Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer
Last month award-winning Sci Fi drama Contact turned 25. Starring an ensemble cast led by Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey and directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump), the film follows a scientist who discovers a mysterious message from an extraterrestrial source.
I thoroughly enjoyed the film when I first watched it years ago, but how does it hold up a quarter century later? Pretty well. With an intergalactic SPOILER ALERT let’s decode Contact in four blasts:
Blast #1 Stargazers
Foster stars as Dr Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, a SETI (search for extraterrestrial life) scientist who has dedicated her life to making contact with aliens. The veteran actress delivers one of her best performances here, fully selling the driven, intelligent, passionate scientist but balancing her out with emotions and vulnerabilities. I’d actually forgotten how many other stars were in this film. There’s Tom Skerritt as opportunistic and occasionally antagonistic Dr David Drumlin, James Woods as ball-busting National Security Council head Kitz, William Fichtner as Ellie’s blind fellow scientist Kent Clarke (I have a theory he is secretly Superman), Angela Bassett as a White House official and even Jake Busey as radical religious leader Joseph.
One of my favourite performances is the late great John Hurt as eccentric billionaire industrialist S.R. Hadden. He just has a few minutes of screen time but each scene is memorable. But Julien, you forgot about McConaughey as Christian philosopher and love interest Palmer Joss. I actually did not and wanted to save him for last. While I think generally the cast give solid performances McConaughey just didn’t do much for me here. His performance is little too laid back and they don’t spend enough time building up and developing his relationship with Ellie to make their grand love believable. And while he is supposed to bring the faith perspective to act as foil to the protagonist’s atheistic scientific belief, this aspect is barely explored and not very effective. But overall, a very good cast with many strong characters.
Blast #2 Do You Understand the Words That Are Coming Outta My Mouth?
I’m no rocket scientist and the average person watching Contact back in 1997 or revisiting it later is unlikely to be. But there is no audience surrogate here for things to be dumbed down to and no hand holding, other than a few explanations to government officials which do flow naturally. We are just here along for the ride like a fly on the wall. With all the heavy scientific concepts and terms on paper it sounds like a recipe for confusion. But while we may not understand exactly what they are saying, by the emotions and action it is easy enough to figure out what is happening.
And kudos to Zemeckis for infusing a sense of urgency and energy into scenes. By the plot this could have been a snoozefest, at least for most of the film, but instead it is exciting and even riveting. When Ellie and her team first get the alien message you feel the frenzy. And in the preparations for both launches of the alien transport device the tension is palpable, especially when they discover Joseph at the first attempted launch. Good stuff.
Blast #3 Whoa!
I have seen my fair share of Sci Fi films and Contact is definitely one of the most grounded. If we were to make contact with aliens this feels close to what would actually happen. They even included real life celebrities like Jay Leno and Larry King and cut in footage of then president Bill Clinton to add to the believability, though the latter did get the producers in some hot water. That aside, there is an undeniable realness to what is happening. Does the science hold up? No clue. But it sounds like it holds up, and that is enough for me.
And while we spend most of the time with our feet on the ground and reaching for the stars (big up all the old fogeys who got that reference) we do get Sci Fi effects in the final act. From the sleek, futuristic design of the alien device to the cool, 2001-esque psychedelic effects of the wormholes, the film delivers both in production design and visuals. And it would be remiss of me not to praise the uplifting music by three-time Saturn award winner Alan Silvestri. The music combines with the story and visuals to create a true sense of mystery and wonder, which is one of my favourite aspects of the genre.
Blast #4 Where’s the Little Green Men?
Okay, let’s talk about the alien ghost dad in the room. I suspect that more than a few people were disappointed after waiting the entire film to see what the aliens look like only for the extraterrestrials to take the very human form of Ellie’s dearly departed father Theodore (played by David Morse). I wasn’t disappointed the first time I saw it nor upon my recent rewatch. One of the main themes of the film is the importance of connection so it makes sense from that perspective. And it is a touching scene between “father” and daughter, though the aliens don’t say a whole lot of intergalactic note. I know, I know, it’s a “first step.” But a cure for cancer or at least the common cold would have been nice. #justsaying
The end of the film brings the other main theme into central focus, faith versus science. Now the scientific Ellie has to ask the Powers That Be to believe her extraordinary journey not on evidence but on “faith.” Deep stuff. And I’m glad they established that it did happen, as I don’t think an ambiguous ending would have worked here. All in all, the film holds up spectacularly and remains one of the best cerebral Sci Fi films and a spiritual grandfather (or grandmother, I guess) to movies like Arrival and Interstellar.
Editor Jules’s Score: 9 out of 10
Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.
Are you a fan of Contact? What’s your favourite scene? And you can check out more Sci Fi retrospectives below: