Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"Contact" (1997)

Starring Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey and Tom Skerrit
Written by James Hart and Michael Goldenberg
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

This will likely be something of an exhaustive review, so bear with me, please.

I first saw "Contact" sometime in 1998 or 1999, on home video instead of during its theatrical run.  At the time of its release, I wasn't terrifically interested in the kind of story that it had to tell.  Eventually, I watched it more out of boredom than curiosity, renting it from the local library (and feeling pretty good about not having to pay to watch it).  At the time, it didn't particularly blow me away, but I came away with a positive impression of it.

Over time, I would catch bits and pieces of it on TV and always at least stop to watch a few minutes of it.  When I came across the blu-ray release on Netflix, I added it, but kept it at the bottom of the queue until I noticed that, thanks to Starz (god bless the agreement between Starz and Netflix, really) it was available online for streaming and tonight I decided to sit down and give it a full viewing once more.

This time, undeniably, I am blown away by this film.  Just as I wrote in my review for "Back to the Future," I'm amazed at the level of detail gone into the construction of the world of "Contact."  Through casting, script, production design and direction, "Contact" creates a viable facsimile of our own world, circa 1997, and posits the idea that humanity has received a signal from the stars.

Jodie Foster stars as Dr. Ellie Arroway, an astronomer/physicist working with the SETI program (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence).  Ellie is a woman who, despite her brilliance, is rather unable to form lasting relationships with people.  Her mother died in childbirth, and her father died when she was only about ten years old.  Ellie grows up driving herself to look for answers, answers with proof, after a priest fails to console her over her father's death.  Eventually she ends up at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, where she meets the intriguing Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a religious man researching a book on the effects of technology on third-world countries.  The two share a brief fling, and are quite drawn to each other, but Ellie can't commit to him like she can to her work.

Soon thereafter, her funding is cut by raging egomaniac Dr. David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) who believes that science should always be put to practical or profitable use.  Ellie and her team manage to scrounge up funding to lease time on the Very Large Array in New Mexico from the US Government, thanks to wealthy and mysterious industrialist Mr. Hadden (an almost unrecognizable John Hurt).  After years of unremarkable searching, Ellie finally finds it: her team receives a signal from intelligent life in another star system; specifically, Vega, a system some 26 light years from Earth.

Immediately, the ramifications of this discovery come into play.  The government clamps down on what had been a private, civilian operation.  National Security Adviser Michael Kitz (a typically douchey James Woods) arrives on the scene and demands answers.  Soon the discovery deepens, as Ellie and her team discover more layers to the signal, which include massive amounts of data - instructions on how to build a device, a machine beyond anything humanity has ever constructed before.  They discover the device is likely a manner of transportation, a way to go to Vega and meet these aliens face to face.  The decision is made to construct the device, and to select a person to go on the mission to meet extra-terrestrials for the first time.

Now, this is just the most basic description of the plot that I can give for "Contact."  The reality is that this film is much more complicated than any simple story about humanity building a ship to go meet aliens.  "Contact" is one of the few sci-fi films out there that dedicates itself to exploring the spiritual and religious and philosophical and political ramifications of receiving a signal from outer space.  It is here that the extraordinary detail that I spoke of earlier comes into play.

The film becomes about the battle between science and religion, pitting people of reason against people of faith.  There are people who want to push forward, boldly, believing that a new era of great adventure is upon the human race.  There are those who are fearful, who wonder if this is just some ploy the aliens are playing to somehow bring about our destruction or subjugation.  There are those who wonder if those aliens believe in god.  And there are those who see the whole thing as a blasphemy, a blight upon the great work of creation by God, a temptation of false idols.

Jake Busey plays a small, but critical role as a radical preacher turned terrorist.  He's one of those scripture-spouting, wrath of god evangelists, and the most dangerous kind of those: the kind that is willing to kill and to destroy in order to make a point.  He pops up several times in the film, and Zemeckis gravitates toward him, but Busey is just one small piece of this massive puzzle.  Elsewhere, Rob Lowe has a small cameo as a conservative politician who can't dream of wanting to meet an alien race that doesn't share his religious views.

