Monday 8 August 2016

Movie Review: Contact (1997)

A science drama, Contact is an intelligent story about the passion to search for a connection with alien beings, and the implications once the unthinkable becomes true.

As a young girl, Ellie Arroway (Jena Malone) was encouraged to pursue astronomy by her father Ted (David Morse). The grown up Ellie (Jodie Foster) graduated from MIT and developed a passion for seeking signals transmitted by aliens. While on assignment at an observatory in Puerto Rico, Ellie establishes a rapport with fellow scientist Kent Clark (William Fichtner), and has a brief but passionate affair with Christian philosopher Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey). The Puerto Rico assignment is eventually shut down by National Science Foundation Director David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), who does not believe that searching for alien signals is worthwhile research.

Ellie finds private funding through the Hadden Corporation, led by the extremely rich but dying tycoon S.R. Hadden (John Hurt), and establishes her team at the Very Large Array (VLA) of massive listening satellite dishes in New Mexico. After months of effort Ellie stumbles onto a signal transmitted from the Vega star system. Her discovery unleashes a global frenzy, with the White House getting involved in the form of Chief of Staff Rachel Constantine (Angela Bassett) and National Security Advisor Michael Kitz (James Woods). Then Ellie's team uncovers more: the alien signal contains a coded message and reams of advanced data including the blueprints for an advanced, massive machine.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis and based on the novel by celebrated astronomer Carl Sagan, Contact is a spiritual successor to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Although neither as fantastical as Kubrick's epic nor as fuzzy as Spielberg's opus, Contact brings its own attitude to the search for intelligent life: a science-first stance, a willingness to take a pragmatic look at how politics will interfere with any major discovery, and a deliberate eagerness to delve into the debate about the role of religion when the time comes for human interaction with another species.

The film excels at maintaining a clear-headed, science-based perspective through the eyes of Ellie, including the frustrating chase for funds, clashes with superiors, disappointing initiatives that lead to nothing, and long hours, days and years of research sustained only by hope and belief that a breakthrough must be just around the next frequency.

And when contact is made and Ellie shakes the world with her discovery, Zemeckis takes his time to capture the frenzied reaction. From President Clinton (masterfully weaved into the film) and his army of White House suits to religious zealots, and passing through the journalists and talking heads on the cable news networks and Chevrolet Vega enthusiasts, the world will react to alien communications in unpredictable ways, and Contact imagines the outpouring of emotion and insanity with plenty of colour.

Some parts of the film don't work as well. There is a serious sabotage incident that appears far-fetched and ultimately neither adds to nor deletes from the story. As the machine is being built at enormous cost, Zemeckis dials back the curiosity factor and does not even attempt to explain how it may be expected to work. And the personal scenes between Ellie and Palmer too conveniently and quickly devolve into a complicated relationship that mirrors the tension between her science and his religious philosophy.

Jodie Foster is at the core of the drama, and allows Ellie to not only be a bright and fiercely determined scientist, but also a human being with faults. She has to check her anger and attitude at meetings, and is too honest when it matters least. As Sagan intended, Ellie carries with her the struggle of women scientists to stand alongside the men, and more than once Ellie has to swallow her pride and plan a recovery after men brutishly shove their interests ahead of her rights. The supporting cast is adequate, but none of the men around Ellie achieve much depth.

The film ends with a journey sequence driven by spectacular special effects, and a conclusion built on sober reflection. The search for evidence finds belief and the intrinsically faithful find evidence. The quest to find answers will continue, built on advancements measured simultaneously in light years and milliseconds.

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