' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Contact

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Some Drivel On...Contact

Director Robert Zemeckis has never shied away from look-what-I-can do technical pizzazz and the opening sequence of “Contact” (1997) is no exception, an outer space set shot that begins at our peaceful blue planet and then pulls back, back and back and back, through the vast reaches of our solar system, past all the planets, including Pluto (which was not excised from the version currently streaming on Amazon Prime leaving me to obviously assume that “Contact” still considers Pluto a planet), and then out of our solar system and into the furthest reaches of the galaxy, as all the while accompanying radio broadcasts grow older and older, as evocative an illustration of distance equaling time as you will cinematically encounter. What really astounds, however, is the scene’s capping shot, when the camera, still moving backwards, seems to emerge from the eye of the main character, Ellie Arraway. “Contact” was just as much A Carl Sagan Film as a Zemeckis film, given that Sagan wrote the book on which the film was based and consulted on its production, and Sagan was a S.E.T.I. advocate, a man who believed in looking, searching for what was out there, a sensation evoked in this shot and throughout by Zemeckis’s oft-fluid camera, like a later shot that starts outside of Ellie’s youthful home before the camera drifts up, finding her through a bedroom window as she sits at her desk with a shortwave radio.


There are other moments, however, particularly later when the movie moves ahead to adult Ellie, with Jodie Foster taking the acting baton, when the camera calms down and focuses, giving way to the stillness of Ellie with a pair of headphones simply listening, suggesting an inner peace that comes from escaping the omnipresent noise of earth for the soothing white noise of space, like a galactic thunderstorms CD, or something. At the same time, however, it is suggestive of a potentially dangerous escapism, tied back to the death of Ellie’s father (David Morse) in the opening scenes and how she goes to her radio transmitter trying to make contact with him through the heavens. This moment is in the wake of a minister telling Ellie that her father’s death means having to accept God’s will, which Ellie refuses to do, discussing it in strictly pragmatic terms, reasoning that if they kept her father’s medicine downstairs he might have lived. Foster lets this hard edge inform her entire performance, where for as much wonder as she gets searching the stars, she has a different streak down here on Earth, good-hearted still, yes, but also combative and rigid in her own science-friendly, liberal worldview.

That worldview is put to the test in the wake of First Contact. Because First Contact brings everyone out of the woodwork, from good ol’ boy politicians (Rob Lowe) to Christians cum terrorists (Jake Busey, doing a fine impersonation of his dad) to the President’s National Security Advisor Michael Kitz (James Woods) to the President’s Scientific Advisor David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt). (Because this was 1997 the President is played by Bill Clinton by editing archival footage of Clinton press conferences into certain scenes. This prompted blowback from the White House, perhaps because it so effortlessly, unintentionally underlines how political press conferences are rife with so many banalities they can be used to say pretty much anything in any context. We continue.)

Many of these supporting parts are written fairly one-note and that, frankly, is just fine, evocative of how such an event causes everyone to retreat to his/her corner and close ranks. In a way, it’s difficult to argue against anyone’s viewpoint, if you allow yourself to see the situation specifically through that person’s eyes, even Drumlin, merely operating on his own behalf, a narcissist to the very end. And that becomes a source of extreme vexation for Ellie, who struggles to see this through anyone else’s eyes, marking her as credibly compelling, a character forced to confront her own insecurities and her belief system’s limitations, a nifty contrast against the limitless expanse of the universe.


This is brought home in her relationship with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), “a man of the cloth, without the cloth.” This, more than any scientific inaccuracies, which any scientist would be happy to go long on for you, might be the film’s weakest point. Though the questions of science v theology that their relationship engenders are compelling, the chemistry between Foster and McConaughey never comes off. Foster, frankly, plays more to the cosmos in terms of a muse, and even her late father, which means that when the movie has Joss repeat verbatim a line that Ellie’s father says and then Ellie immediately moves in for a kiss, well, like, you know, yikes. And it is almost entirely undone by a late movie moment when Joss, placed on a committee to determine who among a group that includes Ellie will be sent into space to possibly meet these extra-terrestrials, admits he voted against Ellie going because, as he says, “I don’t want to lose you.” For this, she kisses him. I wanted her to punch him in the face.

But, after ample rigmarole she does go. And where she goes is through a wormhole to Vega where she meets not aliens but her father, which is to say she meets aliens who have taken the form of her father and of a childhood dream, of sorts, to say hello, which plays like an advanced civilization’s nod to us Earthlings as boats against the current. Afterwards, an obligatory inquiry of faith, literal and figurative, must and does occur, though its conclusion is an open end, allowing for both sides, religion and science, to intrinsically, if heavy-handedly, emerge and strike something like a truce. It’s rather wonderful. And after first seeing this movie for the first time, on the cusp of adulthood and with so much hope in my heart, 20 years ago in the summer of 1997, I now find myself thinking that the odds of finding extra terrestrials are no doubt better than us American earthlings meeting together on middle ground.


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