Contact (1997), directed by Robert Zemeckis

The one great science-fiction plot is of "first contact." Other great SF movies, such as the various Star Wars and Star Trek movies are little more than westerns or medieval quest movies in futuristic garb. Others mix the "contact" plot with other genres: see Men in Black and Independence Day. The true contact film is something like The Day the Earth Stood Film, 2001, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and to a lesser extent, E.T.). Humanity encounters an intelligent alien civilization which is not hostile, simply foreign. Contact follows this formula (one hesitates to call it a formula since it has been used in so few films), but does not overwhelm as its predecessors did.

Contact is based on the Carl Sagan novel of the same name, and corresponds fairly closely to the original. There is some simplification, of course, especially the ending. Where Sagan provides a proof for intelligent life elsewhere in the Solar System, Zemeckis gives us a new-agey "ya gotta have faith" ending in the spirit of his last film (Forrest Gump, if you've forgotten).

The cast is both varied and (mostly) appropriate. Jodie Foster is perfectly cast as Dr. Ellie Arroway, combining brilliance with insecurity. I cold not imagine a better performance. As her antagonists, Tom Skerritt (as Dr. David Drumlin) and James Woods (as National Security Advisor Michael Kitz) are just as ideal. Skerritt has the ability to remain an attractive figure while portraying a patronizing jerk. Woods is Hollywood's favorite villain of the moment, and he is well-used here. Rather than being a simple-minded reactionary, he is motivated here by real fears and doubts, and in the end, by righteous anger. His attack of Ellie in the end (during a public hearing) is both terrifying and fascinating. William Fichtner, in a supporting role as a scientist, is also very good, and bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Carl Sagan.

Unfortunately, Matthew McConaughey as religious leader Palmer Joss is less than ideal. Based on Sagan's novel, the role calls for a figure more cerebral and charismatic than simply physically attractive. Now I do admit that McConaughey is more palatable than prettyboys such as Tom Cruise and Chris O'Donnell, but this role calls for a performer whom you can see thinking: imagine Andre Braugher or Harvey Keitel. Someone older, perhaps, than McConaughey. Not his fault, of course, is the fact that the role seems underwritten and simplified from Sagan's original vision. Angela Bassett is also the victim of underwriting. She is almost invisible, appearing briefly in a couple of scenes, but disappearing into the background. Why not be daring and cast her as the president (in Sagan's novel, the president is a woman). Zemeckis, however, shows off digital animation by using the president's image and voice. Why? It seems unrealistic, and is rather pointless, as all of the other characters are fictional anyway. Also, I think films should declare a moratorium on the use of real-life media celebrities in films. Just about the entire staff of CNN appears in Contact, as does Jay Leno (who is in more movies than Steve Buscemi these days).

The production design and special effects are first rate, particularly Ellie's ride through the Cosmos. Sure, it may be reminiscent of 2001, but come on, if you're gonna steal, steal from the best! Surprisingly, the weakest link of the film was that of the score. While Alan Silvestri's music was the best part of Forrest Gump, far outweighing that films many weaknesses, here Silvestri's music is a detriment, sapping from its strengths. While this film calls for awe and wonder one finds in the scores of John Williams or James Horner, here we get sentimental feel-good music. Bleah.

Contact is a good film, not a great one. Perhaps it was the original material which is the film's greatest fault. I'd like to see some capable filmmakers get hold of classic "first contact" novels such as Arthur C. Clarke's Rendevous with Rama and Childhood's End, and Larry Niven's The Mote in God's Eye, possibly the finest "contact" novel ever written.

Copyright 1997 by Dale G. Abersold