Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Starring Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, Angela Bassett, John Hurt. (1997, PG, 151 min.)
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., July 11, 1997
Just guessing, but this probably isn't what our city's sunburned, fajita-fed throngs of summer movie viewers have been amped up for by Contact's rousing previews. Not unless they're hotter than I imagine to see two superstar actors represent Science and Religious Faith in a vaguely New Agey allegory about humanity's ancient struggle to resolve their conflicting views of existence. Yet the same measured, cerebral approach that makes this adaptation of the late Carl Sagan's novel a poor fit with the seasonal raft of overblown fantasy spectacle (Batman, The Fifth Element) and kill-everybody, burn-everything action blamarama is also a very real asset -- even if some of the concepts it bandies about are a mite scattershot and sloganistic. In keeping with his role as science's ambassador to the masses, Sagan and wife/co-writer Ann Druyan have given us an astronomer-heroine, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Foster), whose zeal for solving the universe's mysteries matches that of her counterpart on the spiritual side of the fence, charismatic pop theologian Palmer Joss (McConaughey). Arroway meets Joss early on, during a break from her efforts to detect radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, and the pair enjoy a single frolic in the hay. However, little effort is made to churn up romantic chemistry between Foster and McConaughey. For better or worse, director Robert Zemeckis sticks to Sagan's original vision for these characters, in which they're basically totems embodying both sides of a philosophical dialectic. After setbacks, Arroway's efforts pay off when her massed array of radio telescopes picks up signals coming from the remote star, Vega. Though the process of decoding the messages and responding to their invitation (they tell how to build a machine for transporting one human to the senders' home planet) is both fascinating and scientifically plausible, it's obvious Sagan's main interest is the havoc that proof of alien life might wreak on the belief systems of the great unwashed. Thus, we have interminable, edit-me-please stretches devoted to cartoonish Christian Righters speculating about the aliens' “values”; millennialist loons holding Winnebago rallies in the desert; and panels of inquisitors grilling Arroway about her spiritual beliefs. (Strangely, considering the panelists' diverse nationalities, they all seem to regard Christian monotheism as the religion of choice). Meanwhile, an already gnarly plotline is complicated further by Arroway's ongoing cosmic debate with Joss and her sporadic encounters with a bizarre, reclusive billionaire (Hurt) who's bankrolling her research. But despite its chug-holed narrative and occasionally synthetic feel, Contact artfully strings you along with coy hints of mighty revelations to come. Zemeckis helps by showing atypical restraint with scenes intended to convey magic and awe. The wonder of the unfolding events is revealed through grand images and bold ideas, not imposed by gimmicky style. And with both Foster and McConaughey earnestly plumbing their deepest emotional resources to flesh out their skeletally written characters, the point is well made that science opens doors to truths hidden from religion's view, and vice-versa. But after almost two-and-a-half hours of tantalizing buildup, the closing scenes' meager payoff of banal, Jack Handeyish hoo-haw creates a frustrating sense of intellectual coitus interruptus. Granted, the same might be said of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Kubrick craftily finessed his ending with enigmatic images which left final interpretation to the viewer's imagination. All of which suggests that, when art addresses life's unanswerable questions, the wisest strategy may be simply to respect the mystery. It's a distinction that can make the difference between a hit -- which Contact will be -- and a classic.