Robert Zemeckis’ life-affirming, spiritually agnostic cousin to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Contact even shares Matthew McConaughey, whose career disappeared into a wormhole and, rather than eighteen hours, arrived reinvigorated seventeen years later. This is Zemeckis’ attempt at big, weighty science fiction, tackling serious themes in an adult manner, and it half works. Like Interstellar, his adaptation of Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel (originally devised as a screenplay) ultimately pulls its punches, dodging anything truly powerful, inspirational or insightful in favour of a non-committal, humanist shrug.
Interstellar found McConaughey bouncing around down the back of his daughter’s bookcase, a message from beyond reduced to the wholesome patness of familial connectivity. Contact does exactly the same thing with its grand finale, as Jodie Foster’s Dr Ellie Arroway is flung far across the universe to a psychedelic beach where she chinwags with aliens (or does she?) in the form of her much-missed father.
And what profound nuggets do these “aliens” hasten to impart? Bugger any: “In all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other”. Which is very convenient and reassuring for science, that there’s nothing remotely threatening to established doctrine out there. Sagan was agnostic about such things, which is fine for a theoretician, but for a writer of science fiction it reduces to a simple paucity of imagination.
Kubrick went for show don’t tell in 2001: A Space Odyssey, leaving it to the viewer to reach their own conclusions regarding obelisks and apes, Star Children and trippy light shows. Light shows Zemeckis homages with Ellie’s less spaced-out trip. Far more effective on a purely visual level is the opening pull back, once we reach beyond the Remembrance of the Daleks-like sound bites and into the silent vastness of space (what a thing to be accused of imitating: Sylvester McCoy era Doctor Who). Of course, then we emerge from the eye of Ellie as a child (Jena Malone, now a star in her own right).
This cycle of completion sums the film up, pretty much. You need watch no further. It’s a visual homily. We are within, we are without. Needless to say, there are less treacly ways of presenting such concepts (particularly with Alan Silvestri’s overtly sentimental score having a strong say in the matter). What we get is reductive, small, cosy, digestible. Not in the least bit challenging.
Palmer Joss: I’m not against technology, only the men who deify it at the expense of truth.
Of which, McC’s Palmer Joss, love interest and spiritual enquirer, pops up every half hour or so to lay out fairly rudimentary philosophical arguments that end up belying Contact’s conceit of being truly intelligent fare (he needs Occam’s Razor explained to him!) He’s too good to be true, and never really settles in as either a believable character or even just as a foil for Ellie. And McC, as fine as he and his wig are, hasn’t yet really grown into himself at this point. He’s still in the throes of that first blush of fame, a period that saw a run of major directors not-really making the most of him; here he’s a jock playing a smart guy. As a result, the discursion on the consequences of extra-terrestrial contact is more keenly played out elsewhere.
Ellie: I think it’s great that you listen. Most people don’t do that anymore.
When a priest offers young Ellie meaningless aphorisms regarding her father being in a better place now, she responds with materialist logic (“If his medicine had been downstairs, he wouldn’t have died”); that’s also the level the movie as a whole is working at, too designed to present polar arguments but with precious little nuance. Most of the dialogue is purloined from obvious student debating team subjects, such as life being out there (“If there wasn’t, it would be an awful lot of space”) and the relationship between spirit and material progress (“Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology?”)
Ellie: Because I can’t. I had an experience.
Alien-father David Morse essentially takes the position of the religious leader, converting Ellie to the cause; like a zealot he imparts knowledge that just is (the first step method of contact is “the way it’s been done for billions of years”) and she is left espousing to a committee of inquiry her unprovable faith that something happened.
Zemeckis crudely fashions this such that Ellie, the scientist, may as well be testifying to belief in God or the state of being Born Again. She’s a true believer, relaying inclusive emotive doctrine for all regarding “how rare and precious we all are”, that there is something out there greater than ourselves, none of us is alone and how, like a fundamentalist door stepper “I wish I could share that”. I don’t doubt it was seen as a clever reversal by the makers, but it’s a little too elementally insincere, like everything here. By laying out it’s subject matter on the surface this way, Contact becomes inelegant, despite the veneer of classiness and diligence Zemeckis brings to the production. As Kitz quips, “That’s very neat, doctor. You have no proof because they didn’t want you to have any”. It’s the closest the picture gets to a meta-statement of the makers’ intent. It means that, for all its clinging tightly to an emotional core, Contact is actually quite offhand and remote.
Ellie: Mathematics is the only true, universal language, senator.
That’s not to denigrate what Contact gets right. James Woods’ senator Kitz is immediately at loggerheads over Ellie announcing the contact to the world as it “may constitute a breach of national security”. Rob Lowe’s conservative Christian is most concerned that “We don’t even know if they believe in God”, and the exploration of the effect on accepted values – even disregarding the spiritual-cosmic as the picture ultimately does – incorporates worthwhile scrutiny of rigid belief systems and how they would surely be rocked by such developments, both in the material and religious communities.
The crowds camped out at the dishes are accompanied by a very post-Forrest Gump Zemeckis medley of such thematically selected tunes as Purple People Eater and Spirit in the Sky, and include whackos with amusing banners (“Hitler lives on Vega”) but the sequence also gives us our first taste of Jake Busey’s religious nutter. Nominally, he’s a villain, but his desire to remain in a state of ignorant bliss (we have to have this spelled out, of course; “What if they simply revealed that He never existed in the first place?”) proves to be Ellie’s salvation, so really he’s a good guy, taking down Tom Skerritt’s outrageously career-advancing Drumlin (who snatches the credit, and trip to see the aliens, from Ellie’s grasp having initially nixed her funding).
