“I want to believe”. That was the motto of Fox Mulder, protagonist of The X-Files who sought to prove existence of extraterrestrials visiting Earth despite scepticism presented by his partner Dana Scully. The author of this review at times used the same motto in order to describe his own sentiment towards certain Hollywood films, especially when his expectations were higher than his increasingly bitter experience has suggested. One of such situations developed thanks to Contact, 1997 science fiction film directed by Robert Zemeckis.
The main reason why I had such hopes for this film is its literary source – best-selling 1985 novel by Carl Sagan, astrophysicist famous for his ability to convey complicated scientific concepts to an average audience in simple and comprehensive way. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, 1980 documentary series he co-authored and presented, was one of the most influential works of television I encountered in my early age. The novelwas also an impressive work of literature. So impressive that I honestly believed that its quality would undoubtedly find its way to the big screen and that its adaptation simply couldn’t fail, unlike so many great science fiction works of literature turned into mediocre films and television series. Its treatment of the First Contact theme was handled in the way that left little room for bug eyed monsters, cute furry creatures and other annoying cliches that were associated with Hollywood science fiction by mid 1990s.
The plot is set in present day, but its prologue begins few decades earlier when Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway (played by Jena Malone), young daughter who desperately tries to get in contact with deceased mother. This and encouragement of her father Theodore (played by David Morse) lead her to experiment with ham radio. Twenty years later adult Ellie (played by Jodie Foster) is an accomplished radio-astronomer who, much to the displeasure of her sceptical boss David Drumlin (played by Tom Skeritt), takes part in SETI Project, an attempt to listen to various radio frequencies from space in hope of getting the signal from extraterrestrial civilisations. When Drumlin pulls the plug on the project, she turns towards S. R. Hadden (played by John Hurt), eccentric billionaire who is willing to finance her search from his own pocket. Ellie and her team mates start working in New Mexico desert and after a while they catch the signal from Vega which is undoubtedly artificial in origin. When the signal gets decoded, it turns out that it contains instructions for building the device that is to be used for interstellar travel. All former sceptics turn into believers, but James Kitz (played by James Woods) from US National Security Council is concerned that the device might be clever ploy to destroy humanity.
Good literary works seldom turn into good films, and when they do, it is often because the adaptations aren’t too faithful. That should apply even to novels like Contact which were originally conceived as scripts for feature films and were supposed to be more filmable. Something from the book pages is always left out, mainly for practical reasons because feature film can’t be too long and certain complicated scientific concepts must be presented to the average audience without exposition which is too long. With screenwriters and directors who are talented asnd resourceful enough, it could be done, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, science fiction classic Contact has been compared with, can attest. However, Hollywood often goes too far in attempts to make classic science fiction novels simple and audience-friendly. And, sadly, this was the case with Contact.
Some of the film’s issues stem from its complicated production, with George Miller, talented Australian film maker, being fired from the set and replaced with Zemeckis, also talented film maker but more likely to follow in the footsteps of Steven Spielberg than Stanley Kubrick or Arthur C. Clarke. Contact is from the start turned into overly sentimental story that preaches Spielbergian family values. Unlike the novel, film must invent “proper” reason for Ellie to start her scientific career – instead of mere sense of wonder at the sight of nighttime sky, she must be motivated with futile quest to connect with deceased mother (whose character is very much alive in Sagan’s orginal text).
Furthermore, unlike the novel, that takes cosmopolitan and internationalist approach to issues of First Contact, this film is clear reflection of its time and notions about American hegemony. So, unlike five astronauts that take part in the mission (and happen to be unique and interesting characters), only one takes part in the film and just happens to be American. US Senate becomes the only place where the issue of First Contact is publicly debated and Washington bureaucrats are the only people that actually make important decisions. Consequently, the only human villains in the film are US right-wing Christian fundamentalists, represented by young Jake Busey playing dangerous fanatic in one of more embarrassing roles of his early career. In many ways, Contact looks incredibly parochial, almost like an attempt to score some points in game US domestic politics, with film makers clearly taking side of President Clinton (who appears edited into the film in the same way old celebrities appeared in Zemeckis’ previous work Forrest Gump) against his Republican opponents. Clinton himself found this treatment a little too much and warned studios not to use his likeness again. Even more annoying is use of real life CNN reporters and news anchors in the scenes depicting media reaction to First Contact. Since CNN and Warner Bros., studio behind the film, had the same owner Contact provides one of the more flagrant examples of product placement in history of 1990s Hollywood.
On the other hand, some of the film making decisions were right. The most notable is casting of Jodie Foster, Yale-educated actress who was simply perfect for the role of female scientist. That, on the other hand, can’t be said of Matthew McConaughey, cast in the role of Palmer Joss, Christian philosopher with whom Ellie has debates about issues of Science vs. Faith. McConaughey was cast mostly at the account of his looks and his character, predictably, has romantic relationship with Ellie (which didn’t exist in the novel), turning Contact into something more akin to soap opera than serious science fiction film. The rest of the cast is solid, and that includes Skerrit and Hurt, veterans who appeared together as ship crew mates in Alien and whose fate in this film is somewhat similar. James Woods, on the other hand, is a little bit too manic in the role of top Washington bureaucrat.
Not everything is disappointing in Contact and those who haven’t read Sagan’s book might have reasons to believe that this is a decent science fiction film. Zemeckis, known for his innovative approach to special effects and experimentations with advance technologies, put all his talent and resources to good use in scenes that show the interstellar travel. Probably the most impressive is opening shot in which he camera makes one of the greatest zoom outs in history of cinema, using various stellar objects and radio signals from different eras in order to display the actual vastness of space. Sadly, everything that comes after this brilliant opening is disappointing by comparison. On the other hand, Contact might lead some viewers to read Sagan’s novel and his other works, so the film might serve its purpose after all.
RATING: 6/10 (++)
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