume you read the confidential findings report from the investigating committee,” Constantine says to him.
“I flipped through it.”
“I was especially interested in the section on Arroway’s video unit. The one that recorded the static?”
“The fact that it recorded static isn’t what interests me.”
Kitz has a real think about it. “Continue…”
“What interests me is that it recorded approximately 18 hours of it.”
Another pause. “That is interesting, isn’t it…”
By far the oddest character is that of S R Hadden (John Hurt) who here, is basically a deus ex machina. He pops up to give her funding when she least expects (deserves) it. He pops up again to help along the signal investigation by discovering the “primer” for the message. Finally, he pops up with a second Machine which he expects us to accept with the line; “Why build one when you can have two at twice the price.” Eh? In the book it’s simple, other nations are building their own Machine so there’s another one to turn to when disaster strikes. By far the biggest loser in all of this is the Palmer Joss character. Not only is McConaughey unremittingly bland, Joss is reduced to flinging theological bombs at Ellie which she can barely defuse. Where the hell did the interesting bloke in the novel go?
There are some phenomenal VFX in Contact, the subtle stuff rather than the set-pieces. That’s not to say The Machine test/ launch sequences aren’t all that, they are stunning and they’ve got a certain ‘Apollo countdown’ vibe to them. But, I love the scene with young Ellie (Jena Malone) running toward the camera in slo-mo, only she isn’t. She reaches out and it’s actually her reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror. While I’m on it, Jena gets another couple of nice little moments. After her father’s (David Morse) tragic death, the priest explains it away as God’s will. Ellie, crouched down on the front step, dismisses him instantly: “Should’ve kept some medicine in the downstairs bathroom. Then I could’ve gotten to it sooner.” Then she stands to look down on him. Then there’s the heartbreaking scene where she gets on her CB radio and sends out a call: “CQ… this is W9GFO, do you copy? Dad, this is Ellie, come back. Are you there…?” My favourite moment is when adult Ellie, floating in her tin can, gazes in awe at the celestial heavens surrounding her. You then see the fleeting image of young Ellie pass across her face. Speaking personally, it’s a powerful, emotional moment. We come full circle too as the camera zooms into her eye and onto an alien beach. It’s just a pity Zemeckis didn’t stick with the book; there were five crew members aboard The Machine originally, that is, five different cultures, five alternative beliefs. For me, the ending severely weakens the whole concept. And what better way, on film, to bring disparate religions together to send one unifying message to the audience. In the end, the movie doesn’t deal with human/ alien first contact – but simply Ellie reunited with her dad. Nice enough, but it is anti-climactic. Plus, the Big Message For Humanity is basically; “Thanks for coming. You can go home now. We’ll call you again sometime…”
Contact is a thoughtful, almost painfully respectful film. Is it a good one? Yes it is, with several reservations, but it could have been better had it grown a pair of steel balls and carried more of the novel through in the telling. There is an uneasy alliance between the book and the screenplay. I’ve always considered Hollywood to be pro-God and therefore expected to see an airbrushing of Mr Sagan’s more contentious arguments with regard to science and religion. One scene to rankle me is between Ellie and Palmer, who have become romantically entangled. Ellie has just admitted she cannot believe in God without proof:
“Did you love your father?” Joss asks her.
“Yes, very much,” she answers.
In the novel, there are many thought provoking questions asked of religion but none make it to the film. With the passage above, the screenplay has asked for proof in the existence of love; Ellie can’t answer that, as the writers are aware, she’s got no comeback. I thought it a very underhanded way to, not only hamstring the character but justify a belief system. It’s frustrating because in the book it’s a fencing match, all parry and thrust with Ellie and Palmer seeking to enlighten the other and this culminates in the ‘Focault’s Pendulum’ scene. Here, Ellie pits her scientific knowledge against his faith by standing in front of the swinging pendulum and though science has taught her the pendulum bob cannot swing back farther than it’s starting point, Ellie flinches. Easily filmable and a lightly humorous way to show these two characters coming to understand each other. Instead, the screenplay seeks to diminish Ellie emotionally. Religion stands and judges her. Y’know what saddens me? The film doesn’t quite want to flat out say we’ve made contact with an intelligent alien species. To the point where, even at the end when Ellie is teaching the kids…
A lad asks: “Are there other people out there in the Universe?”
“That’s a good question. What do you think?”
“That’s a good answer. Sceptic, huh.”
No, it’s not a good answer. Ellie can’t believe that, not after what she’s been through for 150 minutes. This character is rendered almost toothless; she has turned into a female Joss. So, the movie is telling us to be sceptical too. Did she really go anywhere or was it all in her mind? Her video recorded 18 hours of static, safe to say she went somewhere. But still the film can’t say it. The kid can’t answer “Yes”. Considering this scene is set 18 months on I’m wondering if the inquiry’s findings have been made public. You’d think so, in which case the kid would now be aware that humans aren’t alone in the Universe.
Intelligent Sf is hard to come by in Hollywood. Somehow, Contact manages to shimmy around all the usual stereotypical pitfalls of this genre and emerges as a solid, if flawed, slice of storytelling.