An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Contact (1997)
- Credit: Archant
Spectacle counts for a lot these days but films that tell a good story with engaging characters can often provide a more rewarding experience. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
Contact; dir: Robert Zemeckis; starring Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Angela Bassett, Rob Lowe. (1997) Cert: PG
When Contact was released in the summer of 1997, it was a film reaching out into the void, trying to find an audience. It was warmly received by critics but audience were decidedly unimpressed. Regardless of the fact that it was one of the most engaging, heart-warming, thought-provoking movies of the year, it wasn’t blockbuster fodder.
The problem with releasing a movie like Contact in blockbuster season is that it isn’t stuffed full of aliens, spectacular spacecraft and breath-taking laser battles and so audiences feel short-changed.
Based on a best-selling book by scientist Carl Sagan, it makes a nice companion piece to Steven Speilberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s a story about humanity communicating with an alien intelligence on the far side of galaxy rather than extra-terrestrials invading Planet Earth and zapping The White House.
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The film may have its sights set on the stars but it’s real emotional action is within our own hearts and minds as leading research scientist Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) belatedly coming to terms with the early death of her father and how that affects her attempts to reach out to the heavens.
This is a film where we don’t see aliens, intelligent life beyond our solar system contact us through mathematical codes after they detect radio signals and television transmissions being beamed out into the depths of space.
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Foster’s Dr Arroway spends much of the film crouched over a lap-top next to an array of radio-telescopes in the New Mexico desert trying to decipher the seemingly random codes she is picking up from a distant star.
There may be no invading spaceships but there is space travel of a kind. As the film (and Sagan’s novel) makes clear, interstellar travel is a wasteful, time-consuming business. Why not transmit the blue-prints of a travel mechanism instead and if the species who finds it is clever enough to decode the plans and advanced enough to build it then they are clearly someone worth talking to.
In part, this is what the film is about but the conflict and drama, necessary elements in any story, are supplied when religion and politics rear their ugly heads. Ellie’s, sometime lover and fellow research scientist Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) becomes a born-again preacher after they drifted apart.
Ellie naively wants first contact with an alien intelligence to be a pure science project, McConaughey’s Palmer Joss wants to add religious overtones and project boss Tom Skerritt has funding responsibilities and so finds himself cowed by the demands of Capital Hill; in particular, the opportunistic James Woods who plays one of President Clinton’s advisors.
Thanks to the wonders of digital cloning Bill Clinton is lifted from various real-life press conferences and inserted in the film to give the illusion that he made a cameo in the movie.
His appearance does give the religious and political battle a sense of reality and makes it more than just a gimmick. This may not be a popcorn movie like Independence Day but it does grab your attention and engage your heart and mind.
The battle of wills between the various camps, deciding who should make the journey, keep the film entertaining but Zemeckis also dares to ask some big questions about life, us as people and as a species, even queries the existence of God.
It is a very unusual but highly rewarding film – a movie which defies expectations at every turn but gives you something infinitely better in return. I won’t spoil the last part of the movie but there is some form of travel involved but it may not be what we think of as space travel in a Star Wars or Star Trek sense.
Contact is the sort of film you can revisit time and time again and always find something new to think about. I suspect, this is a film that should never have been released as a summer blockbuster regardless of the big budget, impressive special effects and its science fiction setting.
It may be looking out to the stars but the main action takes place inside our heads.