Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: Michael Goldenberg and James V. Hart (based on the novel by Carl Sagan)
Stars: Jodie Foster (Ellie Arroway), Matthew McConaughey (Palmer Joss), James Woods (Michael Kitz), John Hurt (S.R. Hadden), Tom Skerritt (David Drumlin), William Fichtner (Kent), David Morse (Ted Arroway), Angela Bassett (Rachel Constantine)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1997
Country: USA
Few movies today have the courage to even briefly mention the kinds of issues that "Contact" makes its central focus: the existence of God, the essence of faith, the conflict between science and religion, the meaning of the universe, the real possibility of intelligent life outside our own.

These are all questions that "Contact" addresses in one way or another, and the most intelligent aspect of the movie is that it realizes it doesn't know everything, so it doesn't try to force answers to questions that are virtually unanswerable. Although it is far from a flawless film, its simple willingness to be different is more than enough to place it at the forefront of this summer's glut of releases.

Pared down from Carl Sagan's sprawling 1985 bestseller by screenwriters Michael Goldenberg and James V. Hart, the story centers around a scientist named Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), who has been obsessed by the heavens ever since her childhood days of playing on a two-wave radio and looking through Radio Shack telescopes. Now she spends her time and research money doing what her boss, David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), calls "professional suicide": she listens for radio signals from deep space, hoping that some of them are coming from extraterrestrial intelligence.

Eventually, despite Drumlin's skepticism and a constant fight for funding, Ellie does hear a signal from space. It turns out to be a deliberate message from another civilization millions of light years away, and encoded within the message are plans for building a transport for one representative of the human race to meet the message-senders by traveling to the distant star Vega.

The plot of the movie is not much more than a framework to hang the various social, philosophical, and religious issues that are at the film's heart. "Contact" balances science and religion by making the two central characters philosophical polar opposites. On one end we have Ellie, an avowed atheist who will not accept the notion of God without definite proof. On the other end we have Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a free-roaming, shaggy-haired theologian, someone who describes himself as "a man of the cloth without the cloth." It seems he couldn't stand the idea of celibacy, something he proves by sleeping with Ellie on their second night of acquaintance.

The film was helmed by Robert Zemekis, who first entered the forefront of Hollywood's directors in 1985 with the smash hit "Back to the Future," and solidified his standing by taking home most of the 1994 Oscars with "Forrest Gump." Here, he is actually more of a liability than an asset. Most of the film's weaknesses are directly related to their Gump-like qualities.

The same kind of drama derived from the relationship between Forrest and his mama doesn't come off quite as well between Ellie and her papa. And, I swear, Alan Silverstri merely changed two notes in his theme for "Gump" when he scored this film. Worst of all, are Zemekis' attempts to infuse contemporary media into the film. At times, "Contact" feels like a commercial for CNN. The gluttonous product placement in this movie is enough to give one the idea that Ted Turner's news channel is the only news outlet in all of America. Plus, the decision to digitally implant President Clinton in the middle of the proceedings is incredibly distracting and unnecessary.

Much of the film's strength is its wealth of characters, including an eccentric and brilliant billionaire played with striking relish by John Hurt, and a National Security Advisor played by James Woods who, of course, immediately wants to militarize the situation. Skerritt is also especially good as Ellie's skeptical boss who slyly steals her thunder. The movie also hits dead-on in its portrayal of the American masses and their response to the universal discovery of life outside of Earth -- it draws religious fanatics, "X-Files" freaks, Elvis impersonators, and common people who are just curious.

The center of "Contact" is held firm by Jodie Foster, in yet another outstanding performance. She has the same kind of driven intensity and refusal to give up that fueled her character in "The Silence of the Lambs." Unfortunately, her character is a bit compromised in the relationship with McConaughey's liberal priest. They never manage to spark anything romantic, and their early sexual encounter merely distracts from their more interesting intellectual relationship. If there was ever a movie that doesn't need a bedroom scene, it's this one. McConaughey is mostly resigned to showing up at the exact right moment during the film's many mini-climaxes.

Baring these shortcomings, "Contact" can be a quite magical and invigorating movie, a science fiction epic more in tune with "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" than "Independence Day." It manages to utilize dazzling special effects without making them the centerpiece of the movie. Granted, there is a dazzling rollercoaster display of space travel ala "2001," but it doesn't come near the end, and the build-up is almost better than the pay-off. For once, a $90 million Summer Event Movie that (gasp!) uses special effects to further a plot instead of just to blow things up.

What a revelation.

Copyright ©1997 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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