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.

And now, Agora

agoraLets talk film connections… well, here’s an example of one anyway- having watched Oliver Stone’s Alexander a few nights ago, I followed it up with another film set in the Ancient World- Alejandro Amenabar’s magnificent Agora. The connection is simple enough:  Alexander closes with Ptolemy an old man in the city of Alexandria in 285 BC, a centre of learning with a library that has teased and bewitched historians and academics for centuries regards the treasures it held within. Agora returns us to the Library of Alexandria in 400 AD, or thereabouts, and concerns the destruction of what remains of the library and how it ties into the fate of Hypatia, one of the most famous women of the ancient world who was killed by a Christian mob – perhaps a key event that signalled humanity descending into the Dark Ages. I think its a great film -much better than Alexander, by the way- and am always frustrated by how it seems to have slipped under most peoples radar. I don’t know if its relative obscurity is because its an independent, European film with limited distribution channels (I had to import a French Blu-ray several years ago to see it) or something down to its rather negative viewpoint of religion and early, formative Christianity in particular. I’d urge anyone who gets the opportunity to give Agora a watch.

Regards historical films. Does one judge Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus by its historical accuracy, or by whether its a great story well told? Should one disparage Oliver Stone’s Alexander because of his artistic license regards real events or academic debate, or just take it as a great romantic yarn about a major historical figure? Films are products of their time, and Spartacus is clearly a 1950s film and Alexander clearly a film with modern sensibilities concerned with the tensions between West and East that continue to dominate political discourse. Should any concern regards historical accuracy impact what one thinks of either film? How far can one go with historical accuracy before it lessens the entertainment value or dramatic qualities of a film?

agora2As far as I can tell, Agora is surprisingly accurate regards the events it portrays. Its Alexandria is a city in decline, with the Roman Empire on the wane, its pagan culture and Gods fading away to the steady rise of Christianity. There is a real feeling of change, the close of one era and the beginning of another. The Library of Alexandria has at this point been reduced to what scrolls remain in the Serapeion, a complex part Temple, part University, which is presumably a pale shadow of the Library’s earlier glory. Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) is a philosopher who teaches there and works to make some sense of humanity’s place in the universe- she looks up longingly at the stars, trying to make sense of them, reaching for the perspective that the camera gifts us with our Gods-Eye views of the world (which I’ll come to later). I understand that the film largely exaggerates her intellectual prowess and what she discovers, but in most other respects it seems very fair to her and largely accurate. She feels like a very modern woman, independent, not needing the company or love of a man (rejecting overtures from a student) or feeling it necessary to fulfil the usual tasks of a woman. While not a Christian (the film infers she was, perhaps unsurprisingly as a scientist and philosopher, also an atheist) she had freinds who were Christians, most notably Orestes (Oscar Isaac), the Roman prefect of Egypt whose friendship caused her downfall as it made her a target of Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria who was feuding with Orestes for control of the city.  

I consider Agora a simply magnificent film and one of my favourites of the last twenty years. I think its beautifully well-made, looking absolutely convincing with excellent art direction and wonderful sets, featuring a very good cast, which also includes Max Minghella and Rupert Evans. Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in possibly the actresses finest role. Agora can be seen as a very sobering, even quite depressing film with a rather negative view of humanity, religion and Christianity in particular- moreover, how religion, or especially religion, suffers from very human failings such as intolerance and tribal politics. There is a sense of seeing humanity at its very best, but also at its very worst. I think the film has something to say, and says it very well. There is a real sense of perspective offered by the film, regards our place in the cosmos, our fragility, and how transient and unimportant our human concerns can seem: at certain times the film literally gifts us a Gods-Eye view of events, seeing the Earth from space and in some shots sweeping down from  a global view to gradually close in on the North African shoreline and further down to street level. At other times he camera rises up from scenes, almost reducing people to ants in the landscape. Its an almost revelatory suggestion of time and space and history made tangible, and quite intoxicating.

