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Contact

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Review by Jerry Saravia
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What is this I hear about summer movies in general? They are all brainless and plotless? Excuse me, people, but don't forget that the smaller films are usually the smarter ones. It's true that Hollywood rarely delivers anything beyond the dumb and dumber set during the summer (or the year, for that matter). The summer of 1997 had not been as horrendous as most, and one of the smartest and most thought-provoking films of that summer was "Contact."

Jodie Foster stars as Dr. Ellie Arroway, a serious-minded scientist who studies extraterrestrial life. She believes life exists in some distant galaxy, and studies chiefly with the world's largest radio telescope located in Arecibo, Puerto Rico hoping to establish some alien contact. When her research project is terminated, she persuades the government to fund a project to investigate the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Ellie ends up in Socorro, New Mexico where they have a field of 27 huge disc-shaped radio telescopes where she might get some signal. And she does, and the whole world, including the government, the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security counsel, is eager to know what it is about. At first, Ellie hears deep vibrating signals. Then she receives an alien signal in the form of the first televised image - Hitler's appearance at the 1936 Olympic Games. Then she gets another visual signal that may be instructions to build a ship.

"Contact" is based on the 1985 novel by the late Carl Sagan, and the film doesn't betray Sagan's beliefs or his ambiguity. There are no green-eyed Martians, no Men in Black with big guns, no laser shows, and no mother ships. "Contact" presents us with the possibility of intelligent life in other galaxies or stars namely Vega - Ellie makes contact with the signals but not with the life forms (unless the ending of the movie suggests otherwise). When the ship is built, there's controversy as to who should be sent aboard - a believer in God, or a non-believer like Ellie? If the universe reveals God doesn't exist, then where does civilization stand? If God does exist, should Ellie be the one to go for the 2001 ride through the cosmos?

"Contact" lumbers a bit with two needless subplots: the introduction of Matthew McConaughey as a religious scholar who has a brief affair with Ellie, and a bald Timothy Leary-like scientist (John Hurt) who has been supporting every move she makes. McConaughey appears and disappears too soon before he reappears in the last half of the film - his function is to let Ellie know that if she stands by her beliefs, she should not be travelling in space. However, I was struck by Ellie's decision in the first half not to speak to him after their affair - it seems McConaughey forgot they ever had one. The Hurt character also has little function except to imply he may have created all the mumbo jumbo about alien ship designs to Ellie just to get the ship built. Hurt's performance is too over-the-top for this film and he seems to have drifted in from "Even Cowgirls Get The Blues" minus the long fingernails.

Nevertheless, "Contact" works quite well for two reasons: Jodie Foster's strong, fully realized performance, and the credible, well-written script. Foster makes Ellie into an independent, vulnerable, tough-minded, no-nonsense heroine still harboring deep feelings for her father (David Morse) who passed away when she was young. Ellie's emotional clinging to her father is questioned by McConaughey at one point when she wants proof of God's existence:

   McConaughey: 'Did you love your father?

>   Ellie: 'Of course.'

>   McConaughey: 'Prove it.'

The screenplay by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg huffs and puffs frequently, providing as much information as possible. It is quite ambitious covering Ellie's place as a scientist and as an atheist, and her relationship with her father; the government and the rest of the free world's involvement in what may be a revolutionary moment in science or mere hocus pocus; the religious cults who try to take action against building an alien ship; and the final trip itself that may leave you thinking for days as to what is truth and where are the boundaries between time and space. The script is certainly well devised and constructed but as aforementioned, there are too many subplots that distract from Ellie's ascension or descent as an important scientist. I could live without director Robert Zemeckis's "Gump"-ist attitudes by digitally showing Bill Clinton's opinion of this alien contact. There also too many scenes of real-life CNN anchors commenting on the action - one or two would have been sufficient, but the whole staff? Ellie's hard-working staff is not given much screen time making it seem as if she's doing all the hard work alone.

"Contact" is clunky but it is still fine entertainment and briskly directed by Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump"). The opening sequence pulls back from earth through the galaxies, the stars and other planets hinting that something else might be out there while we hear various pop songs and then utter silence. It is eye-opening and breathtaking, including the last twenty minutes where Ellie makes her rickety voyage into space in an alien pod that will take her to, presumably, the alien designers. The film benefits greatly from the astounding supporting cast including Tom Skerritt as David Drumlin, a scientist who wants to go in the pod mission; James Woods as an edgy (what else?) National Security Advisor; and Angela Bassett as a straight-arrow debate official. It is really Jodie Foster who makes the movie her own - ambitious, stubborn, scrupulous, skeptical. Carl Sagan should be proud.

Copyright 1997 Jerry Saravia

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