[In honor of CONTACT's 25th anniversary on July 11, here is Mark's original review of that film.]
CAPSULE: The first contact with an alien race has a huge impact on society. We see that impact through the eyes of one woman who devoted her life to the search for extraterrestrial life. The film adaptation of Carl Sagan's CONTACT is in some ways a betrayal of Sagan's philosophy and has some hefty revisions to the book. Knowing that I would like to down-rate CONTACT, but I have to admit what remains is a substantial and intelligent film. CONTACT was produced by Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan, and that may be why so much of the film was on-track. While not perfect, it is the best science fiction film we have gotten in a good long time. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) 8 (0 to 10) Spoiler warning: there are minor spoilers in the main body and larger ones in the afterward.
Jodi Foster has obviously gotten a little more sanguine on science for gifted children since she directed and starred in LITTLE MAN TATE. That was the film in which she had a budding scientific prodigy saying "I am working on an experiment involving sulfuric acid, lasers, and butterflies." In CONTACT she plays one of those prodigies grown up in a film considerably more positive on science. This is the story of the career of the fictional Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Foster) who at an early age was bitten by the astronomy bug. Her mother died giving birth to her and her father, Ted (David Morse of THE CROSSING GUARD) instilled in her the love of science to devote her career to SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial life. The SETI project turns out to be professional suicide in the field of astronomy. But she feels compelled to listen to the sky and to search for signs of intelligent life. The career choice earns her no respect from her colleagues, and it makes life a constant set of battles for even minimal funding. Her chief nemesis and occasional boss David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), National Science Advisor to the President, who one way or another betrays her at every opportunity. A one-time lover and sometimes adversary is Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a failed priest who becomes a sort of Billy Graham figure. When funding has run out and Drumlin is forcing her off the Very Large Array, the huge radio telescope made of twenty-three dish antennae, in the desert of New Mexico, suddenly she hears a signal that can mean only an intelligent alien broadcast. This is a scene we have seen recently in INDEPENDENCE DAY and THE ARRIVAL, but never with the scientific verisimilitude that we have here. Arroway announces to the world that contact has been made and nothing is ever the same again.
The film takes off and continues at a high pace until the end. We start with a very believable picture of just what would happen if such an announcement were made. The National Security Advisor Michael Kitz (James Woods) struggles to take control of any information received from the aliens, so does Drumlin, each trying to get the ear of the President. (My credits list has Sidney Portier playing the President, but apparently in a last minute substitution they have William Clinton in the role. The film is, after all, directed by Robert Zemeckis who had several Presidents appearing in FORREST GUMP. It is sure to be a controversial piece of casting, but I think Clinton does a fine job as the President.) CONTACT is not just a political drama about the after-effects of contacting alien life in space. This is a long film that keeps going and going--almost three hours long--and if you have seen the trailer you will find that the science fiction content is certainly there if you wait for it. If you have read the book, you may be a bit disappointed, since there is far more science fiction content in the original story, but the film does not exactly remain earthbound either.
The opening sequence demonstrating for us how far into the galaxy our radio broadcasts have reached is both breath-taking and scientifically informative. The film is almost worth seeing just for that sequence. Other scenes are technically impressive, but a little nonsensical. In one tracking shot the camera leads Arroway running up a flight of stairs and into a bathroom and in the end we see we are seeing her in the medicine cabinet mirror and have been through the scene. There is enough good in CONTACT to make a film I would give very high marks to, and enough that is irritating for me to really down-rate it. Generally when that happens I try to excuse the faults. So while I thought there was much that was dishonest about CONTACT, overall I would have to give it a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale.
Visually you could not ask for a lot more from the film, with one major exception. While it is not chock full of special effects and the mattes of the Transporter seen from a distance are not convincing, the design of the Transporter is just about as believable as an interstellar transporter could be. The scenes of the Transporter running were stunning, and the journey was terrific though perhaps a little derivative of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Then she plops down at the far end and it is the "Oh, shoot!" experience. What a failure of imagination! It was like watching THE BLACK HOLE II.
There is so much that is right with this film and so much that is wrong, it is hard to know where to begin to evaluate the ideas. The film I would have liked to see is the one this would have been if Carl Sagan had not died during the production. I cannot be positive it would be different, but aspects of this film seem to run very counter to what I understand as Sagan's philosophy. Places where the book took chances and had some engaging thoughts about religion and faith have been reframed to change their meaning. Certainly false information would never have been added to the arguments in the film. (The film claims that 95% of the world's population believes in a Supreme Being. Actually about 21% of the world is atheist or non- religious and while there may be some who believe in a Supreme Being among the non-religious, there are certainly also atheists and agnostics who at least nominally belong to religions. This also makes the dubious assumption that Confucians and Shintoists believe in a Supreme Being. The 95% figure used in the film is wildly inaccurate.)
What I did find surprising was people in the audience getting angry because the "hero" of the film implied that she was either an atheist or an agnostic. She never tries to convince anyone to agree with her, she simply explains why she believes what she does. Other people punish her for her belief and nobody in the audience got (audibly) upset about that. Apparently with everything else this film does, it gets people agitated at its ideas. The novel actually had a nice piece looking at what could be a proof of the existence of God, while the film turns into an affirmation of religious faith in its final scenes. And Arroway complains that Drumlin tells the people what they want to hear about his views on religion!
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2022 Mark R. Leeper