In 1997, Contact was something of an anomaly — the “hmm…” to Independence Day‘s “wow!” It was cerebral and character-driven, but released in the midst of summer blockbuster season, just one week after Men In Black had blessed the 4th of July with its second Will Smith-starring extraterrestrial-themed smash hit in a row. Contact cost $90 million and was helmed by a man who already had seven movies that had grossed over $100 million each under his belt. His previous film, Forrest Gump, not only outperformed all his more conventional blockbusters, raking in nearly $700 million worldwide, but also won a slew of Oscars including Best Picture.
Zemeckis’ thoughtful sci-fi opus did respectable business, but it wasn’t stellar. Audiences didn’t know quite what to do with a film that looked and sounded like a blockbuster, but felt like a prestige drama, with complex scientific jargon, a central thematic debate between God and science, multiple grounded and empathetic characters, and so much talking. The Oscars didn’t know what to do with it, either, nominating it for only one award — Best Sound — which it naturally lost to the juggernaut Titanic. Jodie Foster was snubbed in favor of long-forgotten turns by Helena Bonham Carter in The Wings Of The Dove and Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown.
Contact is not often discussed these days, often left out of conversations about cerebral science fiction that do include 2001: A Space Odyssey and Inception, deeply emotional extra-terrestiral stories like E.T. and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, or female-driven space odysseys like Aliens, Arrival, Annihilation, and Gravity. I knew, going into this episode, how I would feel about Contact, but I was curious to see if my co-hosts would also think Contact was “okay to go,” or if they’d profess that it was an awful waste of space.
I’ve always liked Contact, but my relationship with it has deepened over time. Every time I watch it, a little extra piece of it clicks into place, and it becomes a more and more stunning cinematic achievement. The technical prowess was obvious immediately — it’s hard to think of a film where sound is so integral to the storytelling, and the sound design here is phenomenal, perhaps amongst the best of all time. This is, arguably, Robert Zemeckis at the peak of his cinematic wizardry, using special effects in mostly invisible ways to enhance the emotional core of the story, rather than as a gimmick or a crutch. Too many of Zemeckis’ films are only worth seeing for the technical artistry — they seem to exist solely so he can tinker with technology, not because the story urgently needs to be told. Contact wouldn’t be the same film without its breathtaking climactic journey through space and time, but it would still be a compelling one. Scientists sitting around listening to the radio, shouting scientific jargon at each other, becomes riveting thanks to the way this story sets up its stakes. Of course finding life outside of Earth is already one of the most fantastic stories imaginable, but it’s the way Contact sets up what this means to one individual person that makes us care so deeply about what unfolds. There are few, if any, actresses better suited to the task of playing that person than Jodie Foster. Dr. Eleanor Arroway is fiercely independent and insanely intelligent, and so is Jodie Foster. Those qualities aren’t easy to fake. A few other major movie stars might have been fine in the role, but I don’t think any of them would quite the same effect as making us feel like that’s really her up there. (I wonder if Foster agrees that Arroway is the closest she’s ever gotten to playing herself on screen.)
I revisited Contact at the same time I watched Independence Day last year. I enjoyed its more grounded take on how the world reacts to the possibility of extraterrestrial contact, especially the scene set at a massive gathering of humans who range from jubilant to despairing in how they perceive this event. Some are dancing in celebration, others are calling it doomsday. The most visceral response comes from Christian extremists, who are fighting a holy war against science itself. This, in particular, resonated more with me in 2020 — the supposed forever war between believers in science and believers in God. It’s not impossible for science and God to coexist in a single person’s mind, but for many, belief in one mandates a dismissal of the other. Contact doesn’t just acknowledge that conflict and move on — it checks back in with it, again and again, through multiple characters. Most notable of these, of course, is Matthew McConaughey as the hunky theologian Palmer Joss. But there’s also the nut job terrorist played by Jake Busey, who sends a shiver through me every time I see him on screen no matter how many times I’ve seen this film. And, in a brief appearance, Rob Lowe shows up as a right-wing Christian politician who is a lot less open-minded than Palmer Joss is, who sees scientific discovery as a threat to his religiosity — as so many Christians do. They reject science as a retaliation, out of spite. Evidence itself becomes their enemy.
Watching it this time around, I was blown away by how focused Contact is in exploring its themes from scene to scene. Its big ideas are front and center in frame one, and it never loses focus, even when it is grappling with some of the gnarliest existential questions we’ve ever dared to ask ourselves.
Contact opens with an audio jambalaya of television and radio signals beamed out into space, starting with the likes of Seinfeld and the Spice Girls and moving backward to Nixon, then JFK, and finally Hitler. This is not only incredibly cool in its own right, it actually depicts the initial “contact” between humans and aliens — and it’s not them who reach out first. It’s us. Eventually, we see that they’ve sent the broadcast of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin back to us — problematically kicked off by Hitler. Some of the more militaristic types representing the U.S. government view this as a threat, but our brilliant heroine, Dr. Eleanor Arroway, realizes immediately that only humans can be faulted for the horrible context of that message. We’re the ones who put it out there. Not them.In that nifty opening, sound eventually falls away as we drift deeper and deeper out to space, eventually pulling back so far that this universe becomes just a speck in the eye of young Ellie. She’s on the radio, at this age already sending a signal out into the airwaves to see what kind of contact she can make. She chats with a man from Pensacola, the farthest she’s gotten so far. The sense of who this character is and what she yearns for couldn’t possibly be any clearer, within seconds of meeting her.
When Ellie’s father dies, she reaches out via radio again — hoping to reach her dad in the Great Beyond. She has at least a sliver of faith in Heaven, or some form of life after death. He doesn’t answer, and that’s when Ellie turns away from the rather Christian idea that she could communicate with her father, and toward the wonkier, more science-focused belief that she might meet a Higher Power of another sort. Already, Contact is showing us that faith in God and faith in an unproven scientific phenomenon aren’t that different. Ellie and theologian Palmer Joss both believe there’s “something out there” — that it’s intelligent, and benevolent, and has abilities we can’t conceive of. It seems, at first, that belief in God requires a rejection of science, and vice versa. That either Ellie or Palmer must be right, and the other must be wrong. But Ellie’s journey leads her to discover that faith of one kind isn’t all that different from faith of another. She can’t prove her experience any more than the faithful can prove the existence of God, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Perhaps the belief is enough.Contact‘s take on religion isn’t all rosy, though — a right-wing extremist blows up the first transport device and kills a lot of people, supposedly according to God’s will. Ellie’s candidacy to be the one to make the journey is thwarted by her admitted atheism — America chooses faith in God over scientific expertise. (Sound familiar?) In the end, Contact is a modern day Joan of Arc story, centered on a woman who has a vision that those in power insist is a fantasy, a delusion, or a deception. It’s also eerily prescient about the role technology would increasingly play in our lives in the 20th century, and the role billionaires would play in space exploration. The script, by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg, gets more and more impressive with each subsequent viewing. There are not many films that have more interesting, weighty ideas to dig into than Contact.
I come away from this viewing believing Contact is one of the best films of the 90s, and one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. Sci-fi has given us a number of genre classics, but none of them quite like this. It’s a staggeringly intelligent film that is also unabashedly sentimental. It’s thrilling in the most conventional way, during Ellie’s space travel and a handful of other tense scenes, but a lot of the most compelling moments are people talking, listening to obscure noises, or staring at screens. It has tremendous special effects, but you rarely even notice them. It’s a masterpiece.
And Men In Black? It’s a pretty fun movie!