Ignore the parts of this movie that deal with earthly silliness, and sink into the visual fantasy that is grand enough to encourage us to explore the universe and to debate the questions that will challenge us.
Talk about luck. At the very moment the public imagination is riveted by a tiny American Tinker Toy bravely exploring the surface of Mars, "Contact" comes along to ask the big questions. Director/producer Robert Zemeckis has the good sense not to offer answers but merely to suggest possibilities.
Based on the novel by the popular astronomer, Carl Sagan, the movie is carried by the steely intelligence of Jodie Foster as astronomer Ellie Arroway, a character grappling with the same fascinating jumble of scientific riddles that gripped Sagan, who worked on this film while battling terminal illness.
Throughout her life, Ellie Arroway has been driven by her passion to know whether we are alone in the universe. Begging equipment and money for her unpopular crusade, she spends years listening for patterns in the static picked up from outer space. On the day the pattern emerges, when contact is made, jubilation engulfs her team.
Because the message from space is delivered in the mathematical language of science, it is greeted with excitement by the scientific community. To balance their euphoric certainty, Mr. Zemeckis introduces a cast of cardboard characters to express skepticism. They operate primarily in the depressingly familiar circus that attends public controversy--including an inexcusable overuse of CNN, the flagship station of Time Warner, which made this movie.
Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) is an entirely unconvincing minister who warns against the technology he believes is undermining spirituality and diminishing society. Ellie's scientific reason versus Palmer's religious faith forms the polarity that creates the dramatic tension of the film. These two bring far more passion to this argument than to their sparkless lovemaking.
To leaven the philosophy, Zemeckis paints a comic landscape of lunatics, American-style, who pour toward the Cape Canaveral launching. Ellie's boss (Tom Skerritt) becomes her glory- stealing competitor. James Woods plays a nasty national security advisor. John Hurt is a Howard Hughesian billionaire conspirator. They are simply the fairly unappetizing bones on which to hang the good stuff.
The movie has two winning strengths: Jodie Foster, and spectacular special effects--in the good sense of that abused technology. The serious Ms. Foster, who always dares greatly, is entirely credible as the obsessive scientist. After she wins her right to the journey, the movie becomes a visual victory.
As she says, "Words can't describe it; they should have sent a poet." The movie suggests an inexplicable 18-hour gap during Ellie's trip, a mystery that floods our heads with questions: Was it heaven? Was it a planet? Was it the downloaded contents of Ellie's mind? The awe, humility, and hope that Ellie describes make perfect sense now that we know from the equally spectacular Martian pictures that anything is probable. Ignore the parts of this movie that deal with earthly silliness, and sink into the visual fantasy that is grand enough to encourage us to explore the universe and to debate the questions that will challenge us.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 493
Studio : Warner Bros.
Rating : PG
Running Time: 2h22m
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