agora3In 1980 I learned of the Library of Alexandria through Carl Sagan’s Cosmos tv series, when through the magic of miniature effects and video compositing Sagan walked through the halls of the library talking about all the books and essays lost to us forever when it was burned down in the 4th Century AD. Sagan was a great populariser of science but tended to romanticise; the Library of Alexandria he walks through is glorious, huge; just how much of the library was even left by the 4th Century AD when Hypatia lived is open to debate among historians. Sagan cites the library’s destruction as the onset of the Dark Ages, that it lost to us all the works within, but in truth, no written texts from the Ancient world could have possibly survived to the present day even had the library not been sacked and burned. Its a point raised by Oliver Stone in his Alexander commentary that the memoirs that Ptolemy is seen writing about Alexander, telling us his story, did not survive and were lost to antiquity, ensuring that Alexander would remain an enigma to us. Preserving ancient works would have entailed copying them, repeatedly over long centuries and so many generations, over and over, with subsequent danger of embellishment or editing. Books and scrolls were on papyrus, and individually handwritten/copied, not printed. So it was never likely any of those ancient works could have lasted a few centuries (Ptolemy’s memoirs probably being lost before even Hypatia’s day), never mind millennia to the present day; but Sagan was right about the sense of tragic loss and the period of enlightenment shattered by barbarian hordes pulling humanity down into the Dark Ages. That being said, Hypatia of course sees nothing wrong with having slaves, so even that sense of ‘enlightenment’ that Sagan eulogised should be questioned.

 

Back to the Stars: Ad Astra 4K UHD

ad1Returning to Ad Astra, a few months after its cinema release back in September, was a surprisingly rewarding experience. I’m always curious about returning to films like this when their disc releases come out, and more so regards this film than some. I really had mixed feelings about the film when I first saw it, and while my reservations remain, particularly towards its ending, I have to confess I enjoyed the film much more second time around. Diminished expectations and all that.

First things first though, I have to say, this film looks absolutely gorgeous on 4K UHD, indeed much, much better than it did back in the cinema. I’d possibly forgotten how beautiful the film’s cinematography was, but certainly the tired projection quality/old screens of my Cineworld (currently getting a refurb as I type this so hopefully soon rectified) can’t match sitting a few feet away from my 55″ OLED. There is a lovely filmic quality to the very detailed image, a nice amount of (but not overpowering) grain, some subtle HDR and beautiful colour range- its a great addition to the format and a reminder that sometimes its worth paying a premium. So it looks pretty. But what about the film?

Well, Brad Pitt’s subdued performance is certainly  more nuanced than I remembered, and his interior monologues via voiceover are not as distracting as I thought first time around. I do think the nods in the narrative towards Apocalypse Now are too on the nose and in practice proves an awkward fit for a science fiction film (the journey up the river in Coppola’s film isn’t a convincing analogue for a space odyssey across the solar system).  For one thing, a 79-day journey from Mars to Neptune that manages to fit in flybys of both Jupiter and Saturn seems an incredibly fortuitous piece of planetary alignment, but hey, as John Brosnan said, ‘Its only a movie’ so I should maybe cut the film a break (the less said about Space Pirates and mad Space Baboons the better).

ad2What I really like about the film, and something I wish it had focused on more, was its nihilistic approach to humanity in the universe. The void is vast and inhuman, a silent expanse that defies comprehension, and it is hinted several times during the film that the immensity of space and time can easily damage the human psyche.  Its why the characters have to submit to periodic evaluations and why one of the pilots of the Cepheus seems to suffer a breakdown during a tense emergency arriving at Mars. Its frustrating when the films logic then appears to breakdown, as that same burned-out pilot is immediately passed out for a further flight to Neptune when he really should be grounded. I found the conceit that space travel breaks people, even the smartest and fittest, if only because we really don’t ‘belong’ Out There, was a great subject and indeed a fitting enough explanation for Tommy Lee Jones going all Colonel Kurtz out at Neptune but not really developed enough.

Its frustrating because one of the things so interesting (and infuriating for some viewers) about First Man was its rather detached, cold-fish portrayal of Neil Armstrong. The voyage to the moon is all business for Armstrong in that film, and he seems to shut down emotionally throughout, but its how he seemed to deal with it. As laymen we always want to know what it felt like to stand on the surface of the moon and look back on the Earth, but sending engineers/test-pilots to the moon instead of poets means that NASA failed to really answer that question, frustrating our need to really empathise with the event, understand its magnitude. Indeed, it possibly frustrated Armstrong for the rest of his life trying to articulate it. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, what must it do to a human to look up and see the Earth, the place where anything that ever happened in all the history books, and where any man or woman who ever lived spent their lives, every place or person we ever heard of, encompassed in that small blue globe lost in the totality of the inky blackness around it?  Can the fragile psyche of a human really comprehend it without snapping or finding God (or both), or perhaps shrugging it off as an engineering achievement?

