We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Robert Zemeckis has earned a reputation as a purveyor of morally and artistically high-minded fantasy. From Romancing the Stone to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to Back to the Future to Forrest Gump, Zemeckis has been said to create “thinking man’s” examples of various genresthe adventure-romance, big-screen animation, sci-fi comedy, the everyman epicand to imbue them with a sophistication that defies the definition of genre films as cheesy matinee fare. But Contact confirms, if Gump hadn’t already, that high-mindedness isn’t intelligence, rigidity isn’t morality, and length isn’t the same thing as seriousness.
Contact trumpets itself as the nearest we’ll get this summer to an antidote to Roswellmania, although that more accurately describes Men in Black, which springs off from the given that we live in an alien-choked universe, a place both absurd and unpredictable. Carl Sagan, the great skeptic-dreamer and author of the novel on which Contact is based, repeatedly remarked on humans’ touching ability to dream of other worlds and billions and billions of far-off friends. Isn’t it wonderful, he asked civilian readers and stiff-necked subscribers to the Skeptical Inquirer, to imagine what might be out there, and to know that we may not even be able to imagine it, that it might be something beyond the limits of our wonder? (Skeptical Inquirer readers sniffed and turned the page to something astringent and mathematical by Martin Gardner; hard-core skeptics are every bit the echt cranks that UFO zanies are. What a great country.) Sagan understood that there is comfort in the belief itself, meaning in the searchthat’s why conspiracy buffs are such pitiable creatures; how they long for order amid chaos! But Contact takes this pleasant fantasy one giant leap further: If reaching out is comforting, what we may touch must be downright fuzzy.
Contact rigs up a phony dichotomy and then proceeds to struggle mightily between its poles, finally reconciling them in a miraculous fusion a child of 10 could achieve. Little Ellie Arroway, with her ham radio, telescope, and doting widower daddy, believes in science; therefore, says the simple-minded script, she does not believe in God. As a young woman, grown Ellie (Jodie Foster) is horrified and allured by religionin this case, Zemeckis’ sour, admonishing Christianityand by the religious. But her attraction to faith is demonstrated quite literally early on, when, while monitoring outer-space radio waves in the jungle, she meets handsome Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey, whom everyone says is a hunk so it must be true).
She doesn’t respond to his flirtation until she finds out he’s almost a priest”a man of the cloth without the cloth,” as he suggestively puts it. Then he says something that dear, dead Daddy used to saycut to the two of them waking up in her bed. Just how direct is the man of God/God the Father/God my father equation becomes ickily clear later on, although it’s plenty skin-crawling in its allegorical robes. Ellie’s work history is given in full; twice, actuallywe watch her get jobs, work a while, lose jobs, and then later she visits a Marshall Applewhite/Bill Gates-type eccentric corporate mogul (John Hurt) who startles her with a This Is Your Life videotape presentation, rehashing both the flashbacks we’ve already seen and the movie we’ve been watching.
Contact is interminably slow but still can’t find time to explain what all the equipment is supposed to do, so that when the alien signals come through, we can be as excited by what the technicians see as they are. By the time Ellie and her loyal band of sky-listeners are set up in New Mexico, ready to make alien contact, all the script has managed to do is introduce the smirking love interest and the credit-grabbing nemesis (Tom Skerritt).
Foster has said that the role of victim is a truth of the feminine experience, but that’s specious justification for her hard-won Oscars; victimhood isn’t the whole truth of women’s lives, or nearly as disproportionate as movies represent it as being. She is sorely testing her reputation as one of our smartest, toughest actors by taking roles that require fidgeting, lip-compressing, neck-tautening, and other emotion repressors to show that this spunky but obedient little gal will triumph against male arrogance and establishment indifference, all the while acquiescing with gulping difficulty.
While trying to scare up funding for the New Mexico site, Ellie is rebuffed by a dismissive board. Frustrated, she makes a huffy, halting speech about ooh, science and, and stuffshe composes herself only long enough to come out with “profoundly impactful”when she could have spoken powerfully about Jules Verne anticipating today’s common technologies and the need for questing in modern life. But of course, angry inarticulateness is what passes for passion, if not yet, thank heavens, reasoned argument, and the board falls for her girlish tantrum.
Everyone wants to control Ellie’s discovery, a cryptic transmission of diagrams and code. She fends off her nasty ex-boss (Skerritt) and the entire U.S. government, in the form of scornful National Security Adviser Michael Kitz (James Woods should be contractually forbidden from ever playing a part like this againever) and genuine, though cunningly vague, clips of the real-life president (final proof that Clinton’s speeches really are interchangeable). This Zemeckis trope is always jarring, but it’s particularly knuckleheaded here, where a Ralph Reed clone (Rob Lowe in a funny cameo) and Woods’ foaming-at-the-mouth NSA are supposed to have the president’s ear.
The transmission turns out to be a blueprint for a vehicle that will transport one passenger to Vega, the message’s planet of origin. After many struggles and setbackswith its launching structure, the vehicle costs “a third of a trillion dollars”; good thing they made two just in caseEllie is chosen to represent Earth on a trip to return Vega’s message. Her march into the silver capsule is moving and nerve-racking; the movie should have ended there. (“What happens now?” freshly released souls ask the pretty lady Death in the Sandman comics. “Here’s where you find out,” she tells them.)
But the movie doesn’t endit never ends. Ellie goes to Vega on a repetitious but wild trip through wormholesa sort of celestial shortcut that simulates a spin on King’s Dominion’s Anaconda. Although she finds what seems to me to be a horrible disappointmentnot only have the aliens tricked out their planet to ape Earth, but she doesn’t even get to meet one of themshe is duly awe-struck and transformed. Then she comes back and makes her report, but the government doesn’t like her storythey say it’s too fantastic!and puts her on trial before an international tribunal in the Capitol in a hall that looks like Versailles.
After all this, Contact does basically convey a skeptical, generous, humanistic messagethe essence of Sagan’s benevolent geniusbut it goes about it using hectoring and unfair methods: illogic, deck-stacking, and button-pushing. When the sexy priest becomes a best-selling author and presidential adviser, he tells Larry King, “We can surf the Net but we’re becoming more cut off,” and goes on to talk clichéd rot about the masses looking for fulfillment at the mall. No one points up the irony of the guy with the No. 1 book scorning consumer and self-help culture. But more importantly, what this argument never seems to grasp is that none of this is technology’s fault. Technology is a tool, not an experience; if we are less in touch with our food, don’t blame the Cuisinartbuy a knife. I understand they still make those.
Using mangled reasoning with offensive smugness, Contact romanticizes unquestioning, know-nothing faith. When Ellie insists on empiricism as a basis of belief, including Palmer’s religious belief, he shoots back, “Did you love your dad? Prove it.” Ellie responds neither indirectly (“Fuck you”) nor directly (“That’s a logical fallacy. Fuck you”); instead, the movie cops outthey get interrupted. During her trial, she admits that the mean, unspiritual men might be right; it may not have happened, but the experience in the capsule gave her religious faith and isn’t that enough? Turns out it is. Blind, unreasoning faith in science is just pagan stubbornness, but blind, unreasoning faith in God is a beautiful thing. If Carl Sagan had been half the humanist his work indicated, he’d have died of horror watching the rushes.CP