Tuesday, June 13, 2006
  DVD Review: Contact

Contact is a terribly frustrating movie.

Oh, it's a good movie... in fact, at times, it approaches greatness, and seems at times to be a whole new kind of science-fiction film. It's amazing fun for fans of the genre to watch Contact approach alien subject matter with more honesty and realism than practically any sci-fi film that came before. What makes Contact frustrating is that, at times, it also relies on some of the same hackneyed stereotypes and contrivances that it seemed capable of rising above. For fans of science fiction, watching Contact is like being served an amazing gourmet meal... and being expected to eat it off of paper plates with plastic cutlery.

Contact is the story of Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), a scientist obsessed with the idea of making contact with extra-terrestrial life. As a young girl, Ellie's mother had died, leaving her to be raised by a doting and seemingly ideal father. It's her father, played by the always reliable David Morse, who sparks young Ellie's interest in science. Shortly after her mother's death, her father dies, too. It's then that Ellie turns for comfort to the one link she shared with him: Science. Science, and the hope that someday we will find evidence of life beyond the stars.

Everyone has a religion. Everyone wants a reason to believe that there is more to life than this mortal coil. For most of us, our religions involve our relationship to God... either how we submit to him, or how we try to control our relationship with him; sometimes by desperate means, such as denying his existence. Either way, the ultimate focus of religion is always the same. The focus of religion is to find evidence that whatever exists beyond this life does so on terms we can accept. For some of us, that's belief in God and Heaven. Others are more comfortable with the indifference of the cold grave. Still others worship the Earth itself. In Contact, Ellie Arroway's religion is SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Life.

SETI is a real organization, by the way. Our family has toured one of the radio telescopes that SETI utilizes... and not just because it was used in the movie. The telescope is fascinating, and so is SETI. Their goal is to one day find evidence of life on other planets. SETI is used as the means by which Ellie Arroway eventually really does receive proof that there is intelligent life out there.

Imagine that. Imagine that the day comes when science really does make contact with an intelligence beyond the Earth. What would happen? What would it be like?

Contact explores the premise with such realism and candor that I found myself delighted with the plot's twists and turns. The things that happen as a result of Ellie's discovery are... well, they're the things that probably really would happen. Governments get involved, both on a national and on an international level. Nations bicker about which country deserves to represent Earth in our first exchange with extraterrestrials. Within our own country, individual departments of the government wrestle for control of our own involvement. Meanwhile, religious leaders and shamans of all kinds argue for one interpretation or another of the spiritual significance of the event.

One of those religious figures is Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a Christian and theologian who has a remarkably interesting relationship with Ellie. Palmer Joss is a man of faith based on reason, and it strikes me that the character may be inspired by C.S. Lewis. The relationship between Palmer and Ellie is the best thing about Contact, and it's absolutely delightful. For starters, they have an intellectual relationship. Both of them care about the other's ideas. They have friendly debates that often turn very emotional, but even during their most heated exchanges it is obvious that there is an honest love between the two characters. And I'm not talking about a vacuous Hollywood movie kind of love, the kind that merely exists because it's convenient for the plot. With Palmer Joss and Ellie Arroway, one gets the sense that these are two people who deeply respect and care about each other.

Ellie is fascinated by Palmer's religious faith... both because it's unshakable and because it's based on logic and reason. Palmer is drawn to Ellie because it's obvious to him that she's using science as a means to the same end he's striving for; faith in more than the tangible. In these two characters, Contact makes a great argument that clear-eyed religion and open-minded science are the best of partners, not adversaries as they're so often portrayed in today's culture. Wow. It is the relationship between Palmer and Ellie that made me begin to feel that I really loved this movie. In spite of their differences, in spite of the many levels of government interference that they have to deal with, Palmer Joss and Ellie Arroway each represent the best that their fields have to offer. One would hope that they are something of a portrait of the working relationship that science and faith will form in the future.

And then, unfortunately, Contact makes a wrong turn that it simply can't recover from.

Among the religious figures who respond to the contact we've made with extraterrestrials, there is a fundamentalist zealot played by Jake Busey. This character represents the old ideas about science and religion... namely, that they are mortal enemies. This character makes it his mission to prevent science from making any kind of exchange with the alien intelligence that has contacted us, and the movie turns him into one of the most ridiculous and insulting characters I've ever seen in any movie. This is a zealot who is both obviously insane and yet brilliant enough to infiltrate a high security government complex. This character is at once a roadside preacher, a terrorist, and an explosives expert. I haven't read the Carl Sagan novel that Contact is based on, but I'd be willing to bet that the Busey character is a composite and that his actions in the film are abbreviated and dumbed-down for the sake of brevity. Either way, it's a terrible insult and creates an injurious presence that the movie never recovers from. It's such a shame, such a waste. Because of this character, Contact changes from a promising and optimistic movie about partnership between religion and science to the worst kind of B-movie... one where religion is portrayed as simple-minded and dangerous and worthy scientific concepts are transformed into something one would expect to find in the cheesiest sci-fi B movie.

For me, Contact never fully recovered from this shift. Further contrivances involving a wealthy but mysterious benefactor and a secret effort by an Asian government and the private sector to communicate with aliens just went in one ear and out the other. I no longer took the movie seriously and I found it impossible to be objective about the last twists and turns that the story had to offer.

Which leaves the inevitable question: Do we see human beings actually make contact with alien life in this movie? Well, yes and no. The movie ends with a scene that leaves everything up to the interpretation of the viewer. It's not a bad scene, really, and I sorta liked what it had to say about the importance of perspective, acceptance, and the inherent goodness of the universe, itself. Had the movie not been wrecked prior to this final scene, I might have really found the ending to be rewarding and thoughtful. As it was, by this point, I just wanted the damned thing to be over.

Rating Contact on the film geeks one-to-five scale is tough for me. I suppose that the first two thirds of the movie deserve credit for being very smart and quite original. In fact, the first two thirds of the movie are outstanding. Had the movie not collapsed in it's third act, I'm sure that today I'd call it my favorite science fiction movie ever. It's a shame. I'd almost recommend that the viewer watch most of the movie and then turn the DVD player off and invent your own ending. You're bound to come up with a better one than the movie-makers themselves did.

PS: Thanks to Lorna for requesting this review.

Darrell, you saw the same things in this movie that I did---I just didn't know it until I read your articulate and insightful review. It both delights and scares me when we think the same way.
Fantasic review. You nailed this one. The relationship between Joss an Arroway offers some hope that the film has some brains and heart behind it. The obtuse scenes with the Prez and the cartoon Busey character spoil the soup.
Thanks, Nehring and Lorna, for the input. And, Lorna, the secret is that once you start agreeing with me about movies, my nefarious brain-washing plan has taken hold! Mwaaaa haa haaa haaa haa! ;)
Yeah, I saw Contact in theaters and enjoyed it for the most part, but had a LOT of questions after that last scene. There's such a thing as being too open to interpretation.

And Jake Busey...what an ominous wall of teeth. What a career he might have had if he hadn't gone on to Shasta McNasty himself into obscurity.
Well, Mary Lynn Rajskub seemed to get passed Shasta.
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