Friday, August 7, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Contact"

Yes, I know "Contact" came out in 1997, and a movie a mere dozen years old could not possibly be categorized as a classic. But the name of the column is "Reeling Backward," and I'm the one writing it, so I get to decide how far backward we reel. In this case, not so much. Still, I think enough time has passed to offer a little perspective on this film.

"Contact" was considered a major disappointment at the time, but I really like the movie. It's based on the Carl Sagan novel about mankind's first contact with alien intelligence. Jodie Foster plays a willful scientist who first detects the signal, and is eventually selected to be the one transported halfway across the universe to meet them.

"Contact" has become a touchstone in pop culture references -- and not in a good way. There's a segment of "Family Guy" where Stewie has a lengthy exchange with Matthew McConaughey, where he insults McConaughey's acting skills in general and his role in "Contact" in particular. He alleges that McConaughey's character has no purpose for being in the film. In his best surfer-Texas-dudespeak, McConaughey agrees, and says the producers just wanted a good-looking guy to balance out Jodie Foster and all the science-y stuff.

Much ridicule has also been made of a major plot point in the film where the huge machine that has been built at the direction of the alien message is blown up by religious extremists, and it's revealed that a second identical machine has been secretly built. I admit it does seem a little deux ex machina, but don't blame director Robert Zemeckis and his screenwriters -- it's right there in Carl Sagan's book. In fact, in the book a total of three machines are built. The American one gets destroyed, the Russian one is plagued by construction problems, and the Japanese one is built at the behest of S.R. Hadden (John Hurt), a renegade billionaire who likes to thumb his nose at the powers that be.

I recently re-read Sagan's novel, and I have to say that as imaginative as I think it is, the TV astronomer was a better scientist than he was a storyteller. The book is dense with technical jargon, and often seems more interested in the hows and wherefores of inter-galactic communication and transportation than the implications of it, and certainly the visceral impact.

This is a rare case where the movie is better than the book.

Foster's character, Ellie Arroway, is much feistier and more confrontational than her literary counterpart. Again, this makes sense -- a movie protagonist can't be passive. Audiences want to see the heroine stand up for herself.

There's also much more made of Arroway's personal ambitions in the film version. There's a great scene where she is attending the presidential news conference announcing the reception of the message from another planet, and she is shunted aside for David Drumlin, a bureaucratic nemesis who had in fact been trying to shut down Arroway's project on the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). For the movie, it makes sense -- conflict is the primary source of drama in most movies. Watch almost any serious film, and some heads are going to be butted.

The movie diverges from the book in ways small and large. The McConaughey character, Palmer Joss, is a religious figure whose print role is quite different. He's heard but not seen to a much greater degree -- and he certainly isn't a romantic partner for Arroway. There's some hint of a connection, but it's more intellectual/philosophical than sexual. She has another boyfriend in the form of the presidential science advisor, which peters out as the machine project nears culmination.

One of the biggest changes is that Arroway is the only person selected to enter the Machine, as it's known, for whatever purpose the aliens have intended for it. But in the book, there are five travelers, representing a geographically and ethnically diverse stratum of humanity. I can see why Zemeckis and his writers went this way -- you'd have to essentially introduce four more important characters right as the movie was entering its third act, which violates some kind of Hollywood dictum or something.

It would also weaken the film's resolution, in which Arroway is held up as a hoaxer. She travels for 18 hours through a series of wormholes, and communicates with a leader of the alien consortium who has taken on the form of her long-dead father. But she's returned at the exact moment she left, so to the observers on the ground nothing happened. There's a nefarious politician, played by James Woods, who leads the inquisition against Arroway, portraying her as an unwitting dupe of the trickster Hadden. Now, it's easy to convince the world that one person had a hallucination, but nearly impossible to make it stick when five people have the same experience.

The one major problem I have with the film, and the book, is the truncated meeting with the aliens. In both cases, the father figure (played by David Morse in the movie) keeps pressing Arroway for time, saying she has to return soon. Basically, she shows up on this alien world, after the nations of earth have spent trillions of dollars building the machine(s), and the essence of their communication is: "Hey. Nice to meetcha. Gotta go now." When Arroway presses him why she can't stay and ask more questions, the answer is that "This is how it's always been done." That's a frustrating non-answer, whether you're reading a book or watching a movie.

But despite its public reception, I feel "Contact" remains one of the best cinematic representations of human interaction with extra-terrestrial life. After all, in a space as vast as our universe, contact is more likely to happen through electronic messages than a flying saucer touching down, a hatch popping open and some green men emerging. The "War of the Worlds" version may sell more tickets, but "Contact" aims a little higher.

3.5 stars

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