When Dr Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) was a child, she contacted people over her CB radio. Now she's an adult, she looks further: to the stars, as part of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. From a huge radio telescope in Puerto Rico, she charts the heavens, but her boss Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) is unconvinced, thinking the project is a waste of money. Ellie meets Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a priest whose belief in God stops him committing to belief in life on other planets, and it appears he is not alone in his views when the funding for the project is terminated. Frustrated, Ellie finds the money she needs from an unlikely source, billionaire philanthropist Hadden (John Hurt), and the project resumes...
Based on Carl Sagan's science fiction novel, this adaptation was scripted by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg. It wouldn't be much of a film if Ellie wasn't successful in her search, and sure enough a pulsing signal reaches her from deep space after years of listening. But once contact has been made, you're not entirely sure it was much of a film anyway. Foster is well cast, again playing a character of ingenuity and sharp intellect, but Ellie too often becomes the mouthpiece for a seemingly endless run of unenlightening discussions about the place of science in the world, and its relation to religion. It may be based on Sagan's novel, but it comes across as being drawn from a pamphlet begging for research funding.
Ellie lost her father at a young age, and, thanks to a spot of amateur psychology, her quest for an alien message is equated with the longing for her father's guidance. The scientists depicted are all reasonable people, and once the message is received they get to deal with unreasonable people like the government, the military and the church. When the media get hold of the story, it's big news and infiltrates every TV that often appear on screen, complete with guest appearances from real newsreaders, personalities and even the then president, Bill Clinton, all for that authenticity value.
The film adopts a snobbish attitude to the multitude of flying saucer spotters that congregate around the radio telescopes, but it's telling that those fanatics are joined by others, religious loonies who see the alien message as a threat to their convictions. Although Joss is presented as a rational man, belief in God is here an obstacle to understanding the universe. Is it hypocritical of the film to then show by the end that Ellie's beliefs in the aliens rely on a faith of her own? She has only the proof of her experiences.
The special effects, as you might expect in a Robert Zemeckis film, are impeccable for their time, with a opening that sees us travel through the universe accompanied by radio and TV signals from Earth. The actual trip into space that Ellie takes is impressive, but the destination is, inevitably, an anticlimax. How do you represent the unknowable? If 2001: A Space Odyssey was wise enough to retain enigma right until the close, Contact flounders when faced with its alien, whose trite wisdom sounds like a third rate motivational speaker. Couldn't he be more specific?
It doesn't take imagination to believe in God, but it does take imagination to make scientific leaps, and that kind of inspiration is lacking in this film. Perhaps more of the odder elements, like the initially chilling image sent by the aliens, or the weird Hurt character, would have helped, but the film makers even include a point that proves Ellie's encounter was real after all, a fact covered up by the government. So much for faith - they're preaching to the converted. While it's good to look at, the philosophy in Contact, which it would like you to take very seriously, doesn't bear much scrutiny. Music by Alan Silvestri.
But come the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump, he grew more earnest and consequently less entertaining, although just as successful: Contact, What Lies Beneath, Cast Away and the motion capture animated efforts The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol.
With frequent writing collaborator Bob Gale, Zemeckis also scripted 1941 and Trespass. Horror TV series Tales from the Crypt was produced by him, too.