Great Films You Need To See – Contact (1997)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece about Robert Zemeckis’s 1997 sci-fi classic Contact was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

If they ever considered stopping by our planet, aliens should prepare themselves for a rough welcome if our exhaustive list of films featuring malevolent little green men is anything to go by.

Contact ultimately lets us decide for ourselves whether the mysterious signal is the work of an alien intelligence or not. It's a question really of how much you believe

Contact ultimately lets us decide for ourselves whether the mysterious signal is the work of an alien intelligence or not. It’s a question really of how much you believe

Aliens have been many things in the movies, but peaceful is rarely one of them. Even Steven Spielberg, who waved the flag for benevolent beings from outer space in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), ended up making War Of The Worlds (2005). Needless to say, those guys weren’t interested in making music or phoning home.

Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 adaptation of cosmologist Carl Sagan’s novel Contact feels like a riposte to the biggest evil green men movie of them all, Independence Day, which had been released the previous year.

Jodie Foster stars as SETI radio astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway in Contact

Jodie Foster stars as SETI radio astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway in Contact

Ostensibly about the mystery that surrounds a signal of possibly alien origin detected by radio astronomer Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), Contact is more concerned with exploring the uneasy relationship that exists between religion, science and politics.

While James Woods’ National Security Advisor Michael Kitz represents the hawkish impulse of authority to control what isn’t fully understood; the push/pull connection shared between Ellie and Christian philosopher Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) suggests that scientific conviction and religious certainty are two sides of the same coin.

Christian philosopher Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) mulls over the role of God in all this in Contact

Christian philosopher Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) mulls over the role of God in all this in Contact

Indeed, the genius of Contact is in the way its obsessive leading character finds herself acting increasingly on faith the closer she gets to discovering the ultimate truth behind what is, potentially, the greatest scientific breakthrough in human history.

Although she doesn’t believe in the afterlife, a revealing moment early on (following the extraordinary opening shot which pulls back from Earth to follow humanity’s radio broadcasts through the solar system, the Milky Way and beyond) comes when a young Ellie asks her father if they can contact her dead mother via radio. This is reflected later in the film when, following an apparent trip to the other side of the universe, she finds herself in heaven, for all intents and purposes.

The 'alien' machine is  made a reality in Contact

The ‘alien’ machine is made a reality in Contact

Foster is perfectly cast in the role of the dogged and inquisitive Ellie. Not everyone can carry off speeches that contain the words “Einstein Rosen Bridge” (aka wormhole) and Foster imbues her lines with a conviction that could have you fooled into thinking she’s Professor Brian Cox’s mentor.

While not the finished Oscar-winning item he would later become, McConaughey brings his good ol’ Southern charm to the role of Joss, who gets to present the other side of the argument without succumbing to Bible-thumping craziness (that role’s taken by Jake Busey’s wildly exaggerated preacher in one of the film’s only missteps).

Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) prepares for the ultimate trip in Contact

Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) prepares for the ultimate trip in Contact

After incorporating Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon into Forrest Gump (1994), Zemeckis went one better by interweaving footage of sitting US President Bill Clinton’s press conferences into the narrative of Contact.

It’s a gamble that works and adds an extra layer of authenticity to a film that never apologises for wanting to make you think, rather than suggesting you switch off your brain on the way in.

Contact ultimately lets us decide for ourselves whether the mysterious signal is the work of an alien intelligence or not. It’s a question really of how much you believe.

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25 comments

  1. le0pard13 · June 25, 2014

    I remain a steadfast fan of this one. Wonderful film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel. Fine review! 😀

  2. theipc · June 25, 2014

    Excellent movie! Great post!

  3. I do think this is an underrated gym. I agree. And I’m not much of a Jodie Foster fan.

    >

  4. The Vern · June 25, 2014

    This is a very underrated movie. I agree the ideas of science and religion are two sides of the same coin. That opening shot is awesome

    • Three Rows Back · June 26, 2014

      It is isn’t it? I watched it again earlier; I’d forgotten just how audacious it is. Zemeckis wouldn’t get away with that today.

  5. Victor De Leon · June 25, 2014

    Always have been a big fan of this film and I never understood all of the negative disdain. I suppose the ending didn’t gel with many but I agree with you that the film is unapologetic and relevant. I think it still holds up very well and I even had my 16 year old watch it with me one evening and he loved it. He was stunned by that opening sequence and he even figured out that the further the shot went away from earth the older the transmission became. It is still a whopper of an opening. I also loved Foster in this as well as the supporting cast. It is all around a very cool and thought provoking sci fi parable and your review was spot on! Awesome work!

    • Three Rows Back · June 26, 2014

      The ending is either gonna work for you or it ain’t I suppose. That being said, it makes perfect sense for me and it completely works in the context of the movie. The opening shot is incredible isn’t it! I’d forgotten how amazing it is. That’s great to hear your kid enjoyed it too; they’ve got taste! Thanks for the great feedback Vic.

  6. cindybruchman · June 26, 2014

    I love this film. It really stirred me philosophically and I loved the worm sequence and her journey to another planet. Really great review 🙂

    • Three Rows Back · June 26, 2014

      Thank you Cindy. That final act is quite divisive but I for loved it. Glad you did too.

  7. Tim The Film Guy · June 26, 2014

    I really enjoyed this film 😀

  8. ckckred · June 26, 2014

    Nice review. I recently watched this and enjoyed it up until the ending when the movie fell apart in my eyes. It was really disappointing seeing how well the film starts.

    • Three Rows Back · June 26, 2014

      Thanks man. As for the ending, I completely understand how divisive it could be. I for one think it works perfectly in the overall contect of the film. It leaves many questions unanswered which I think works here.

  9. ruth · June 26, 2014

    Oh I just saw this recently Mark. I don’t think it’s perfect and the ending is trippy, but I do think it’s a well-made and intriguing sci-fi that explores a lot of important topics. I like the spirituality aspect of it as well.

    • Three Rows Back · June 26, 2014

      I doubt a film like this would get made today so I think it’s worth cherishing 🙂

  10. Dan Heaton · June 27, 2014

    I love this fan and its idealism about what’s out there in space. It’s also my favorite performance from Jodie Foster. I read the book after seeing this movie, and she embodies the Ellie of the books for me. I’m surprised that Contact doesn’t get more love!

    • Three Rows Back · July 1, 2014

      Not read the book yet, but am intrigued now after rewarching what is a classic film. I’m surprised it doesn’t get more too. Thanks for the feedback Dan.

  11. Dan · June 29, 2014

    Great read. For me, Contact is underrated (a bit like the work of Robert Zemeckis in general) – it’s a terrific film.

    • Three Rows Back · July 1, 2014

      Thanks as always Dan. It’s absolutely a terrific film and too little seen.

  12. Pingback: Review – Interstellar | three rows back
  13. Pingback: Review – Midnight Special | three rows back

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