Contact

on July 11, 1997 by Christine James
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"Get some of that Hollywood money," suggests Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) to her colleagues regarding possible funding sources for their SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) investigations. "They've been making millions off of aliens for years."
   True to that wryly winking comment, "Contact" should also generate some big numbers, thanks to an intelligent, thoughtful and well-developed script by James V. Hart and Steve Starkey (adapted from the Carl Sagan novel) and a strong performance from Foster as a driven young scientist who has devoted her life to searching the airwaves for signals from space. But don't expect "ID4"/"MIB" boxoffice; after all, there are no slime-gushing assassinations, and but one explosion. The dramatic elements and philosophical rather than pyrotechnic nature will preclude mass-market appeal, but the film should still draw from most demographics, given the fact that it spans the sci-fi, drama, comedy, romance, suspense/thriller and fantasy/adventure genres.
   The film opens with an entrancing sequence that takes the audience backwards through space, from our planet through our galaxy, passing through asteroid debris and nebulous gases on our journey. Each planet becomes infinitesimally small as we pull further and further back to reveal millions upon millions of solar systems.
   The incomprehensible vastness of space is the lifelong consuming passion of our "alien"ated protagonist. Orphaned at 9, Ellie's always felt alone; she's further isolated by the fact that her field of expertise tends to incite the ridicule of the scientific community. Ellie has met with a lot of hardships, and the emotional scars are close to the surface. But she's so fervent about her goals that she's resolutely toughened herself against all adversity. Her aggressiveness, while off-putting to some, impresses a deep-pocketed corporation enough to fund her work after her former sponsor, the egomaniacal, short-sighted David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), pulls the plug on her project.
   With expensive satellite equipment at her disposal, Ellie spends her days in the desert, obsessively listening for "order among the chaos," some discernable signal amid the perennial space static.
   And one day, miraculously, her efforts pay off. Originating from a distant galaxy, a series of mathematically-patterned sounds are soon discovered to contain TV and audio signals and a schematic for a mysterious machine. A magical awe and sense of significance is fully and excitingly conveyed with each revelation.
   This discovery incites mayhem among the masses, with thousands converging on the desert site--some to celebrate, some to predict the end of the world. Zealots fear that people are embracing E.T.s in place of God, and that pursuing contact can only have apocalyptic results.
   Amid the emotional tumult Ellie is experiencing, out of her past steps Palmer Joss (an occasionally overly-charming Matthew McConaughey), an easygoing, philosophical spiritualist who's now the president's religious adviser. He's also a renowned author who writes in a non-proselytizing manner on the subject of God and faith. Aside from his role as the love interest, the point of Palmer's character seems to be to draw a parallel between the spiritual and the scientific, though the results are not entirely successful. (It's put forth that atheistic Ellie's pursuit of her work requires a faith similar to the general populace's faith in God; however, this supposition ignores the fact that she indeed has scientific proof of her beliefs.) More to the point is the assertion that belief in either God or aliens is a way of feeling like we're not alone in the universe.
   Unlike so many alien-themed movies, "Contact" doesn't disappoint (at least not entirely) with regard to showing us some outer space, outtasight sights. Some fantastic special effects are imaginatively used to take us on an incredible interspacial tour. But ultimately, we can only glimpse at the unknown, and it's implied that we aren't ready to be made fully aware of the wonders of the universe. This is a trite way of getting out of being creative enough to create an alien world that can live up to sustained scrutiny.
   But it's the drama unfolding on earth that is the greater focus of the filmmakers. The reaction to history's greatest discovery is militantly divided, and there is some astute commentary made on how such news would affect the world. There's also a cynical but accurate depiction of the sort of crass politics that would likely come into play, in which a bidding war erupts over who will win the contract to build the trillion-dollar device whose blueprints were "faxed from space."
   At two-and-a-half hours, "Contact" is never tiresome and is well-paced with humor, humanity, and electrifyingly ascending momentum. Starring Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey and Tom Skerritt. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg. Produced by Robert Zemeckis and Steve Starkey. A Warner Bros. release. SF/Drama. Rated PG for some intense action, mild language and a scene of sensuality. Running time: 150 min
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