20 years ago (already??) in the summer of 1997, the film adaptation of the late Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel, “Contact” was released. As a fan of the book, I (of course) eagerly saw it several times. The third time was the charm, as it marked my first date with my then-future-now-present wife. The movie is still special to me, and not just for the obvious sentimental reasons; it’s also a damn fine piece of science fiction filmmaking.
There are major departures from the book (to be expected), but by and large they’re fairly easy-to-live-with adaptations. I would say “Contact”’s adaptation is roughly on a par with the screenplay to Peter Benchley’s “JAWS”; keeping the basic story, but punching up the action, characters and drama. Many of the characters in “Contact” are amalgamated/deleted for streamlining, the religious/scientific conflict is significantly heightened, and Ellie’s climactic journey is a solo voyage, as opposed to the book’s group of international voyagers. But most importantly, the philosophical core of the book is largely intact. Carl Sagan, who passed away in November of 1996, was reportedly pleased with the direction the movie went (according to his widow, Ann Druyan). It’s not hard to see why.
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In a nutshell, the story can be summed up fairly easily; Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway (an absolutely sensational Jodie Foster) is a brilliant, stubborn, dedicated SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) researcher who, after many frustrating years, finally receives “the signal.” The signal is a giant data dump that appears to emanate from the star Vega, and contains detailed schematics to build a machine capable of traveling vast distances (via a network of wormholes) and making ‘contact’; presumably with the senders of the signal. After many political/social trials and setbacks, the ‘Machine’ (as it is generically called) is finally built. An act of domestic terrorism by a religious zealot destroys it, but a second machine is revealed to exist at Hokkaido Island in Japan, courtesy of eccentric genius/moneybags-financier, H.R. Hadden (the late John Hurt). Hadden offers Ellie “a ride.”
At Hokkaido, Ellie is carefully placed into the machine’s single-occupant pod and goes off on a journey to somewhere near the center of our galaxy. There, she arrives at a surreal representation of an earthly beach (with a darkened, star-filled daytime sky) and makes contact with an alien who assumes the guise of her late, beloved father (David Morse), who patiently tries to answer some of her burning ‘big questions.’ He enigmatically tells her that this type of contact “is the way it’s been done for billions of years.” Ellie is eventually returned… but footage of her pod’s brief drop shows no evidence of her trip whatsoever. And her video cameras record nothing but static… 18 full hours of it (!). Ellie did go somewhere, but it’s left up to the viewer exactly where she went.
The coda of the movie essentially sees Ellie where she began; resuming the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, but with a renewed optimism. She no longer has to wonder if others are out there… she knows; even if others don’t believe her. Her journey changes from an epic voyage into the galaxy to a more personal journey of self-discovery.
WHY CONTACT WORKS:
* The opening cosmic pullback shot.
The opening shot tracks from the radio ‘noise’ of Earth orbit and slowly quiets as we go deeper into the solar system (past Mars and the outer planets), and ultimately out into the unnerving quiet of deep space; finally coalescing those stars and galaxies into the sharp blue eye of the young Ellie Arroway (a pre-teen Jena Malone). It’s an awe-inspiring, cosmic equivalent of the unbroken shots from Martin Scorcese’s “Goodfellas” or Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil.” Still mind-blowing and beautifully rendered, even today.
* Jodie Foster is the spine & soul of the movie.
She gives a grounded, thoroughly believable performance. When I first heard she was first attached to the movie (sometime in 1995 or so), any doubts I may have had about a film adaptation quickly abated. She was BORN to play Ellie Arroway (a role based loosely on real-life SETI researcher and Sagan colleague, Jill Tarter). And while the role is not as showy as say Foster’s work in 1994’s “Nell” or 1988’s “The Accused” (or even 1991’s “Silence of the Lambs”) it is no less significant or less finely crafted a performance.
Her final appeal before a doubtful senate committee, as well as her heartbreaking ‘reunion’ with her late father are real grab-the-tissue moments.
* The script cuts some of the unneeded bits of the book while retaining its spirit (see: opening paragraphs). An elegantly streamlined screenplay by Michael Goldenberg and James V. Hart (even if they screwed up the numbers on Drake’s equation… hehe).