Ad Astra perhaps gets too obsessed with the intimate (cold-fish Roy McBride’s relationship with his long-lost father) instead of really sufficiently dealing with the Infinite. I liked its suggestion that we are truly alone, that there is no life Out There. His father Clifford McBride seems to break at the realisation that there is nothing for him to find, no answers, no solutions, just empty silence and dead worlds. Roy finds solace in returning to Earth and realising that what he have, through relationships with loved ones etc, should be enough: Love Conquers All I guess, but its clearly a revelation lost on Clifford, who coolly states he never once thought about the wife or child he left behind.

Well, Ad Astra is a flawed film, not as intelligent as it pretends to be or as fulfilling as it could have been. The finale of the film, when Roy finally meets his father, is the weakest part of the whole piece. As I think I mentioned with my earlier review, I actually think the film needed to be longer, that we needed more time with Clifford and Roy out at Neptune, the loneliest humans there has ever been, and how each of them deal with that in their own way. Maybe that would have been too much of an intellectual exercise for a Hollywood sci-fi movie, I don’t know, but in any case as it stands the film fails to realise both the emotional and intellectual wallop that it aims for. It seems to suggest that the answers for the human experience lie in Inner Space rather than Outer Space, that the universe is cold and lifeless and ignorant of every one of us: its not that we don’t matter, its that we need to matter to each other. Maybe that’s a stretch, or maybe its just that the film fumbles that answer.

But at least it seems to ask the question. There’s a lot of good in Ad Astra and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it again. I’ll just be filling in the blanks with what I think it means and what it could have been, while considering just what a masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey really was.

Cosmos series 2

Well here’s a surprise, some Comic-Con footage on YouTube this morning led me to the discovery that a second series of the Cosmos reboot from four (that long already?!) years ago is in the making and scheduled for airing in March 2019. While it had its faults, the Cosmos reboot was pretty good and a fitting successor to the Carl Sagan original from 1980. Here’s a teaser trailer for next year’s offering; looks like they have dropped the animated segments, or maybe they haven’t been completed as yet-

The Farthest Voyager

far22017.58: The Farthest (2017)

When I was a little kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, and it seemed the simplest thing there might be. After all, men were walking on the moon, Captain Kirk and his Enterprise was exploring strange new worlds, the future seemed full of possibilities. Of course they were actually impossibilities, but try telling a seven-year old kid that when there are people walking on that moon in the sky.

Can you even imagine that now? You used to be able to look at that moon, and people were there.

Some years later, with me still being fascinated by space-travel and astronomy, reading 2000 AD every week and with films like Star Wars and Close Encounters on the big screen, and NASA sending Viking to Mars and Voyager to the outer planets, it was still a pretty amazing time to be growing up. Then Carl Sagan made (and wrote) his incredible tv series Cosmos. Sagain was hugely good at being able to articulate all kinds of scientific theory, opinion and discoveries to the layman. With Cosmos he became a science superstar, much to the chagrin of many of his contemporaries. I cannot explain the profound impact of that show, and its book and its soundtrack, had on me at the age of fourteen/fifteen. After growing up with the interests that I had, it was like it was created just for me.

Of course, I didn’t become an astronaut, or work in any profound science or space-based career- we can’t all be Brian Cox. But I never lost my love for reading about science or space discoveries, and just the sound of Carl Sagan’s voice is enough to send a tingle up my spine.

Carl Sagan shows up a few times in period footage during The Farthest, a remarkable space documentary that charts the formation, execution and legacy of the Nasa Voyager mission launched in 1977- a Grand Tour of the outer planets. I remember the news updates when Voyager sailed past Jupiter and Saturn- this was in the days before 24-hour news coverage, so the bulletins were all we had until BBC’s Horizon documentary series caught up with it periodically. The Farthest is almost an uncanny window to the flybys that commenced in 1980, throwing me back, through music and video footage and stills, to those amazing discoveries, and more than that, through the voices of key scientists and engineers behind the project, to learn the amazing true stories behind it all.

