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Dazzling 'Contact' ultimately disappoints

July 16, 1997
Web posted at: 1:08 a.m. EDT (0508 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- You can't fault director Bob Zemeckis for lack of ambition. His new science-fiction film, "Contact," starring Jodie Foster, is something different -- a meditation on the battle between technology and spirituality for control of our souls.

Scene from Contact where Foster's character is attempting to get funding
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Amazingly, the main question the movie raises is "Is there a God?" The proper response to that one is "no" if you're looking for clues while watching slop like "Con Air," but for all its mind-tripping special effects (and yet another fine performance from Foster), "Contact" can't come up with anything better than a resounding "maybe." Hell, I could've told you that and you wouldn't even have to buy a ticket.

The film's opening shot is a stunner, and had me hoping that maybe something major was in the offing. We hover for a moment over Planet Earth, listening to a cacophony of overlapping radio signals that its inhabitants have blasted into the outer regions of space over the years -- everything from speeches by FDR to Almond Joy commercials to a snippet of "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini." Suddenly, we pull away from the earth, and, in one continuous, sweeping effects shot, travel beyond the planets and beyond our solar system.

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This actually uses up a couple minutes of screen time and leaves us staring down at a vast, imposingly silent expanse of the heavens. Then, just as suddenly as it started, the shot collapses into the iris of a little girl's eye. She's Foster's character as a child, a precocious observer of the ways of the solar system. It's a truly dazzling introduction, and the film never approaches that level of inspiration again until very near the end, when it's pretty much too late.

Foster plays Ellie Arroway, a young astronomer who's viewed as something of a crackpot by the government agency that funds her research. Ellie utilizes a giant group of telescopes in the New Mexico desert to pick up static from outer space, hoping against hope that sooner or later she'll receive a message from life on a distant planet.

Zemeckis is a disciple of Steven Spielberg, so it's no surprise that the government boys are viewed as narrow-minded and cold-hearted, caring less about the possibilities of life on other planets than they do about looking good in the eyes of the guys who put up the money. Tom Skerritt has the unfortunate role of David Drumlin, Ellie's superior who has no use for her research until she receives a message of monumental importance to mankind, at which point he starts stealing all the credit. "Booooo-hissssss," as they say. The moment that the scientists begin receiving the message is excitingly staged and edited by Zemeckis, but owes quite a bit to a highly similar moment of discovery in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

At first, the encoded message is a puzzle to everyone involved. None of the scientists are really sure what they've got until a mysterious (and utterly ridiculous) shaved-head multi-zillionaire named S.R. Hadden (John Hurt) uses his own team of smart guys to figure out that these numbers are blueprints for a complex space travel vehicle beyond the grasp of mere mortals. It's decided that the ship will be built, and one person will get to make the journey. Will that person be Foster? Will that person be Skerritt? Well, you know that it's gonna be Foster because who wants to see Tom Skerritt get to fly to the nether regions of the galaxy while Jodie Foster sits in an office on Cape Canaveral and does a crossword puzzle?

This all sounds great, and a lot of it is pretty darn cool, but the movie as a whole is peppered with pseudo-religious philosophical babble about the origins of God, and, if there is a Big Guy, why is he sending us these gol' darned blueprints? Lots of this babble falls from the mouth of Palmer Joss, played with great teeth by Matthew McConaughey. Joss is a presidential advisor and author who studied for the priesthood but couldn't deal with the celibacy -- or, as he puts it, he's "a man of the cloth without the cloth." It's a good thing he didn't have a cloth, or I would've been tempted to climb on screen and stuff it in his mouth.

Though this is not the treacly goop-fest that "Forrest Gump" was, Zemeckis and his screenwriters, James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg, wallow around in New Age chatter that often sounds like the verbal equivalent of a Yanni album. I give them credit for wrestling with bigger issues than "Is that really Nick Cage's hair?" but this script is in dire need of a rewrite by Socrates.

There's supposed to be a romance between Foster and McConaughey, but I've seen fewer sparks fly from a damp Bic lighter. I know a lot of people who can't stand McConaughey for some reason, but I've never had any complaint about him (he's the best thing in the popular cult film "Dazed and Confused"). The problem here is that he has no real character to play. He just keeps popping up unexpectedly every time Foster's character is feeling down in the dumps. By the time the movie's over, he's made more surprise appearances than Santa Claus. James Woods is also on hand, playing, in a major stretch, a self-serving creep who works for the president. Then there's Angela Bassett, overplaying her iron-pants role as a presidential assistant.

The actual journey to another dimension is extremely exciting, a far more frightening variation on the final psychedelic sequence in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Foster is brilliant here, gazing out at the unknown secrets of the universe with a mixture of terror and bedazzlement. Though "Contact" doesn't give her enough sharp scenes to take advantage of it, this moment proves yet again that she's as fine a film actor as we have right now. It's a disappointment that those secrets she's uncovering ultimately turn out to be something of a letdown. With a run time pushing 2 1/2 hours, the movie pulls infinity into focus, all right -- but mostly by virtue of the fact that it starts to seem like it will never end.

"Contact" has one mild bedroom scene and some pretty wiggy special effects that could blow the minds of very small children. Foster's space journey is like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" but without the pharmaceuticals. Warner Bros., which produced this movie, is owned by Time Warner, which also owns CNN. Rated PG. 142 minutes.


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