It isn’t only the religious who have a bone to pick; making the machine becomes “The most expensive human project in the whole of history” (that’s why secret space programmes require black budgets!) We witness the vested and not-so-vested interests on all sides, and the screenplay from James V Hart and Michael Goldenberg is diligent in addressing the hows and whyfores whereby such an event wouldn’t necessarily be all rainbows and roses.
Director: Ellie, the IPV dropped straight through the machine. You didn’t go anywhere.
As a piece of filmmaking too, glacially paced but incrementally engrossing, Zemeckis’ film is hard to beat. From the terrific harmonic sound effects down, albeit perhaps a little to reminiscent of the probe in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the picture manages to communicate the sense of a world pregnant with discovery, the idea of something vast and impressive and palpable knocking at the door.
Many of the twists and turns are supremely satisfying. The swastika pull back into a transmission of Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics is a chilling and striking one, amusingly put in context by Kitz when he suggests that, rather than “Hello, we heard you”, it means “Sieg Heil, You’re our kind of people”. The 3D communication of the capsule design is a cute reveal too, as is the post-journey deconstruction of what Ellie actually experienced (2001 after the acid burns out), including a public dressing down to conceal that the authorities knew full well the veracity of her evidence (the eighteen hours of static video footage, although Zemeckis, hedging his bets, and so firming up the film’s cosy introspection, said the intent was leave doubt as to whether the aliens were real). And the visuals are stunning, from Ellie in the foreground of a satellite array to the CGI-assisted star trekking to the too-late rush to the bathroom cabinet.
Palmer Joss: Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?
Foster’s first film in three years, her “High Priestess of the Desert” is very much in the line of Clarice Starling, a character uncomfortable in her own skin, permanent caught in a state of earnest sincerity. Ellie’s not really all that interesting, though; the daddy issues thing as a spur to discovery is unpersuasive, and one is left comparing the “Why?” of Ellie with the intuitive Roy Neary; consequently, she comes up short. Ellie wants answers, but Close Encounters of the Third Kind is content to leave us on an instinctive yen and the tantalising prospect of unknowable post-credits discoveries, illustrative that, even compared to Spielberg rather than Kubrick, Contact lacks magic.
John Hurt shows up as the Hannibal Lecter figure, a British supporting player offering words of encouragement from his own private cell at crucial junctures. Tom Skerritt is great as the charming-but-ruthless curse on her career. It’s William Fichtner who gives the standout turn, though, as Ellie’s blind SETI scientist pal, even if the role isn’t really all that.
By far the weakest element of the picture, and the most awkward and aggravating supporting performance, is then-President Bill Clinton, with Zemeckis indulging Gump-esque tinkering to overlay the impeachable one’s commentary on events into the narrative. It’s one-part liberal fantasy of a benevolent leader (yeah, right), one part being in thrall to technology. Together, it’s plain annoying, indulgent and ill-fitting.
Hart and Goldenberg have experienced mixed success in the screenplay department, the latter contributing to the 2003 Peter Pan and one of four unable to salvage The Green Lantern. Hart, who also petered Pan in the dreadful Hook, has maintained a vaguely philosophical theme to much of his work (Well, perhaps not Sahara), including Epic and the terrific The Last Mimzy. He’s currently collaborating with David Wilcock, thrashing out a screenplay for a movie set to explore our transition to the next density of existence by way of blowing the lid off the damn mysterious secret space programme.
Which sounds interesting, but these things have a tendency to become stranded in development hell. It would at least be a polar opposite approach to Contact, in which Drumlin maintains there will never be contact in her lifetime, or at best there are only noble gases out there, and Ellie’s experience boils down to a confirmed “maybe”. Now we’ll find there’s a monumental cover up, one not even most of NASA knows about, that there are aliens on the moon, in the Earth, and that Nazis had spaceships and bases on Mars. All they need is Doc Savage as their main character to foster a global box office monster.
Although, a few elements in Contact might be seen as precursors to such a project, including covert space programmes (the second building of an ICP), early rumblings about the radar array (some dark military purpose, the locals think), the dovetailing of a swastika with space (the Nazis got there first!) and the idea of master builders (“We didn’t build it. We don’t know who did” alien Dad tells Ellie of the wormhole/transport, which is a cop-out if ever there was one).
Contact essentially occupies the same alien contact territory as any number of afterlife/near death experience movies in contemplating what happens next (including What Dreams May Com, the year after Contact), only able to commit as far as the author is willing to take their imagination or philosophical leanings. It ends up feeling very safe, despite the vast expense and trappings of limitless exploration. The result is too self-consciously scientific, while simultaneously mawkish, pseudo-philosophical and indulgently verbose. But, it is also sporadically dazzling, and it does a fair job of making science nerds heroes (well the main one, the support aren’t all that).
Contact followed Zemeckis’ Oscar glory with Forrest Gump, and it’s easy to now see a dividing line in his career, where he went from engaged and alert to rather staid and predictable. Nothing since, not his bids for further awards recognition (Castaway) and certainly not his motion capture detour, have been on a par with his ’80s zenith. Contact had been a long time in the making; it was at various points a go with Roland Joffe and George Miller (who was fired). It cost a lot ($90m) and made less than double that worldwide, so it certainly wasn’t a success to write home about for Warner Bros. There’s a much to be said for those desirous of making serious sci-fi, but Contact and Interstellar both exhibit the tendency to get cold feet, to retreat into the soothing zone of emotional massaging rather than facing down the infinite abyss of the ideas themselves.