Movies about contact with extraterrestrial aren’t all that unusual these days. It seems like every week there’s another bunch of E.T.s, Aliens, and Bug Eyed Monsters from outer space running, gliding or oozing across our multiplex screens. However, there’s something that makes Contact, based on the story by Carl Sagan, a bit more worthwhile than most others. It has depth.
Not that there’s necessarily anything new about the basic plot – elements of it have been seen before in such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey (alien artifact provides doorway to other world), Stargate (ditto), Red Planet Mars (alien radio message causes turmoil on Earth), and This Island Earth (alien transmits plans for strange machine). But modern science fiction movies generally treat their speculative elements as decoration for standard action and thriller stories. Westerns dressed up with spaceships and ray guns. Contact dares to deal with the idea of alien contact with a straight face, as an issue as serious as any other facing society today.
It tells its story through a young SETI astronomer Elly Arroway (Jodie Foster), a listener searching the sky for signs of life. Driven to desperation to find funding for her search by rival scientists like Presidential Science Advisor David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), who think her work is a waste of time, she finally finds a savior when the mysterious reclusive billionaire named S.R. Haddon (John Hurt) decides to back her team’s project. Her critics change their tune dramatically when, months away from having her access to government radio telescopes pulled, she picks up a definite coded beacon from the star Vega. When her discovery is confirmed by others, a wave of panicked reaction sweeps over the planet. The situation escalates when the signal is decoded to reveal plans for a massive machine: purpose unknown. Everyone jockeys to profit somehow from the discovery – whether out of fear, out of greed, or out of a need to find answers to the big questions.
Director Robert Zemeckis has created a work that goes far beyond the cinematic magic he created for Forrest Gump. Through Foster, it achieves a unique intimacy, but at the same time the story holds a scope and epic atmosphere recalling the great Russian and German science fiction films of the silent era. Among the beautiful shots we’ve come to recognize as the type created by digital imaging – including the heart stopping sequence where Foster makes her journey across the stars – are those that are not quite so obvious. The film begins with an awesome visual and aural Big Zoom shot, but there are also quieter miracles in less obvious, but just as impressive shots. The camera pans from the night sky down to a small house, through a window and down a flight of stairs. Later, we zoom back, preceding a young girl running up those stairs and down a hall, only to reveal the shot as impossibly captured in a medicine cabinet mirror. This is the work of a filmmaker who began as a master entertainer and has turned into a virtuoso.
Contact may prove frustrating for some. It works hard to make us think about the big questions, and fills us with an aching wonder of what might be waiting for us all – yet, ultimately, it can’t realistically be expected to provide an ultimate answer. But what it can accomplish, and succeeds at very well, is to capture the quest for knowledge and what makes it such an important thing to us. It’s a summer roller coaster ride for the mind as well as the senses.