Contact (1997)

Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Starring Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt

Contact is fundamentally a story about belief, and whether or not our beliefs should be primarily scientific or primarily religious. The first clause would almost certainly make for an interesting movie; questioning what is worthy of belief, separating truth from untruth, or challenging beliefs have historically been at the root of some of the world’s best narratives. It’s the second clause that creates the problems within the story. The conflict between right-wing American religion and scientists receiving government money, such as it is, is not uninteresting in its own right. I’m sure one could glean enough material for a made-for-TV movie or something out of that. The problem is Contact is not a made-for-TV movie. It’s two and a half hours (and feels a heck of a lot longer) in which science and religion playfully bat each other back and forth without getting very far; the dialogue often sounds like it was transcribed from a school bus conversation between an atheist ninth-grader and a religious ninth-grader. Neither side convinces. Neither side even makes much of a case, really, not one that doesn’t sound like a pair of ninth-graders on the JV debate team thought it up. In a climactic scene, Ellie Arroway (Foster) is forced to admit in front of a congressional panel that, despite her experience, there is no evidence that she traveled through wormholes and spoke with a Vegan who took the form of her father on some intergalactic beach in the center of the galaxy. She has spent most of the movie decrying the efforts of religious figures to impose themselves on an adventure which she thinks ought to be guided by science alone. And then comes the kicker: “Are you really going to sit there and tell us that we should just take all this on faith?” a senator asks her. It’s one of the worst lines of dialogue of the past twenty years. Who cares if we should value science or religion more? Is it novel that any amount of belief in something requires faith? It’s not a question that can be debated because no one could possibly change anyone else’s mind on the subject. The film may debate science and religion, but it’s the “academic” equivalent of putting your foot on the gas and keeping your car in neutral.

Just as a beautiful ship with a great gash in its hull is doomed to sink, there are some pleasing aspects to Contact. Although the movie is boring, I firmly believe that in the hands of a different director this might be an interesting movie. A different time might have helped, too. The cheerful ’90s setting was doubtless cheaper and must have seemed relevant, but the ’80s gave the United States a rival which could have more realistically fired paranoia about international cooperation. Carl Sagan’s novel, which was written and took place before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, imagines just such a scenario. The debate between science and religion, which ends in Contact with “What if there didn’t need to be a debate between the two?” after milking said debate for 150 minutes, is addlepated at best. At least there was a major studio flick that wanted to talk about religious experience and the scientific method, even if it did it badly. In 1997, this is about as all-star a cast as one could reasonably expect for a relatively brainy blockbuster; if casting had somehow gotten Tom Hanks to play Ellie’s dad, Contact might have hit the jackpot. As it is, a core of Zemeckis-Foster-McConaughey-Woods-Bassett, with Tom Skerritt, William Fichtner, and between-jobs Rob Lowe is an impressively ’90s prestige set. It’s a strong cast, too. Foster gets to play a brilliant, competent, and principled woman; more than any other role, this is the one that fits her best. I happen to like McConaughey as the delectably named Palmer Joss, a Christian with a distinct New Age bent, although to me his character is the most unbelievable of the bunch. He has no congregation, does not seem to spread his evangel over the television, but is recognized as Bill Clinton’s go-to on matters of religion and is nationally famous. How someone like that becomes that important is absolutely beyond me, to say nothing of his theology. Ellie has a neatly defined specialty; Palmer has a vague experiential doctrine. It’s a flaw that’s carried over from the novel, albeit a greater one in the film. Religion is pumped up for the movie, as is the character of Palmer Joss; in the book, he is a supporting character and, thank the maker, doesn’t have sex with Ellie even once. Even so, his theology is sort of a mystery; it’s the kind of mistake that scientists in fiction often seem to make with religious figures. In any event, McConaughey has a character which fits him like a glove as well. Very briefly:

Most McConaughey Roles:

  1. Mark Hanna, The Wolf of Wall Street
  2. Wooderson, Dazed and Confused
  3. Dallas, Magic Mike
  4. Palmer Joss, Contact
  5. Benjamin Barry, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days

While McConaughey makes the character feel personable and alluring – that, at least, makes a little sense – Palmer is something of a lightweight compared to somebody like Ellie. His arguments don’t stand up to hers, but he is more powerful; in one scene, he manages singlehandedly to ruin her chances of being the first person to ride the machine and, presumably, meet the Vegans. (It’s because he’s afraid she’ll die and he loves her and doesn’t want her to die. The movie really does undercut him needlessly.) Ironically, it’s her former boss, David Drumlin (Skerritt) who gets the chance to ride the machine, and it’s Drumlin who is killed by the Last White Terrorist in a Movie, a religious fanatic who opposes the machine on principle. It’s almost too bad; Drumlin is a far better villain for this piece than Kitz (James Woods), who’s merely a paranoid security expert. Drumlin is a true climber, who has historically given Ellie the business for choosing to spend her career chasing aliens; that doesn’t stop him from self-aggrandizing and butt-kissing his way into the coveted spot on the machine, where he would, presumably, be proved very wrong. Skerritt, like Foster and McConaughey, is on point in this role. One can see how he can charm higher-ups while simultaneously squelching people below him on the chain of command.

The film takes a very long time to get going – it spends ages establishing young Ellie, in Jena Malone and hair-down Jodie Foster forms alike – and one wonders if the film couldn’t have made its points more rapidly. Yes, losing her father was a key event in Ellie’s life, one that the Vegans make a note of when they bring her to the center of the universe. Yes, she’s got romantic chemistry with every white man visiting Puerto Rico. Yes, she’s excited about listening to the skies. All in all, the savings in minutes might have been significant. I can imagine a good twenty minutes of this movie disappearing without a problem, and that by itself could have changed Contact from a ponderous, plodding film to a movie that is much more agile. It’s true that a movie which skitters from event to event without properly building characters or laying plot groundwork can fall through. It’s also true, although significantly rarer, that a movie can spend too much time trying to develop and thus become overburdened. Ellie’s voyage, for lack of a better term, should be a thunderously fascinating moment. But the movie spends ages putting her aboard the machine, and ages more going through the countdown, and ages more putting us through the paces of good but unspectacular special effects to depict her voyage, before finally setting us down for an incredibly brief moment where Ellie alone, of all humanity, gets to soak up a connection to the universe. In concert the pieces work against one another rather than contributing to the film together, and the mystical effect that the movie has been building up to collapses under its own weight.

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