Film Retrospect - Summer of '97: Contact
by Barry Wurst
July 20, 2007
Around this time ten years ago, Men in Black was getting the most of the attention from moviegoers and became the biggest hit of the summer. Considering how funny, stylish, entertaining and (most importantly) crowd pleasing MIB is, the film's immense popularity wasn't surprising. Yet, Robert Zemeckis' Contact, a film that carried twice the hype, appeared a few weeks later and became one of the year's most discussed works.
Based on the Carl Sagan novel of the same name, the long-planned film was Zemeckis' first since Forrest Gump and, coming off a film that became a worldwide phenomenon, expectations for his latest work were enormous. With a top-notch cast, a literate screenplay based on a bestselling novel and special effects from ILM that were kept top secret and reportedly ground breaking, it was expected to become one of the biggest hits of the year, if not the summer. Instead, the $90 million dollar film grossed only $100 million, a strong but not-that-great chunk of change. Even with critical accolades, many were critical of the film's ending, a dividing factor that is key to why so many truly dislike the movie overall.
Starring Jodie Foster as a scientist who makes the first ever contact with a presence deep in outer space, the film is a highly intelligent parable about the need for science and faith to co-exist; this theme is still relevant, perhaps never more so than it is now. The film suggests that hard science and the unexplainable sometimes must be accepted by faith, and that both what is known and what is unknown can be keys to the ultimate truth. Rather than being a religious parable or a film that dismisses faith altogether, the film shows the strength of both sides of the equation and why mankind must apply them both in assessing our place in the universe. That Zemeckis made such an engrossing, thrilling and smart cinematic feast, that enthralls instead of preaches, confirms why he is such a skillful filmmaker.
About that ending. I'll avoid spoilers the best I can (for those who haven't seen this yet): the film's climax involves Foster's passage to another world and an encounter with what may (or may not) be an alien. Rather than depict the being in question as a traditional extraterrestrial, a more normal, earthbound and, frankly, sentimental figure is used to represent something amazing. Many hated this touch, but I think it expands the film's theme beautifully - if Foster had encountered a little green lizard man, it would appear that, beyond a doubt, she truly had a close encounter. As it is, we question (as her superiors do in the closing scenes) whether what she saw was genuine or not. The warm and fuzzy conversation she shares with the outer space being has been accused of being Spielberg sappy but, rather, could truly be a figment of her mind (or, more provocatively, exactly what the aliens wanted her to see and felt she'd accept). Taken at face value, the climax feels like a cop-out but, under the surface, the subtext makes the scene far richer. In short, the ending is open-ended (and how could it not be?).
Matthew McConaughey co-stars as a man of faith who befriends Foster's science-minded explorer. Instead of going for a traditional love story, their relationship has an edgy quality that skips typical movie courtship in favor of an intellectual tennis match. Aside from the thoughtful screenplay, it should be said that everything about the film is state of the art. This is one of Foster's best performances and McConaughey, James Woods, Tom Skerritt, Angela Bassett and John Hurt are also excellent. The inventive sound effects, fluid cinematography and remarkable special effects are wondrous, with the film's quietly poetic opening scene a classic of the genre.
Most importantly, this is a film that creates a genuine sense of awe. We feel Sagan's awestruck sense of wonder at the vast, beautiful and mysterious nature of the universe and emerge from the film with big questions of our own. Few films are this ambitious and fewer science fiction films generate this much thought (let alone science) in such an entertaining way. If you've seen it only once, you need to see it again.