Contact (1997)

D: Robert Zemeckis
S: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughy, Tom Skerrit, James Woods, John Hurt

Science Fiction is the genre of the end of the millennium. Since it began roughly a hundred years ago (at a time when it was considered merely a product end of the century anxiety), it has consistently explored and expressed a concern with the state of the present through a meditation on the form of the future. But it is not merely allegory, nor simply prophecy. Science Fiction does not presume to predict the future, nor make meaning of the present. It gives form to the human anxieties about where the technocentric modern world is headed, using equal degrees of speculation and observation. Whether or not you like it is an entirely personal matter.

Emerging at a time when technology had changed the perception of man's potential beyond a measure understandable today, it was poised unwittingly at a moment which marked something greater than the immediate fears of modernity. Our self-imposed understandings of the cosmos have altered over time to the extent that each conceptual evolution is perceived as heresy or revolution. The physical fact of the turn of the millennium is nothing more than a matter of doodles by long-dead noblemen who presumed to know the mind of God. It is only a date, not even one recognised by all of the inhabitants of the planet. But it is so potent a symbol of advancement that its arrival has brought out fundamental anxieties among a species which remains as uncertain and floundering in its conception of its relationship with the universe today as when it first achieved self-awareness.

Advancement itself is a relative term, and one predicated only upon the standards we set for ourselves. But the feeling, perhaps even the certainty, that there are greater forces abroad than mankind whose standards are even greater and more unattainable has become acute in the last century of this millennium because of our perception that with the advance of dates and of technology, we are coming closer to a chimerical event horizon which will take us over the brink and into contact with them.

Robert Zemeckis' film of Carl Sagan's novel deals with these themes and ideas, not simply by virtue of being a genre film, but quite explicitly. As an entry in the sub-genre of alien contact yarns, it adds little other than to reassert a religious dimension which has been absent on screen since the fifties version of The War of the Worlds. But Contact ultimately concerns itself with the loftier ideas of the meaning of science and advancement and with debates on religion and humanity, which despite the heavy-handedness with which the enterprise has been undertaken, actually sustain interest in the picture throughout its elephantine running time and overly-familiar surface details.

It charts the tale of dedicated cosmologist Jodie Foster, whose need for human contact has driven her throughout her life towards greater and more powerful technological devices with which to achieve it. As she becomes more academically qualified and develops a career, she leans towards the flagging SETI programme and focuses on gaining the attention of extra terrestrials. When she succeeds in tapping an alien radio signal, mankind is faced with a decisive moment to which it responds according to its social and religious sub-divisions.

In an establishing scene, Foster's character asks her loving father (David Morse) if her Ham Radio will allow her to contact her dead mother in heaven. This sets an emotional sub-plot in motion which comes, eventually, to define the entire film. It passionately argues, and not without skill, that technology has not really brought us closer together, but driven us further apart. It argues that the search for proof which defines the scientist is really a part the human drive to establish the necessity of faith in the order of the universe, and in God. It neatly links the disciplines of religion and science, arguing that emotional contact between beings is the most important constant in the universe, even if their philosophies and viewpoints differ. Foster's romance with Presidential Spiritual Advisor Matthew McConaughy brings clashes and oppositions into a harmonic dialectic through a physical relationship (sexual and asexual as it is by turns according to the ruminations of the plot) which brings them together as fellow travellers on the road to truth, different though their paths may seem.

To say Contact is profound is to state the obvious. The film itself states it repeatedly. But whether or not this profundity communicates to its audience is another matter. At a budget of $90 million and working in a genre which, even though it is enjoying a renaissance at the box-office these days, is still not credited with any degree of philosophical insight by the general populous, the decision to make the film a slow, portentous meditation on the issues rather than a conventional sci-fi conspiracy thriller like the X-Files, or a slam-bang action pic like Independence Day was quite a brave one. A great deal of time and effort has gone into making this film look and feel 'important'. Its cast of major actors, especially Foster, its use of real TV stations and reporters (and even footage of U.S. President Bill Clinton), and its handsome location photography give it the feeling of a major statement on the world we live in. Its slow pace, deliberate dialogue, carefully contrived situations and multi-layered characters are all very much in the vein of shifting the focus away from the illusions generated by ILM and Robert Zemeckis, and onto the meaning of it all.

This either works for you, or it doesn't. To many, Contact will seem like pretentious, overlong waffle. To others it will simply be too risible for words. Yet there is enough film making craft, and just enough balance in its presentation to tip the scales to the side of a well made movie rather than a slipshod gamble.

But somehow it never quite manages to soar to the emotional heights of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which it resembles in some ways, which is no surprise given Zemeckis' pedigree) or becomes the metaphysical trip of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris. Zemeckis is skilled at what he does (though there is a certain sadness to watching such a self-consciously weighty film from the director of Used Cars, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Back to the Future), but he has the old Hollywood curse of being nothing more than that. This film is rendered with a care and attention which successfully places its subject on screen for study and analysis, and even though there is evident passion in the material, one does not really sense it in the film itself. Even Foster seems to go through the film in a method actor's daze: a strong and meaningful performance that somehow never really gets past the fact that it is Oscar Winner Jodie Foster in action here. The same applies to the rest of the cast, all of whom seem overwhelmed by the material and move as if through ether. Not that they are not good, but they never fully draw you in as characters (except the ever-dependable James Woods, who's as marvelously hateful as ever as the heavy). Your responses to them are modulated according to the issues under discussion at each particular point in the story, and though they move in and out of sympathy, they're still not fully credible as people. John Hurt's sinister performance as an eccentric cancer-ridden billionaire borders on horror-like caricature.

Yet it is a film of some value, a contribution to the end of millennium angst now plainly visible even to the general public which does not merely exploit it. It attempts to address the fundamental questions facing us as human beings, and brings it all back to the question of what it is that we are rather than what 'they' are. This is not to say, of course, that the matter of 'them' is not addressed, or that it shouldn't be. But the pertinent questions asked about our world and its systems of belief are ultimately far more thought-provoking and far-reaching that the speculative imponderables this genre uses in its own quest for form and structure. Its positive religious sub-text should also come as a relief to those disappointed on one hand by the general absence of such discussion in the genre, and on the other, the endless fascination with damnation visible recently in films including Event Horizon and Spawn.

Contact is finally a big Hollywood movie about big human issues. That very form offends some people, and most Europeans will undoubtedly dismiss it as worthless claptrap. But there is some satisfaction to be derived from viewing it on its own terms, and it might stimulate discussion if the viewer can rouse themselves from the postmodern apathy that is the psychological shield generated to combat end of millennium panic. Wake up and smell the future. It's exactly the same as the present, only with more players.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.