* The signal itself.
The actual ‘message’ from deep space is simply perfect. Prime numbers channeled through what sounds like a rusted pipe organ mixed with Doctor Who’s whooshing TARDIS sound; it has an eerie yet majestic quality to it. This is one of those ‘little things’ that the filmmakers got juuust right.
* Robert Zemeckis’ direction.
The “Back to the Future” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” director may not have seemed the ideal choice at first, but he turned out to be an inspired one. The movie is appropriately smart and epic, but with enough humanity to propel it with a strong emotional drive. “Contact” may have been a turning point for Zemeckis’ career. His more recent work in movies like “Sully” better reflect this post-“Contact” maturity, while retaining his technical skill and heart of his earlier films.
* Well-cast supporting roles:
Tom Skerritt (playing Ellie’s personal devil/supervisor, Dr. David Drumlin) seems, at first, to be coasting through the movie, but it’s a very careful performance when you look close enough. He’s alternately pompous, oozing with false humility and a true backstabbing dick; but it’s all conveyed with a bare minimum of excess. It’s real-world villainy; like the the shitty boss that everyone hates, but still pitches in to buy his birthday cake. His character’s death actually generates a surprising amount of emotion as well..
The late John Hurt has a lot of fun with the role of eccentric multibillionaire Hadden (the character’s final, cancer-stricken days spent aboard the Russian “Mir” space station now have a grim resonance with the actor’s own terminal battle with the disease).
Another strong supporting role, that of Ellie’s blind SETI researcher colleague “Kent,” is essayed by Michael Bay/action-movie favorite William Fichtner. His stammering, sight-impaired, slightly cynical nice guy is in strong contrast to the actor’s ‘day job’ of playing creeps, authoritarians and general assholes. Personally I’d love to see Fichtner do more roles like this than his more typical roles in “Independence Day Resurgence” “Dark Knight” or “Armageddon.”
An then-11 year old Jena Malone is heartbreakingly earnest as the young Ellie, seen in the movie’s flashbacks. The scene where she rushes to ‘get the medicine’ for her dying father had me nearly sobbing aloud the first time I saw it, and much of that expended emotion on my part was owed to young Jena Malone’s performance.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention David Morse as Ellie’s father; seen both in the flashbacks and as the alien-generated doppelgänger seen at the film’s climax. He carries a gentle, midwestern wisdom to his words in a subtle, lovely performance.
* The score by “Back to the Future” “Abyss” (and “CHiPs”) composer Alan Silvestri.
Eschewing the bombast and power of John Williams’ “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” score, Silvestri goes for a very different approach with “Contact” that better serves this movie’s needs. His score is epic enough (the pulse-poundingly rhythmic piano-driven ‘countdown’ music before Ellie’s voyage), but wisely incorporates gentler tracks for the quieter, more philosophically-driven moments that are so critical to this movie (Ellie, alone in the desert as the screen fades to a blackened sky right before the end credits, for example). Arguably his best music since “The Abyss” IMHO.
* Ellie’s voyage.
The trips down the various wormholes are both violent and beautiful. They’re the fiery light show before the dreamlike, surreal climax at an alien representation of Pensacola, Florida (a place Ellie reached via radio as a child). This moment of ‘contact’ just oozes with the sort of gentle wisdom and intelligence that marked Carl Sagan’s COSMOS. And while the climax doesn’t answer all of the audience’s big questions (arguably one of my few issues with the book; it gave away a bit too much), it still retains some of the same awe and profundity of its source material.
And Arroway’s reunion with her ‘dad’ is perfectly acted. David Morse as Ellie’s father’s alien doppelgänger retains just the right amounts of warmth and distance to seem both familiar and alien. Other than some rather poorly aged CGI FX (especially the very ‘green screen’ look of the alien beach), the voyage works very well today.
* The film’s Faith vs. Science debate.
