Foster dominates the screen in Contact
"Who gets to go?" This is a question from Contact, and unfortunately, due to the trailers, we already know the answer. It's a shame though, because the suspense mounts and yet it doesn't get as high as we would like it to. However, if you are capable of forgetting the fact of who goes, you can thoroughly enjoy the suspense-filled moments. On the other hand, Contact is not a film about suspense. It is about characters and a story which draws us in and takes us for a ride up to a very satisfying conclusion.
Watching Contact, I began to realize how misguided a film, such as Independence Day, really is. It may have been fun to watch, but don't try to think about it. Contact is a film that wants you to think about it. The story is sincere and the characters are interesting, and even the dialogue is smart. And this makes me question several films filled with special effects and destructive aliens. Films like Independence Day call themselves science fiction films, which they are, but they also talk about intelligent life, which they somehow seem to leave out. From watching ID4, it would appear that humans are the only intelligent life in the universe. Well, whenever I look at the stars at night, it's extremely hard for me to believe that we here on Earth are the only intelligent beings in this vast expansion of space (shown quite clearly at the beginning of the film).
Perhaps that is the reason Contact is such a joy to watch. It deals with these questions, and many more which are unexpected in a film like this. During the two-and-a-half hour long run, I never was bored once. The entire film held my attention and it didn't let go of it once. As most people have seen in the trailers, this film is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Carl Sagan, who died last year during the production of it. The story reminded me of another film from last year, The Arrival, which was also a very smart thriller. What that film lacked was three-dimensional characters. Contact has many good characters, and some bad ones, but thankfully the cliched characters aren't in the film too often. The two main characters are Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster), a SETI radiologist, and Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a religious zealot. These two have opposing beliefs which create much of the intelligent dialogue in the film, but they also provide some romance that seems needed amongst all the hate coming from everyone else.
This "hate" plays an important part in the film. The "hate" is represented in many different ways: the government, a jealous SETI opposer (Tom Skerritt), religious fanatics (one, in particular, played by Jake Busey). What are they all opposed against? Well, the appearance of other intelligent beings. Dr. Arroway, who is using a SETI satellite dish to listen to the stars, suddenly is canned after David Drumlin (Skerritt) appears at her workplace. She is forced to leave, but she won't give up, and she goes out to get funding for research. After many pleads to companies, S.R. Hadden (John Hurt) is sympathetic and offers to support her research. Dr. Arroway uses a large array in New Mexico to continue her search. Four years pass without anything, then one day, she gets a signal.
All of this never came as much of a surprise because it is shown in the preview. I was angry at the director for allowing the trailer to show so much from the film. However, Robert Zemeckis is a very skillful director, and he is still able to suspend our belief and make us grab onto our seats, mostly because we don't know what will happen exactly. The signal used is a very mysterious and frightening sound. We don't know if the extra-terrestrial life will be like the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or more like the aliens in ID4. This suspense is what draws us into the conclusion, and the outcome is extremely satisfying. The only problem I had with the ending was that I wanted to see more, and I actually hope for a sequel (something I rarely do) just to show us what happens later.
I'm not saying that Contact is a perfect film, but it is the best out this year, so far. There are a couple things wrong with it, especially the portrayal of religious leaders as freaks. That may be typecasting on my part, but it's true. The leader played by Busey almost was offensive to me, mainly because he came from Utah (where I live) and I was wondering if they were trying to depict my religion as his. However, the religious side does get a good reputation from McConaughey who argues with Foster throughout the film about whether there is a God. McConaughey's character is energetic and fun to watch, and Foster is so mesmerizing that we have to watch her anyway. The discussions that go on between Foster and McConaughey are very intellectual and intelligent. Both represent their sides effectively, and this provides a paradox towards the end of the film that Foster's character must deal with.
The cast is excellent and they must be in order for this film to work. Jodie Foster steals every single scene. She is a terrific actress and her performance is one of the best in the film. Her character is also the most developed, but then again, she is the main character. Matthew McConaughey is very fun to watch and a delight to see, but his character is slightly one sided, and he can't see Dr. Arroway's point of view (and yet, she sees how he could be right). James Woods actually underplays instead of overacts, and yet he still manages to do a good job (this is not supposed to sound degrading in any way). Tom Skerritt's character was the villain of the film, and I hated him from the start. He does a great job of portraying the character, and I always winced whenever I saw him on screen. Angela Bassett does a fantastic job as one of the Presiden't advisors. David Morse (I) portrays Foster's father, and his scenes are some of the best in the film (especially his last scene). John Hurt, Rob Lowe, and William Fichtner all do very good jobs as supporting, but essential characters.
And now for the technical aspects. The special effects are done by Sony Pictures Imageworks, and unfortunately, some of the effects don't work (especially the agonizing and distracting Bill Clinton add-ins), but for the most part, they are phenomenal. The space sequences, especially the very opening shot, are all wonderfully done. The design of the "transport" is inventive and original, and very eye-pleasing. It actually reminded me of the "transport" in Stargate, a much lesser of a film. The style of directing is top-notch and in my opinion, this is Zemeckis' best film to date (remember: I did not like Forrest Gump). The cinematography is extremely well-done and captures the space scenes nicely. The best element of the technical side of Contact must be the visual effects and the cinematography that goes with them. If you want a sci-fi film that doesn't overpower the actors with dazzling F/X, Contact is perfect.
Contact is rated PG for some intense action, some mild language, and a scene of sensuality. Contact is a wonderfully made, wonderfully acted film. The screenplay, adapted by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg, is extremely intelligent and doesn't give us stupid lines of dialogue that a lesser film would have (I won't mention any names because it is pretty obvious). The characters are smart, the special effects are terrific, and the acting is the best thing in the film. Finally, a smart sci-fi film without a predictable ending. It's about time. This is, by far, the best film of 1997 (so far), and it will most likely be on my top ten list at the end of the year. After all these years, a film can at last stand among classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and not be ashamed of poor filmmaking.
**** out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie