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  [rating: 2½ of 4 stars]movie review by Gary Johnson

Go to: the official web site for Contact

For thousands of years, humankind has gazed at the stars and wondered if other worlds existed. What would the inhabitants look like? What would their technology be capable of? Would they treat us like microbes on a rock? Or would they be benevolent?

Movie poster for Contact.

Warner Bros. All rights reserved.)

This is the material of Robert Zemeckis' new film Contact. It's not altogether new subject matter. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for example, gave us one take on the subject. But while Spielberg focused on actual physical contact with aliens, Contact takes a different route, giving us a dedicated scientist, Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster), who listens to radio signals from outer space. When she discovers a radio message being beamed from the distant star Vega, Ellie leads an effort to decode the message. Ultimately, she finds the message contains the blueprints for building a machine. But what sort of machine? Is it an instrument of Armageddon? Or is it a portal into the far reaches of the universe?

Carl Sagan, who wrote the original novel upon which the movie is based, was a great scientist, but as a novelist he was . . . well, a great scientist. The movie is filled with ideas, but its amazing how well television shows such as Star Trek have already mined some of the same territory with much more profound results. Contact is frequently a fascinating movie, especially in the first hour, but ultimately the movie is marred by its own seriousness. The filmmakers were sure they were dealing with an important subject, so they linger over every detail of the story and belabor the obvious.

Jodie Foster listens for extra- terrestrial life in Contact.

Warner Bros. All rights reserved.)

For example, we don't just get hints of why Ellie is obsessed with listening to the stars: the filmmakers spell out her entire history in irritatingly pat terms. We find out her mother died from complications during Ellie's birth. Her father died when she was just nine-years old. Now, she is afraid of contact with other people, but at the same time she yearns for contact and searches for it in the unlikeliest corners of the universe.

This same approach also threatened to destroy Forrest Gump, where Forrest's background was explained in relatively clear-cut, A+B=C terms. But that movie had such a goofy and surreal premise at its core that the movie's simple-minded psychologizing became acceptable. And Tom Hanks' wonderful performance never failed to keep the scenario engaging. But in Contact, we get the oh-so-serious Jodie Foster instead. She is no doubt one of the best actors in America, but like everything else in this movie, she is so damned serious that the movie becomes wearying and annoying.

Jodie Foster and Matthew McCon- aughey in Contact.

(©1997 Warner Bros. All rights reserved.)

Meanwhile the central goofiness of the movie's plot gets a portentously important treatment--particularly the political developments, with Ellie attending meetings and conferences with President Bill Clinton, who becomes seamlessly part of the action thanks to the same morphing technology used for Forrest Gump. But unlike Forrest Gump, where the humor helped relieve the goofiness of the situations, Contact never recognizes its own goofiness. Instead we get simple-minded characters talking about the impending voyage in ridiculously somber tones. James Woods becomes the purely evil politician who wants to militarize the project. Rob Lowe stands in the religious far right. Tom Skerritt becomes a two-note character who always ends up stealing the limelight from Ellie. John Hurt is an eccentric millionaire who watches the entire endeavor carefully and occasionally gives Ellie advice.

Zemeckis gives us a rocket load of painfully shallow characters who mouth potentially complex ideas. Matthew McConaughey as an author of best-selling religious books is the worst of the lot. He threatens to sink the movie every time he shows up and starts intoning the value of faith vs. the empiricism of science.

After Ellie uncodes the radio message from Vega, the government begins plans to build the machine described in the message. Ellie sees herself as the ideal candidate for testing the machine, but now the government is involved and many other people vie for the honor. We learn in excruciating detail about Ellie's competition for piloting the machine. But where does all the competition lead? Nowhere. As a matter of fact, the movie is the same with this subject cut out in its entirety. In fact, the movie doesn't need this sort of simple-minded hyping. The situation is ripe enough already with suspense.

Instead, I wish the filmmakers had spent more time figuring out what would happen when Ellie tests the machine. All we end up getting is a retread of 2001 with some liberal doses of vintage Star Trek and even a little bit of Field of Dreams. Ellie's trip becomes a big disappointment because we've seen it all before elsewhere.

Contact plays out as a dreadfully overlong but occasionally enthralling movie that milks all the material for melodrama and ends up giving us an over-hyped, over-serious dinosaur of a movie. Ultimately, Contact is about Ellie and what she finds in her voyage; everything else is dross. The movie is given an epic-scaled treatment to justify the special effects, but Contact is really a small, personal movie. The politics and discussions of science vs. religion are just window dressing for an essentially simple but poignant movie about a woman's spiritual quest for human contact in the most unlikely of places. Somewhere buried under the simple-minded philosophizing and the turgid melodramatics lurks a great movie. But unfortunately the same filmmaking that worked for Forrest Gump only confuses the issues here and gives us a cumbersome but occasionally inspiring movie.

Go to the Contact Web site

Go to the Warner Bros. Web site


Ellie ArrowayJodie Foster
Palmer JossMatthew McConaughey
Michael KitxJames Woods
S.R. HadenJohn Hurt
David DrumlinTom Skerritt
Kent ClarkWilliam Fichtner
Ted ArrowayDavid Morse
Rachel ConstantineAngela Bassett
Richard RankRob Lowe
Directed byRobert Zemeckis
Produced bySteve Starkey
Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay byMichael Goldenberg
James V. Hart
Story byCarl Sagan
Ann Druyan
Based upon the novel byCarl Sagan
Director of PhotographyDon Burgess
Production DesignerEd Verreaux
Costume DesignerJoanna Johnston
EditorArthur Schmidt
Visual Effects SupervisorKen Ralston
ComposerAlan Silvestri
Executive ProducersJoan Bradshaw
Lynda Obst
Co-producersCarl Sagan
Ann Druyan
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