Brutal reality bites home when one of the scientists comments about Voyager’s flybys of Uranus and Neptune- we will all be long dead and buried, he says, before mankind ever visits those planets again. Its one of those realisations that seems shocking and yet suddenly commonsense: they are just too far away, and the will and expense needed to return just aren’t there. How wonderful that we are alive, now, when we have made those first visits, discovered those worlds for the first time. And can watch incredible documentaries such as this. In a world so mundane and dominated by the most moronic and narrow-minded political worldviews, it’s a glimpse of what’s possible when we as a species Think Big.

The Voyager spacecraft will, it is asserted, outlast us all- long after our civilization, or whatever follows it, or indeed after mankind as a species has become extinct or our world destroyed by the sun, or indeed long after even our own sun has died, the Voyager’s and their gold discs with The Music of Planet Earth will attest to the fact that we were here- We Were Here. You don’t get bigger than that. Enthralling stuff.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

cosmosJust wanted to note a few thoughts regards Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which has just completed its thirteen-episode run on National Geographic over here in the UK. The original Cosmos, co-written and presented by the late Carl Sagan, had a profound affect on me back in 1980 when it aired here on the BBC. It remains, after all these years, my favourite documentary series, and I must admit severe misgivings when I heard that the series was being, well, rebooted for modern audiences. Yep, there’s that dreaded ‘reboot’ word again.

Cosmos dates back to the pre-personal computer age, a world before VHS or DVD, back when shows were accompanied by lush hardback books- yes, we had to read back in those days. I remember having the double-album soundtrack on vinyl (a remarkable compilation of Classical/Traditional/Electronica) and reliving the series reading that book. The series itself was repeated once, the following summer I believe, and I wouldn’t be able to see it again for many years, until I imported the DVD boxset from the USA.

Okay, some of it may have dated presentation-wise, and some of the science itself may have dated too, but much of it still holds up remarkably well, particularly in the use of  that haunting Vangelis main theme (taken from the earlier RCA album Heaven & Hell) and Carl Sagan’s own powerful onscreen personna. He had a gift for explaining things, and it never felt he was talking down to me. For its time it was a visual delight. It must be remembered that the world that Cosmos first aired in was very different to what it is now; still in the thrall of the Cold War and threat of global nuclear destruction. It remains a powerful document of the world as it was back then and had a powerful political pro-science message.

cosmos (1)

So my initial thoughts were, do we really need a new Cosmos? Can you still make a Cosmos today without that uplifting Vangelis theme or Sagan himself? Watching the first few episodes my caution seemed well founded. The Alan Silvestri original score was fine enough but it wasn’t as poetic or unique as Vangelis, the original score giving it a unique voice, yes, but lacking the lush classical music of the original, and Neil deGrasse Tyson clearly was no Carl Sagan. Loosely following the original’s thirteen-part format and storyline, with a modern take on the original Spaceship Of the Imagination in which Sagan explored the universe, and the Cosmic Calendar that so astounded me back in 1980, the show just felt ‘off’ to me. Turns out I may have been too busy comparing it to the original that I loved instead of enjoying it for what it is, but by episode four I had warmed at last to Tyson’s personable presenting style and accepted the changes, such as the animation sequences depicting historical events. By the time episode thirteen closed, with its emotional summation of Voyager’s journey beyond our solar system, and Carl Sagan’s own monologue regards the Pale Blue Dot we call home, I was truly impressed.

cosmos2Spacetime Odyssey does an admirable job of using cutting-edge CGI to explain scientific concepts and arguments in ways that Sagan would be proud of. Clearly aimed at a wider (and younger) audience than the original show was, it was still a joy to see things I was well aware of being demonstrated in fresh and clear ways. I can imagine this series being as profoundly effecting on youngsters today as the original was on my generation and Tyson being as inspiring a figure for kids today as Sagan was for me. A Blu-ray boxset is out now in the US with a release over here later in September. I may have been a sceptic at first, but I’ll be buying the Blu-ray when it comes out and enjoy watching the show all over again.

Word has it we may even get something the original Cosmos didn’t- a second series. Hopefully if it happens it will be able to examine subjects in greater detail and show ever-more complex ideas. But yeah, not a bad effort.