Revisiting Contact (1997)

contact2I have a fascination with space travel, alien civilizations and our own place in the Cosmos that dates back to me as a kid watching Star Trek. Films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Carl Sagan’s book and tv series Cosmos only reinforced my conviction that we are not alone, that we should watch the skies and being alone in this vast universe is surely a big waste of Space. 

I never read Carl Sagan’s book Contact. I’m not entirely sure why, it seems a strange omission but life is weird like that, we make some choices which, looking back, don’t entirely make a lot of sense.   

So I don’t know what differences exist between Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 film and the original book, or whether it is wholly faithful. It feels like something Carl Sagan would have written; certainly it has novel ideas and extrapolates from scientific ideas a plausible premise about First Contact. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter to me, although now that I consider it I really should catch up with the book sometime. Its enough that the film was, when I saw it at the cinema back in the day, and remains today watching my Blu-Ray copy, a pretty strong and quite satisfying film. 

Its perhaps a wee bit melodramatic, a little too Hollywood… maybe its just that its a product of the 1990s. I think it would have benefited by being made several years ago with a less emotive director, someone like Denis Villeneuve, really- its no mistake that the film I kept on thinking about while watching Contact was Villeneuve’s own First Contact film, his superb Arrival from 2016. Arrival is a better film by some margin, I think, but I would dearly love to see what someone like Villeneuve might have made of something like Contact, given the material and a big cinematic toybox.

I was oddly disturbed, funnily enough, when I considered that the last time I had watched Contact was before Arrival existed- this was the first time watching Contact in which Arrival was in my thoughts, and it made me consider the strange thing it is of re-watching films over the years. We are different, the world is different, the cinematic landscape is different: and that later point is perhaps the most telling of all. Films made decades later with better technologies inevitably have some bearing on whether a film still holds up years down the line. For one thing, I seem to remember the visual effects of Contact being pretty cutting-edge back in 1997; its funny how much some CG effects have aged spectacularly badly. Many of Contact’s visual effects hold up pretty well, and some of them, er, really don’t look good.   

The search for extra-terrestrial life always made perfect sense and great importance to me. As Arthur C Clarke put it,  “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Contact doesn’t voice it in the same way, it leaves that argument unspoken and I keep on thinking that Jodie Foster’s character, our central heroine, Ellie, should scream that sentiment out at her loudest voice: how can any one of her detractors critiquing her obsession with SETI deny it? Contact seems more concerned with arguments of Faith, examinations of Faith, either in God or Science and its a bittersweet stroke of genius that Ellie’s First Contact experience ultimately becomes a matter of Faith. Are we believers (of course we are, we saw what she saw) or are we non-believers (did we really just see what she thinks she saw)? I think the film would have been incredibly brave had it just left it that way- instead it tips its hat with a reveal that Ellie’s digital recorder may have recorded just static- but it recorded eighteen hours of it, which validates Ellie’s claims. It feels a little too literal, too obvious to me, I think I would have preferred a vaguer conclusion. I think what I’m getting at is that Contact is still an enjoyable and fairly strong film- it just isn’t sophisticated enough, for me today. Maybe its too literal. 

contactThe films constant tension between God and science, between Faith and Empirical Evidence is both its most interesting dynamic and its most irritating. It keeps on forcing its way in. It feels like something Carl Sagan would have written, even if he always seemed quite dismissive about anything Divine- God always seemed too simple a solution for Carl. My suspicion, having not read the book, is that a lot of the films preoccupation with God and science are from the Hollywood direction, not the book, but hey, I could be way wrong and should-have-done-my-research.

The cast is really good. Jodie Foster is great as Ellie, and its wonderful seeing Tom Skerritt as the  boo-hiss villain of the piece, scientist/bureaucrat/bastard David Drumlin. James Woods of course could play the frankly despicable -if wholly believable- government senator Kitz in his sleep, and seeing him in this I wonder again why we see so little of him these days (has he retired?). How wonderful, too, is John Hurt as tech magnate S. R. Hadden (and me suddenly realising he’s a fellow Alien colleague of Skerritt, and yep they both die in this film too). Really, the cast is one of the films strengths. Even a rather young-looking Matthew McConaughey, who always irritated me in the film and still does -too cool, too self-confident, too sexy, too Hollywood- has the novel perspective gifted from his later roles, particularly Interstellar, a film that assumes intelligence but is frankly quite behind Contact in that regard (Interstellar’s twist that the ‘aliens’ are our future selves communicating via a Cosmic Bookcase is just… I’m always rather lost for words). 

As I’ve gotten older my own faith, as it were, that it would surely be just a matter of Time before SETI found some evidence of an alien signal and proof of neighbours in the Cosmos, has not been realised. Years and decades went by and the euphoria of Close Encounters of the Third Kind was eventually worn down by mundane reality. When that film originally came out I read something by someone remarking that the events of CE3K had they happened would have been kept secret, we -the public at large- would never have been told, it was an event just too big, too huge. It would change too much, so such revelations would be hidden away for our own safety. Reading that as a kid, I dismissed it with my usual youthful enthusiasm, but as I’ve gotten older and more jaded… partly I think, how do you keep such secrets secret in this Information Age, but then I think, grow up. They can hide anything.