Carl Sagan’s book aimed some, stinging barbs at religious zealots (Sagan was a devout agnostic), but the movie punches up the religious conflict (much of it via the Palmer Joss’ pop-preacher character), which (incidentally) makes it more relevant today in our currently hair-triggered war-of-words between faith and science. Religion vs. Science was a rousing philosophical debate in 1997, but it’s devolved into a near civil war 20 years later. With politics and religious extremism currently fusing together to act as a mace against both intellectualism and science itself. Even basic climatology is currently under fire for daring to conflict with our love of fossil-fueled lifestyles. If anything, 1997’s Contact is eerily prescient. The scene of Jake Busey’s wild-eyed religious zealot/suicide-bomber destroying the Cape Kennedy based-‘Machine’ is particularly disturbing to watch today in a post-9/11 United States. This conflict is somewhat resolved with religious leader Palmer Joss reconciling with Ellie at the movie’s end; a symbolic ‘reaching across the aisle’ of faith to secularism that we could certainly use more of today.
* Nice use of scope and location work
From the real-life Aricebo radio telescope locale in Puerto Rico (“El Radar”) to the deserts of the Very Large Array in New Mexico to Ellie’s voyage that launches from the snowy mountaintops of Hokkaido Island in Japan, there is a nice sprinkling of scope that makes the movie slightly more geographically ‘open’ than it could’ve been.
Throughout the film, we also see many faces and a few accents thrown in to remind us of the wonderful diversity on our own planet, let alone alien civilizations…
* Use of media and video screens as the movie’s ‘Greek chorus’.
While some of the ‘90s TV/entertainment references are layered on a bit thick (see: below), there is some smart use of video screens as both a means of conveying information as well as commentary. We see some characters in the movie represented only as video images; a fellow Australian SETI researcher Ellie contacts via computer to confirm ’the signal’, H.R. Hadden’s video call from the Mir space station, president Bill Clinton’s news conferences in the film (smartly edited video from real press events of the time), and even Ellie’s own face reflected on banks of security monitors aboard Hadden’s private jet. Video screens are even used as a means to convey the alien ‘message’ itself. The aliens receive, amplify and redirect an old 1936 Hitler TV broadcast at the Berlin Olympics back to us here on Earth as their way of saying “we hear you.” Video is as important to this movie as music was to “Close Encounters…”
ELEMENTS OF CONTACT THAT DON’T WORK SO WELL:
* Matthew McConaughey as Ellie’s love interest/philosophical sparring partner, Palmer Joss.
Palmer Joss is the most amalgamated character in the movie (compositing at least 3 or 4 characters from the book by my count, including a smidgen of Ellie’s briefly mentioned rock-band college lover), but Matthew McConaughey (who was terrific in 2014’s “Interstellar”) didn’t quite have the maturity at this phase of his career to do justice to the role. Where he should be a philosophical equal to Ellie, he comes off as a New Age preacher more fitting to a 1970s California commune than the halls of the 1990s White House. McConaughey’s utter lack of chemistry with the able-and-willing Foster is also a detriment. Foster gives it her all here; McConaughey doesn’t seem to reciprocate. His role as Cooper in “Interstellar” redeems his sci-fi cred, but it doesn’t make up for his putting a small dent in this otherwise terrific movie.
* Some badly dated CGI FX work.
A few scenes that were awesome in 1997 look more than a bit ‘green screen-ish’ today; especially Ellie’s arrival at the alien approximation of Pensacola. Granted, the scene is supposed to look somewhat artificial (it is an alien facsimile) but it borders on 1990s video-game level artifice. If a case could be made to fine tune FX work for a theatrical re-issue, I’d love to make one for this movie. It deserves it.
* Overuse of quickly dated ‘90s references.
The ‘90s references littered throughout the movie make it feel very time capsule-ish. Using CNN’s Larry King, MTV’s Tabitha Soren (remember her?), former Tonight Show host Jay Leno, and even a mention of the fatal “Heaven’s Gate” cult from March of 1997 serve to time-lock it a bit.
While it may have seemed like a good idea to use lots of then-contemporary references to make the movie more ‘relevant,’ it also had the unforeseen side-effect of making it seem prematurely quaint 20 years later. A shame, since Sagan’s book was very careful about not pegging the story into any single time or date.
