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Contact, written by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg from the book by Carl Sagan, directed by Robert Zemeckis, 1997, 150 min.
Contact is a prestige movie, a vehicle for two Oscar winners, Jodie Foster and Robert Zemeckis, to prove their quality, and an adaptation of the bestselling novel by Carl Sagan. Unfortunately the sense of solid quality that the movie aims for degenerates into dullness and inconsistency over the course of its running time. One of the main problems is the adaptation of the source material. The movie changes many things about the book, which is to be expected, and even cheered for if the result makes for more exciting or interesting cinema. Unfortunately, every one of those changes either misunderstands Sagan's original story, exacerbates existing problems from the book, or adds hokey elements that are of the grating and conventional movie-making variety. The movie has not held up well!
Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) is an astronomer who believes in SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. We briefly see Ellie's childhood; her mother died in childbirth and she had a close relationship with her father until he died when she was ten. Now grown up, Ellie soldiers on in dedication to SETI despite contempt and blocked funding; one of her enemies is David Drumlin, who tells her that she is wasting her time. Early in the movie she meets Palmer Joss and they have a brief affair; he tells her he is "a man of the cloth without the cloth." She receives some funding from a mysterious benefactor, and she is vindicated when she and her team find a signal from the star system Vega, a signal that at first seems like a series of prime numbers. She sends the information about where to look to astronomers all over the world, a move that puts her in conflict with the American security apparatus. And when the signal is decoded, and the resulting schematics reveal a Machine that might take a passenger to an unknown location, she can't bring herself to lie and schmooze in the way that is required. Drumlin gets the nod as the first passenger. Will Ellie get a chance to go on a trip through the Machine? If so, what will she find there?
Unfortunately, the script for Contact got the Hollywood treatment, so there are lowbrow moments scattered throughout the movie. The scenes with the young Ellie, while performed and filmed competently, left me unmoved. The relationship between the adult Ellie and Palmer Joss also left me totally unconvinced. This relationship relies too heavily on the movie cliché of a fetishistic object passed back and forth between lovers at various critical junctures in the plot. He gives her a compass! Not very profound. It's lazy storytelling, passing up tough human drama (for which Contact does have the potential) for cheap symbolism. This movie is sometimes intelligent on the level of its science fiction ideas, but extremely corny with relationships. That's unfortunate, because had Zemeckis had the courage or ability to take the book further, rather than retreat, the movie would have been much more interesting than it is.
Jodie Foster performs well in the role of Ellie. But I didn't like the way she was ready to crumple into the protection of Joss, and I didn't like the way she let herself get pushed aside so often. This is a point of the story, but it reflects on her character in a way that makes the viewer like the movie less. The extremely condescending alien should have been met with some impudence, but apparently Ellie was incapacitated by the emotional cheapshot it pummeled her with by using her father's outward appearance. And that Ellie would fall for such a ridiculous cardboard cutout posing as a real character such as Palmer Joss... it leaves me less than moved.
When compared to the book, the movie generally suffers. The biggest change, of course, comes in the main theme of the story. The movie dumps the book's ending, and makes a "statement" about religion and science. They were probably trying to make a "bold statement" but it has been sanitized and faked up so badly that it does little to appeal to anyone. Most scientists would be mystified as how such a mishmash could be passed off as critical thinking and most religious people would be a little mystified as to how Joss could represent any kind of morally aware person. It's a case of trying to please everyone and pleasing no one in the end. Other changes make the movie more conventional, such as the death of Ellie's mother (who is alive in the book); the cliché of the absent mother is common enough in film that it doesn't have to be added when the original story doesn't call for it. Some changes that were made in an effort to streamline the story, such as giving the Machine room for only one passenger instead of five, succeeded, but then were promptly overbalanced by the addition of too many new and ridiculous plot threads like the romance with Palmer Joss.
The special effects department for this movie deserves many kudos. Many recent movies have gone over the top effects-wise, making special effects the star, and letting old-fashioned elements of movie-making like character, plot, dialogue, and so on, fall by the wayside. Examples include Spawn, Lost World, and the excruciatingly dull Speed 2. In Contact, Zemeckis uses effects wisely. Not always sparingly, but mostly in the service of plot and character development. This is exactly how it should be. The opening sequence was almost gorgeous, but more importantly, it made you wonder what was going to happen. It made you think. Zemeckis also blows stuff up very satisfyingly, like the destruction of the first Machine. And why is this sequence so effective? Unlike in the typical disaster movies, this destructive event is set up well, and emphasized by the relative lack of explosions in the rest of the movie. Ellie's journey through the Machine was also portrayed well, even though it is a direct steal from 2001 (as seems to happen with any movie depicting a trip through a wormhole).
DVD Note: Contact is available in a Special Edition DVD, which includes three commentary tracks (one by Jodie Foster, one that includes Robert Zemeckis, and a third by other contributors to the movie) and other extras like trailers and featurettes.
Also see the review of the book this movie was based on.
First posted: January 19, 1998; Last modified: February 13, 2004
Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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