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
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.
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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