CONTACT (1997)

  • Director: Robert Zemeckis
  • Writers: Screenplay by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg, Story by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, based on the novel by Carl Sagan
  • Starring: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Angela Bassett, William Fichtner, David Morse, Jake Busey, Rob Lowe, and Jena Malone
  • Accolades: 1 Oscar nomination (Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Showtime app, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

There are any number of reasons that Contact did not impact on the zeitgeist in 1997 the way it probably wanted to. Even today, it has a Rotten Tomatoes score in the 60s (pretty middling, for the uninitiated), though almost everyone I could find who came more recently to the movie loved it to death. But at the time reviewers didn’t like that it was too interested in its very particular themes of science versus spirituality, said that it moved too slowly, and said that it was a disappointing follow-up for director Robert Zemeckis to Forrest Gump. This is a movie that refused to actually show the audience its aliens that came out the same month as Men in Black, and in the end its point of view on the world is generally a cynical one. Which is to say, it feels better matched to 2021 than perhaps it did to 1997.

Contact was a passion project of the popular astronomer Carl Sagan that he had been working on, on and off, for 20 years by the time the movie actually came out. Having initially been unable to get the project off the ground, he decided to write it as a novel, which was a bestseller on the basis of Sagan’s fame, and made its way back to Hollywood. Unfortunately, there are probably plenty of younger people today unfamiliar with Sagan. For those readers, this is the equivalent of Neil DeGrasse Tyson writing a fictional movie today. Sagan, along with his wife and frequent collaborator Ann Druyan, wanted to tell the realistic version of the story of mankind making “First Contact” with an alien race. Think of it like someone watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind and saying, “this is completely scientifically inaccurate,” then deciding to make their own movie. Although, in reality, it is a much more interesting movie than that.

Jodie Foster stars as Dr. Eleanor Arroway, who works obsessively for the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) program (which is a real thing), listening for possible radio signals from various stars. This draws derision from many of her colleagues, including her former mentor (Tom Skerritt, ironically one of multiple major actors this movie shares with Alien). She crosses paths repeatedly (and at one point has a one-night stand with) a vaguely religious guru, Palmer Joss, played by Matthew McConaughey. Eventually, while working at an observatory in New Mexico, she happens upon a clear signal apparently being beamed from the star Vega. This leads to an instant media circus and White House taskforce, which also involves Angela Bassett and James Woods as various presidential advisors (this movie has kind of an all-star cast). She also crosses paths with an eccentric billionaire played by John Hurt, who spends all his time flying around the world in his private plane. Seeing this movie as a kid in the theater, I found Hurt’s character almost a step too far from reality, but today nothing he does seems out of character for, say, Elon Musk.

It is impossible to really talk about this movie without getting into “spoilers,” but we have a general policy of not caring about spoilers here, so here goes. The alien message turns out to contain plans for a giant machine that is apparently some sort of transport device. Arroway loses out on being the passenger to go on this device to Skerritt’s character, after she tells the selection committee, honestly, that she doesn’t believe in God. Many billions are spent building this device, but it is blown up during a test by a religious terrorist (Jake Busey, Gary Busey’s son), killing Skeritt’s character. It is then revealed that the eccentric billionaire built a second machine secretly in Japan, which is used to send Arroway through an apparent wormhole in an extended final sequence that is highly, highly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Arroway briefly meets an alien who has taken the form of her dead father (David Morse) and is sent back without proof that anything happened at all, leading her to have to ask everyone to take her story on faith.

One reason I think audiences and critics weren’t sure what to do with Contact is that the things it is interested in are very different from those most movies are interested in. There is a romance between Arroway and Palmer, sure, but it is somewhat perfunctory, and the movie finds more in the way their worldviews bounce off each other than it does in whether they’ll actually get together. Nor is this an exercise in exciting spectacle, even less so, I’d say, than 2001 is, nor is it interested in providing us with really any answers or taking any sides whatsoever. Very randomly, a just-pre-West Wing Rob Lowe plays a fairly bland representative of the Christian Right in a couple of scenes, but the movie is not interested in making villains, even of its terrorists.

2001: A Space Odyssey is one of my favorite films, but it is also something of an outlier in movie history. There are basically two movies I can think of over the past several decades that really feel influenced heavily by it, Contact and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. But where the latter is a director who clearly idolizes Stanley Kubrick getting a little too bogged down in the interpersonal treacle (among other issues), this is a very un-Kubrickean director in Robert Zemeckis, who I have always thought of as basically a poor-man’s Steven Spielberg, getting toned down enough by his material that it works a lot better for me. Later Zemeckis has sometimes let his interest in visual effects get in the way of his actual storytelling, but here it almost entirely serves the story instead of the other way around. There is one shot during a flashback, where we watch Young Eleanor (Jena Malone) run to the bathroom cabinet looking for her father’s heart pills in slow motion, for several seconds, at the end of which we suddenly realize we’ve been watching the whole shot in the bathroom mirror. This subtle bit of business was actually a very sophisticated technical achievement involving computer graphics.

It is often said that “representation matters,” in the sense it is important to see yourself on screen. I am a white dude, so I don’t know what it’s like for, say, a latina girl to see another latina girl with similar struggles on screen. But I do feel like Dr. Arroway is a character I can relate to more than almost any other in film, because her concerns are closer to mine. I don’t mean that she’s a hard-headed atheist and that’s something that should be represented. I mean that she’s someone who finds this incredible experience, very similar to what some people get from religion, from the natural world. There is a scene during the final trippy space sequence where Arroway is given a view of a galaxy and suddenly breaks down into tears. “They should have sent a poet,” she mumbles quietly. This is the closest I’ve seen to my sort of “religious experience” actually being depicted on screen in any movie. It helps me know I’m not crazy, if nothing else.

I think Contact is a highly underrated sleeper classic, but I’m not going to sit here and argue it’s perfect. Even this cast can’t quite make whatever romance is there between Foster and McConaughey’s characters make sense. Particularly egregious, I’d say, is that McConaughey basically admits to purposely sabotaging her chances of getting to go meet the aliens initially because he thinks its too dangerous (and is also worried about relatively-based time dilation, because this is that kind of movie), and she ends up forgiving him. As my wife said, “He should support her pursuing her career, and you can put that in your article.” Agreed. But this occasional dumbness is made worth it for me by scenes like the one where the signal is first discovered, and Arroway drives wildly back to her base while screaming science jargon into a radio. If you haven’t seen Contact, I really recommend it.

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