Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle


Grade : A+ Year : 1997 Director : Robert Zemeckis Running Time : 2hr 30min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

In the 20 years since I first watched Robert Zemeckis’s “Contact,” my views on the subjects that collide in this film- politics, science and religion- have evolved, then solidified into ideas that are on stronger intellectual and emotional footing than they were when I was coming up on my 20th birthday. And while I greatly admired the film then, my ideas of science fiction filmmaking, and what it was capable of, have evolved, as well. In 1997, I was predominantly about space operas and spectacle. Now, thanks to this and other films (in particular, “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”), I’m far more intrigued, and thrilled, by the intellectual and spiritual gifts sci-fi has to bestow than mere spectacle. This is a big reason why I feel it is so important to expand ones horizons when it comes to cinema, but also, to revisit films from your past- you never know how it’ll hit you again down the road, as you grow into the person you become.

When Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” came out, “Contact” was a film that immediately came to mind. Both films deal with theoretical scientific concepts in a matter that gets to the heart of the exploration of the universe. In addition, both films star Matthew McConaughey, although it’s interesting that in the 17 years in between the films, he goes from playing one type of character, a man of faith who is skeptical of science, to playing the same type of character Jodie Foster played in “Contact,” a person devoted to science, who takes a journey into the unknown when a path is presented to mankind to deeper understanding of the cosmos. In “Interstellar,” it was necessary for survival; in “Contact,” it was in the search of life off of our Earth. Both films are built upon real scientific principles, which is a big part of their appeal, but they also deal in matters of the heart. I think Nolan cuts deeper with his, while Zemeckis, who was following up his saccharine Best Picture winner, “Forrest Gump,” went full four-hankie weepie picture. Both, though, deal with a legacy of scientific thought and wonder passed from father to daughter, and it’s compelling to consider these films in conjunction with one another.

Based on the book by Carl Sagan, who passed away during the making of “Contact,” Zemeckis’s film starts with Ellie Arroway (played by Foster as an adult, and Jena Malone as a child) having her scientific itch scratched by her father (David Morse), who started her off young. Her mother having died in childbirth, Ellie is stimulated by the notion of reaching out beyond man’s current capabilities, and that curiosity continues long after her father dies of a heart attack when she is nine, leading to us first meeting her at a satellite in Puerto Rico as a SETI researcher. After the government pulls her grant, she is forced to find outside funding, and gets it from an eccentric billionaire (John Hurt) to use the Very Large Array in New Mexico with her team. It is in her fourth year in New Mexico when she finally finds a real sign in the form of an audio transmission that ends up carrying a lot more information than we expect. The government swoops in immediately, with science adviser David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) and National Security Adviser Michael Kitz (James Woods) each jockeying for position when it comes to Ellie’s discovery- David taking credit for it, while Kitz coming at it from a security standpoint. Among the transition’s contents are plans for a machine for us to build that would appear to hold a single person. Then the question arises, who will go?

The bulk of the film’s religious themes stem from the question of who will represent mankind in the machine, although it starts off earlier than that. From the second McConaughey’s Palmer Joss, a man of the cloth, but not a practicing priest, enters the film, Ellie is confronted by the “big questions,” but from a different angle. They go to bed together, and will not meet again until after Ellie has received her message from the stars. After that happens, the debate becomes one of science vs. religion. When 95% of the world believes in some form of higher power, should an atheist like Ellie really be the one to represent Earth in our first encounter with aliens? Or, should someone well-versed in the language the message came in go to better communicate with “them?” Others, still, have deeper questions about the theological implications of this message. A member of a Christian lobbying group (Rob Lowe) wonders about the morality of these beings (understandable as the message is coded into the first TV broadcast sent into space, which was the ’36 Olympic games overseen by Hitler), while another man of faith (Jake Busey) sees the discovery as a sign of scientific arrogance over God, and acts accordingly. Then, there is Palmer Joss, who is very much in the middle. He has taken to studying science in terms of how it co-mingles with questions of faith, and he is the only one really qualified to be able to challenge Ellie and her beliefs on this discovery. Joss is not a complicated character, but nobody in the film, written by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg is, but he is a good counterpoint to Ellie, and gives her an emotional narrative that is important when she is afforded the chance to go into the machine by fate.

As sentimental as it can get, Zemeckis’s film has held true, and gotten deeper, with age. I feel like a big part of that is because of real world events, and a re-ignition of the debate between scientific explanations of the universe and religious ones that has seemed to deepen in the past 20 years. However, I would also argue that the central ideas, and how Zemeckis presents them, have shown themselves to be resilient and stand up to not just the rigors of time, but in comparison to other intellectual sci-fi films in the intervening years. “Interstellar” is certainly a favorable comparison, but also this past year’s “Arrival,” which is another film about an alien contact that results in a profound emotional moment for the woman at the center of it, “The Fountain” (where faith and science intertwine again, this time in a less-straightforward manner), and Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.,” which is not about aliens but is about an emotional journey to find peace when a loved one leaves you. This film would not work, however, were it not for Jodie Foster as Ellie. Though all the actors shine, this is Foster’s film, and it’s arguably one of her most undervalued performances. She is playing a smart woman who may not have religious faith, but does have faith in her scientific reasoning, and an understanding of a big personal moment when she has it. The final shot of the film, of Ellie looking out over a canyon, aware of the possibilities that exist beyond Earth, is the perfect conclusion to the journey she has been on in the film. Zemeckis makes it as heartfelt and imaginative as he can, and the result may be one of his best films.

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