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‘Contact’ Puts Its Viewers In Touch With Big Questions

Fri., July 11, 1997

Amid this summer of rampaging dinosaurs, killer bugs and psychopathic convicts at large, “Contact” stands out like a partial lunar eclipse.

It attracts our attention, it conjures up promordial concerns, it suggests moments of majestic grandeur and it ends up being only semisatisfying.

Based on the best-selling novel by Carl Sagan, the late astronomer whose Public Broadcasting series “Cosmos” introduced millions to the wonders of the universe, “Contact” is more a classic meditation on the nature of being than it is a slam-bang “Men in Black” kind of action-thriller.

We can thank director Robert Zemeckis for this. Many of us love to squirm and laugh at the absurdities of a roller-coaster ride such as “Independence Day.” But it’s nice to be asked to think once in a while.

And thought is the very essence of “Contact,” whose focal character is a loner kind of star-gazer named Ellie Arroway. As portrayed by Jodie Foster, Ellie is a woman driven to prove that life exists elsewhere in the vast realm of space.

“If it is just us,” she says, “seems like a lot of wasted space.”

She’s not the only one to say this. She’s not even the first; that honor goes to her beloved father (played, briefly, by David Morse). But she is the one who takes it most to heart, causing her to pursue the offbeat and widely ridiculed field of study known as S.E.T.I. (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence).

Such “X-Files”-type interests are not good for her career, as her one-time mentor and ultimate competitor David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) continually tells her. But Ellie is not ambitious in any standard way; she’s interested in furthering her career only if it allows her to continue doing what she’s always done - namely, to listen for the signals that she’s convinced will one day come from Out There.

And on the day they finally do. … well, that’s just the beginning of Ellie’s struggle. For like all speculative fiction, “Contact” - which is based on a screenplay co-written by Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan - is more than just a tale of adventure. It’s about philosophy, it’s about spirituality, it’s about the gray area where science meets faith.

It is, in fact, about the very way in which we perceive existence.

And for Ellie, while she’s convinced that humans are not alone in the cosmos, she can’t say the same thing for any so-called higher power. Still marked by her childhood tragedies, Ellie’s notion of faith involves empirical data; her idea of truth involves only what she can see/hear through her radio telescope.

When Ellie’s worldview is challenged, “Contact” explores not only her reactions, but it contemplates what the whole world’s response would be should such an unprecedented event occur.

And in doing all this, it offers us a view of what could be without beating us over the head about what ostensibly is.

Not surprisingly, the film is at its best whenever Foster is on screen. One of the most intelligent and sincere of today’s film performers, Foster is the heart, mind and soul of “Contact.” Ellie’s struggle to understand the meaning of life, but even more so her own role in it, feels heart-breakingly real.

Some of the secondary roles are fine, too, especially James Woods as head of the National Security Agency, Angela Bassett as a presidential adviser, Skerritt as a duplicitiously ambitious scientist and, most of all, John Hurt as a Howard Hughes-type billionaire who adopts Ellie as his own pet project.

Less effective is Matthew McConaughey as Palmer Joss, Clinton’s religious adviser. This may not be all his fault, however. A capable actor, McConaughey (“A Time to Kill”) has the bad luck to be playing the obligatory love interest - in this case, an intense sort whose self-righteousness almost ruins Ellie’s chances of achieving her life’s dream.

This being a science-fiction-oriented summer film, “Contact” doesn’t disappoint in terms of its visuals. As you would expect from someone who has specialized in melding technology with filmmaking, director Zemeckis (“Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump”) achieves some dazzling displays.

He blends real-life footage (a la “Gump”) of Bill Clinton with obvious movie scenes, making it seem as if such cast members as Foster, Skerritt, Woods and Bassett are at an actual White House press briefing.

And the computer-driven scenes involving a futuristic space-travel contraption offer a couple of distinct moods - one recalling the tragic feel of the space shuttle Challenger, the other a more upbeat (if equally eerie) kind of light show that Stanley Kubrick devised for “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

All this, however, can’t blot out the film’s weaknesses. For one thing, Zemeckis has too many characters doing double-duty. Woods, especially, not only is the president’s military-minded paranoid type who sees any alien voice as a threat, but then he becomes a major voice in a Congressional investigation - no small jump in authority, much less credibility.

