In 1979, astronomer, astrophysicist, and author Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan wrote a 100-page script for a film called Contact. However, in the midst of Star Wars and Alien, Contact never saw the light of day and instead, Sagan morphed the script into a novel. Flash-forward ten years and several fired directors later, including Mad Max’s George Miller, before Robert Zemeckis would take to turning the script-turned-novel back into a film. In 1997, Zemeckis released Contact, a movie starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. The film was a breath of fresh air in a year of science fiction that, while pretty impressive, was stagnant when it came to smarts.
Monkeys Fighting Robots take a look at Contact on the film’s 20th anniversary.
The premise of Contact is beautiful in its simplicity. SETI, the group responsible for spending countless hours listening to space noises, receives a message that is undeniably from an alien source. The world reacts to the news in diverse ways. From cultists doomsayers to those seeking the guidance of a higher intelligence. In the meantime, the message turns out to be schematics for a machine, and the government intends on building it. The alien device is designed for one occupant to travel and Elle Arroway, the protagonist of the film, wants to be that lone traveler. However, the battle between science and religion tries to dominate who will play ambassador to an alien civilization. Treachery, betrayal, love, hate, God, and more are subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) debates woven into the movie.
In 1985, at the same time that Sagan released Contact the novel, Zemeckis broke through with a science fiction comedy known as Back to the Future. Over the next ten years, Contact the book sold millions and Zemeckis made millions at the box office. In 1997, two two would finally meet. After many stalled attempts at turning Contact into a film, Zemeckis made it happen. Zemeckis’ journey from action-comedy director to a full-blown master of the cinematic arts was already complete when he made Forrest Gump. In Contact, Zemeckis created smart science fiction with a brilliant mix of performance, writing, and the director’s innovative use of effects.
We don’t often see Zemeckis mentioned as one of the great directors, but his films are a masterclass in quality from all angles. Contact features tracking shots integrating CG in near-perfect ways. These are methods common today, but this movie, and many of Zemeckis’ films, were a significant influence in making it happen.
In 1997, Jodie Foster was, well, Jodie Foster, a child star turned acclaimed actress and director. Foster plays Elle Arroway, the scientist who discovered the alien signal and wants to be the one to make first contact. Arroway is decidedly a scientist, believing there’s no need for a God, that’s it’s a waste of time. Elle also believes one of the central tenants of what the film preaches “If there’s no life out in there, it’s an awful waste of space.”
“… they both see the beauty of thinking about the universe and everything in it.”
Featured in the film are the likes of Tom Skerrit, Angela Bassett, James Woods, John Hurt, Robe Lowe and Jake Busey. There’s also a young Matthew McConaughey who plays the ying to Foster’s yang. As Palmer Joss, McConaughey presents the theistic point of view and the argument that, while no single religion may be right, they all believe in a God, a creator. If this “alien” message is the creator, it should be someone who believes in him or her to make the first contact. Despite their differences, Arroway and Joss share an attraction, perhaps simply because they both see the beauty of thinking about the universe and everything in it.
Critical reception to Contact then was very positive. Contact released in the same year as Men in Black, Starship Troopers, The Fifth Element, and Gattaca. Only Gattaca presented a non-action orientated science fiction film. Today, most cinema analysts put Contact in the same class as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Contact doesn’t have quite the awe-inspiring cinematic brilliance of 2001, and it doesn’t have the darker aspects of Close Encounters. However, in its right, Contact deserves mention with both. Like Close Encounters, Contact presents a much more positive view of aliens and, to some degree, mankind.
Contact is smart, particularly the ambiguous ending that creates friendly (I hope) debate among viewers. It’s not as heady as 2001, but it does pose aspects of some of our most difficult questions. It’s also sneakily a technically brilliant movie with shots like the opening galaxy scene or the wormhole sequence that still feel fresh and look fantastic.
Twenty years later and Contact is as fresh today as ever.