* James Woods as National Security Adviser Michael Kitz.
James Woods playing an asshole is hardly anything new (see: 1992’s “Citizen Cohn” or every other movie of his), and given some of his recent Twitter posts, I’m not sure if he’s acting. But he really lays it on thick in this movie; his oozing of evil borders on the cartoonish, and is at odds with Foster’s finely tuned performance.
All in all, these relatively minor detriments are far outweighed by the plusses.
As mentioned above, the movie is special to me for many reasons; it was based on a beloved book of mine, it marked my first date with my (now) wife, but even with the rose-tinted glasses removed, I still see it as an intelligent, thought-provoking movie.
“Contact” is “Close Encounters” revised for the more cynical, slightly smarter “X-Files” generation. We moviegoers were wide-eyed dreamers back in 1977; we were a bit more jaded in 1997. We’re hopelessly polarized these days, but that’s another story. And while “Contact” lacks some of the cinematic grandeur & awe of its 1977 predecessor, it also has a lot more scientific/philosophical content.
Given the late Carl Sagan’s scientific/educational background, Contact’s alien encounter scenario is probably a lot closer to how a ‘real’ extraterrestrial meet-and-greet will happen given the impossible distances between the stars. Now in the interests of full disclosure, I’m not a big believer in popular UFO mythologies. I do believe there are temporarily unidentified flying objects, but I don’t necessarily believe that they’re alien spaceships. I also don’t believe in alleged alien abductions, bug-eyed green or gray extraterrestrial little persons lurking about, or government conspiracies to hide them (just consider how truly awful the world governments are at keeping secrets...).
I believe in the possibilities of alien life (almost certainly there are forms of microbial, oceanic or plant life on other planets) and I believe in the possibilities of alien intelligence. But that’s a belief in the possibility. I won’t say firmly that they DO exist. Why? Because I don’t know that for a fact. There is no direct evidence. Speculation and belief (as well as wishful thinking) do not constitute evidence.
As Carl Sagan himself once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” As of right now? There is absolutely zero proof of extraterrestrial life, let alone alien intelligence. That said? I’m entirely open to the possibility. My 21-year membership in the Carl Sagan-cofounded Planetary Society speaks to that.
If there are intelligent, spacefaring alien beings out there? I sincerely doubt they’d travel the stars themselves. Most likely they’d do as we do; send radio messages and robotic probes to do the dirty work. Space is a hostile environment. Biological, carbon-cycle beings are not evolved to live easily in interstellar (or even interplanetary) space. “Contact” takes that into account. The aliens of the book/movie use radio signals and compressed data dumps (as well as exotic wormhole-based technologies) to initiate contact.
Aliens most likely won’t send fleets of giant, slow-moving motherships to land at Devil’s Tower… they’ll probably just text us.
In the meantime? There are books, TV shows and movies to explore such possibilities and “Contact” is smart, well-made, commercial science fiction filmmaking at its best.
6 Comments Add yours
Hmmm. It’s always bothered me that at the end of the movie she finds the thing she’s desired for her life, and it’s her father.
Great recap. I enjoyed it. I think you’re on the nose with the film’s strengths and weaknesses. This really could be high on the list of timeless sci-fi classics if Zemeckis hadn’t gone so overboard with the quickly outdated references. Some of them are wince-inducing. He had all the material he needed. He should have trusted it. Sometimes Zemeckis, in particular, needs someone in his inner circle to rein him in. … I am not as down on McConeaughey’s performance as you; I don’t think it’ *hurts* the film. But you’re right that the fit is just a tad off. … Regarding the book & movie, I do love the “circular” surprise at the end of the book so much and I wish there had been a way to include it here.
Thanks for the kind words, Chris. Much appreciated. That was one of my earlier movie reviews for this site, and I was still getting the hang of things in those days, so I’m grateful.
The book is great, though I think making the wormhole trip a solo voyage for Ellie (instead of the 12 in the book) was a better choice cinematically.