And Zemeckis takes us through all this at a zero-gravity pace, propelling his narrative with one talking head (Larry King, Geraldo Rivera, Jay Leno) after another.

The film’s biggest fault, though, is its failure to come up with any satisfactory solutions to the problems that it poses.

In part, the film’s ambiguity is both understandable and welcomed. Being more interested in pursuing possibilities than in settling for sensible realities, “Contact” wisely doesn’t pretend to say who’s right in the science vs. religion debate.

Still, that’s no excuse for neglecting to resolve basic plot points.

Foster’s obsession to achieve contact is the core of her character, and that need derives from some deep childhood wounds. This much is clear.

Less clear, though, is the point behind the film’s portrayal of those who place so much credence in the idea of a God. In one early scene, those folks are caricatured much as they were in “Independence Day” and “Mars Attacks!” - as a bunch of mindless thrill-seekers carrying signs that say, among other things, “This way to Oz.”

Later on, though, the same types are seen as sober seekers of the truth who now look to Ellie as a kind of messiah.

Never addressed are some obvious questions: Does Ellie have the strength needed to lead humanity toward a better tomorrow? Has she shown the slightest hint of even wanting to fulfill that role?

Even more to the point, will humanity ever be able to contemplate its connection to the heavens without resorting to the kind of factional, doctrine-driven warfare that for centuries has split the planet?

The answers that Sagan/Zemeckis provide remain, like the man in the moon, maddeningly equivocal.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: “CONTACT” **-1/2 Locations: East Sprague, Newport and Showboat Credits: Directed by Robert Zemeckis, starring Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, James Woods, Angela Bassett, John Hurt, David Morse, Rob Lowe. Running time: 2:20 Rating: PG

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Contact:” Michael H. Price/Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Even if something actually is out there, you’d never know it from “Contact,” the stately but often heavy handed movie version of the late Carl Sagan’s best selling novel. The point is to keep you wondering and maybe even hoping for a close encounter. Bob Thomas/Associated Press: At last, a summer epic with no car crashes, shootings or - well, it does have one whopper of an explosion. Instead, “Contact” stands out from the rest of the season’s overinflated comic-book binges by challenging the mind and the senses. Duane Byrge/The Hollywood Reporter: … Despite its lineage and some impressive special effects, “Contact” is a disappointingly earthbound production, weighed down by the ballast of talkingheads dramaturgy and bloated storytelling. Karen Hershenson/Contra Costa Times: Finally, we have signs of intelligent life - at the movies. Rarely has the notion of humans encountering alien life forms been more sensitively handled than in “Contact.” … How fitting that with hordes gathered in Roswell, N.M., to mark the 50th anniversary of a supposed spaceship landing, we get a film that builds such a convincing scenario of human-extraterrestrial contact that it will give you goosebumps.

These sidebars appeared with the story: “CONTACT” **-1/2 Locations: East Sprague, Newport and Showboat Credits: Directed by Robert Zemeckis, starring Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, James Woods, Angela Bassett, John Hurt, David Morse, Rob Lowe. Running time: 2:20 Rating: PG

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Contact:” Michael H. Price/Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Even if something actually is out there, you’d never know it from “Contact,” the stately but often heavy handed movie version of the late Carl Sagan’s best selling novel. The point is to keep you wondering and maybe even hoping for a close encounter. Bob Thomas/Associated Press: At last, a summer epic with no car crashes, shootings or - well, it does have one whopper of an explosion. Instead, “Contact” stands out from the rest of the season’s overinflated comic-book binges by challenging the mind and the senses. Duane Byrge/The Hollywood Reporter: … Despite its lineage and some impressive special effects, “Contact” is a disappointingly earthbound production, weighed down by the ballast of talkingheads dramaturgy and bloated storytelling. Karen Hershenson/Contra Costa Times: Finally, we have signs of intelligent life - at the movies. Rarely has the notion of humans encountering alien life forms been more sensitively handled than in “Contact.” … How fitting that with hordes gathered in Roswell, N.M., to mark the 50th anniversary of a supposed spaceship landing, we get a film that builds such a convincing scenario of human-extraterrestrial contact that it will give you goosebumps.



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