Lowe's and Busey's viewpoints are tempered by McConaughey's Palmer Joss, who acts as both a foil and romantic interest for Ellie.  This is one of the few roles where I haven't felt that McConaughey comes across like a smarmy tool.  He delivers his lines with conviction, and gives a performance that feels real through its understatement.  Ultimately, though, it's what he has to say that is most interesting about him.  Palmer is a man of great intellect, perhaps not matching Ellie's in terms of scientific knowledge, but in understanding.  While Ellie is a woman of science, Palmer is a man of faith.  The script smartly uses these two characters to illuminate one idea: that science and religion are not mutually exclusive. 

Like the script for "Back to the Future," nothing that happens in this movie simply happens and is then forgotten about.  Every piece of dialogue and the appearance of every character has an ultimate purpose (I suppose that might make Zemeckis god in some sense, here, and his divine plan is on display).  Palmer speaks of an emotional experience he once had, the moment when he first realized that there was a god.  Ellie is skeptical, as is her nature, and challenges him to prove it.  The journey that Ellie undergoes throughout the film leads her to a place where she has a similar experience.  Things Ellie's father said to her as a child come back around during her time meeting with the aliens to have greater meaning. 

Once Ellie undertakes her incredible journey into space, via the machine planned by aliens and constructed by man (the alien signal and its subsequent deluge of data might be analogous to the word of god coming to prophets and written in the bible) the revelation to her is extraordinary.  She speaks about suddenly awakening and being part of something larger than herself, not feeling alone, and having hope.  These, she realizes, are the same things Palmer has been speaking about, and her experience mirrors his in a very profound and fundamental way.  The only difference is that one is god and one is aliens, but the experience is interchangeable. 

Perception and reflection are not only key to the themes of the film, but also to its visual language.  Director Zemeckis uses a lot of video monitors and mirrors to frame his characters.  In one particularly noteworthy shot, young Ellie runs up the stairs and down the hall to get medicine for her dying father, and we track with her until she suddenly enters the frame from the other side and we see we're looking into a bathroom mirror.  It's hard to describe, but visually striking.  Zemeckis is not a flashy director; he's not whipping the camera about like Michael Bay.  Instead, he's meticulous, constructing his narrative slowly, moving logically from A to B to C.  There are a number of news broadcasts littered throughout the film, as well, which help create that detailed wold I was talking about.  President Bill Clinton appears via special effects, real video footage of him, composited into shots of the cast on CNN, while much of the actual on-air staff of CNN at the time appears in the movie in shot footage.

 He elicits solid performances from his excellent, expansive cast as well.  Foster does a good job making Ellie somewhat socially awkward, borne of her frustration over people who can't seem to see the same logic she can.  Her enthusiasm for science is palpable, and her awe during her galactic journey is spot-on.  Tom Skerrit's Drumlin is a total douche, and you kind of wonder why Ellie doesn't just pop him one after all the stunts he pulls stealing her thunder.  James Woods does his usual paranoid asshole, and while it's not outside his particular range, he does a great job with it.  The movie is not only populated by real life figures such as Larry King and Jay Leno, as the aforementioned Jake Busey and Rob Lowe are joined by Angela Bassett as an adviser to the president.  Character actors like Tucker Smallwood and the always excellent William Fichtner also appear.  John Hurt appears as industrialist Hadden, balding and dying of cancer, and delivers a creepy and yet somehow genuine performance. 

The film's visual effects are quite excellent.  The opening shot, which begins at planet Earth and then tracks through the solar system, across the galaxy, and then out into the universe is excellent, and overlaid TV and radio broadcasts getting older the farther we go is stunning.  Ellie's journey through a series of wormholes in her small craft is a thrilling sort of update on Kubrick's "2001," with stops along the way to let us awe at the wonders of the universe.

"Contact" is a fascinating exploration of the ramifications of making first contact with aliens.  The varied responses from different facets of society are explored, but the focus is squarely on science vs religion.  As McConaughey's character states, the two may have different methods but the goal is the same: the search for truth.  The truth about "Contact" is that it's a meticulously constructed sci-fi drama exploring the arguments of both sides, and realizing that they're not as diametrically opposed as we may have originally thought, framing its thesis around emotional events for its characters.  It's thought-provoking sci-fi, with an intelligent script and a wonderfully detailed view of the world.

The sci-fi nerd in me cries out for a sequel, to see Ellie's journey validated, to learn more about the aliens and their intergalactic transit system, and the other worlds populating this particular fictional universe.  But the rest of me knows that a sequel could never approach these themes again.