Contact (1997): Better Use of Characters But Better Point in the Book

Contact-movie-poster

    We continue Sci. Fi. Movie Week with the before the last film we’ll be covering. That film we’ll be covering is “Contact.” “Contact” is an interesting film to review. I liked it, though the director putting it in Carl Sagan’s honor while presenting a message at the end that contradicted the point the book and Sagan’s work felt like it missed the point. First off, Carl Sagan is one of my favorite people…but wasn’t that good of a fiction writer. Contact the novel was very detached so it was hard to get invested in the interesting things that were happening. The film is very different from that and you care about the main characters…though I think Sagan’s point in the book comes out much stronger versus the film where the message is a bit muddled and not entirely clear in it’s execution.

     The film was directed by Robert Zemeckis who was also one of the producers and written by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg. The other producer was Steve Starkey. The story was by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, which I am glad about as it’s Sagan’s story so at least his core points were able to get through than if he hadn’t been a part of the process.

     The premise of “Contact” is that Ellie (Jodie Foster) is seeking alien life in the Universe but is having to fight for it every step of the way as funding for SETI gets pulled by her boss Drumlin. She finds away around it as she gets funding to use some government radio telescopes and right when she is about to lose it an alien signal is heard and contact made. From here the story unfolds as there is a rush to interpret the message as religious and political factions seek to use it to their gain. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is clear and captures the sense of wonder and personal trials of the characters really well. It reminds me of “Apollo 13.” Don Burgess truly did an amazing job on this film.

Theodore Arroway – David Morse is back and fantastic (really liked his performance in the “Green Mile”) and in this he’s great as Ellie’s father who inspires her to look towards finding life in space and becoming a scientist…and whose death makes it hard for her to be in relationships as she was not able to save him. I wish we’d seen more of his character as he did not get enough screen time.

Palmer Ross – Matthew McConaughey plays Ellie’s love and the other side of the coin in the debate between religion and science. His arguments aren’t great but his coming from a place of emotion and connection (reason he doesn’t support her going on the mission is fear of losing her) are a nice contrast to Ellie’s fear of connecting to people. He is the person who connects to people easily and it’s because of the language and emphasis on religion. He goes from religious to agnostic religious as he trusts Ellie’s experience of meeting the aliens. Ellie’s arc goes in the other direction.

Kent Clark – William Fichtner is good as a blind SETI scientist who is one of Ellie’s major support folks and is the one fighting at the front lines for her for the first half of the movie. He kind of disappears later, which is a shame as he’s a great neurotic scientist who adds character to every scene he’s in.

Ellie Arroway – Jodie Foster is great in this as she’s a character who has trouble connecting to others because of the loss of her father but over the course of making contact with the aliens is able to heal from that and to understand the perspective of faith a little more. She’s an active character and her flashbacks lend to her present as we see how rich her relationship was with her dad.

First Contact – Ellie meets the aliens after the first machine gets destroyed by a religious fanatic, killing the original pilot but a secret base gives her the chance to finally go. The machine creates a wormhole and she talks to an alien who takes the form of her father and tells her that they do this will all species but not all species make it here. It’s a cool scene and the world they are in feels alien and unreal the entire time. The feel of the aliens is very true to the book.

The Cons: The Antagonists – There is a religious fanatic, militaristic government official and Ellie’s boss who are just one dimensional villains. This is where the problem in the book “Contact” really comes out as these simple caricatures only disprove the points they try and make which makes Ellie look good even if she’s acting from a place without evidence. I really didn’t like that. James Woods is even one of the folks but how they were written cannot save this film and it’s one of the biggest reasons I can’t consider this film great or a favorite. They are used to prop up the directors point and because they are unfair antagonists Ellie looks noble in all her actions no matter how stupid said actions may be. Not going to list their names since they don’t function as characters, just plot devices to advance Ellie’s plot and the director’s point.

Who Needs Evidence – At the end after Ellie has visited the aliens, everyone things she was lying because there was only static and the pod just fell through the machine. Rather than seeking evidence to prove what she experienced and prove intelligence in the universe she falls back on the faith argument which completely ruins her point and why she doesn’t believe in God and is an agnostic. This really annoyed me as Sagan was writing from his own perspective of skepticism and agnosticism in his novel and the director completely missed that point. Experience is good and should be valued but that wasn’t the point of Sagan’s book or his shows and work.

     This is a movie worth seeing, and it is a good. The main issues I have though is how the scientific process gets ignored in the end when so much of Jodie’s arc is fighting for that and helping others to recognize that what she found is based in the scientific process. The acting is good though and is the greatest thing that makes it better than the book, where the detachment from the characters really made it hard to care about them. If you want a movie that captures wonder, check it out. The cinematography does a good job at capturing that, even if it does get a bit sidetracked at the end. Glad this movie got made and grateful that it was made in honor of Carl Sagan, one of the greatest scientists who has lived.

Final Score: 8.4 / 10. Solidly good and actors and cinematography elevate a script that has issues in it’s point and execution.

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