Maybe something like Close Encounters of the Third Kind couldn’t be made today. Its message of Good Aliens after decades of Hollywood alien invasions felt quite radical at the time, even if its sentiments proved short-lived with Alien and Independence Day and so many others reasserting the alien’s rightful place of outsiders and menace. Are we ready for First Contact? Robert Zemeckis’ film suggests that we’re not, and its possibly right, but its a great question to ask and ponder over. For my part, a recurring problem for me every time Contact finishes, is that its somehow pressed some magical ‘reset’ button worthy of 1960s television- there is no mention of the alien technology just sitting waiting to be used again, or the various applications of that technology that would filter down into military and civilian use. Ellie is even back at her old job listening for signals again. James Woods dismissing the whole thing as an elaborate hoax by some high-tech industrialist is like some kind of magic trick, and its that one moment in which Contact becomes, at the last moment, utterly stupid.

Just as at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there would be no going back, and maybe the REALLY interesting films, in both cases, would be the films telling us what happened next, but neither CE3K2 or Contact 2 ever happened. Sometimes film-makers get away scot-free.

2 thoughts on “Revisiting Contact (1997)

  1. Matthew McKinnon

    It’s a thorny one, I agree. I watched this when it came out and walked away feeling a bit empty and deflated and sort of wrote it off as a failure. It also put me off Matthew McConaughey for many years to come – I’d never seen him as as romantic lead, and I found his character and performance here utterly slimy and unctuous.

    I’ve seen it a few times since and managed to separate out the wheat from the chaff, and for its strengths it’s now something of a guilty pleasure.

    The pluses are obviously the cast, especially Foster who is just magnificent here, doing the Clarice Starling vulnerable but steely thing to perfection. I’m sort of in love with Ellie, and my wife makes fun of me for it. And William Fichtner is lovely in his little role.

    All the stuff with the signal and machine is terrifying and brilliant, and there are moments that are incredibly powerful: I always liked the deathly, lonely wait the night before the final journey in the machine, aboard the aircraft carrier. I also remember almost crying out ‘no!’ involuntarily in the cinema when the first machine was destroyed.

    But the subtext-as-text script and the waffly cod-philosophy get worse with every viewing; the CGI is, as you say, often glaringly bad (why do these old directors, especially Zemeckis, insist on doing pioneering GCI shots that look cutting-edge for about 6 months then date terribly and irrevocably after that? Why not do shots in a way that looks unique or interesting?).

    I don’t know why this film had to hedge its bets regarding ET life. It’s as though it feels that to be ‘serious’ it has to be glum and non-committal. And as a result you don’t feel like anything good has come of it by the end. Ellie’s certainly not any happier, and the world seems a bit more divided and screwed up as a result of the whole thing, so what’s the point of the story?

    And it just has that Zemeckis Bloat that wrecks all his films from the last 25 years. For the man who honed BTTF to absolute line-and-shot perfection, why are all his films so flaccid and overlong now?

    Also: you don’t see much of James Woods these days because he’s turned out to be a total scumbag asshole in real life. Just human pond scum. No-one wants anything to do with him.

  2. Re: James Woods, I guess then that’s a case of art imitating life, maybe. Naturally Kevin Spacey comes to mind – I always thought there was something a bit ‘creepy’ about Spacey in his films, which suited Fincher’s Seven no end. With Woods I thought the undercurrent of darkness in his roles was masterful- I adore him in Videodrome, for instance. That film is brilliant, (yeah, there’s a disc I’m going to have to try watch again soon), its the best Philip K Dick film that isn’t a Philip K Dick film. I always watch Videodrome thinking that Woods would have been a great Deckard in Blade Runner- a different character to Fords, certainly, but perhaps closer to what PKDs heroes were like in his books. So Woods is in real life much like the characters he played so well. Its probably true of more actors than we realise but I’m still quite disappointed. I thought he was acting…

    Re: Contact, yeah, watching it again… every time I’m a bit saddened that its not as good as I remember. Its like in my memory its everything it could have been and in reality I realise they didn’t stick the landing and threw too much God in the thing. Which is one of the reasons why I want to read the book someday, to see how much is Sagan and how much is Zemeckis. Sagan was a hero of mine when I was growing up. I’ve read two biographies of him that don’t really flatter him but no-one can live up to a young man’s ideal of a a noble scientist, certainly in America when one becomes a celebrity. But whenever I see new footage from the rovers on Mars or, say, that flyby of Pluto, I think “I wish Carl could have seen this, what would he have thought?!” and I feel a sense of loss. In just the same way as I also think, “Patrick Moore would have loved this, or Arthur C Clarke”. Is anyone replacing these giants we grew up with?

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