(Robert Zemeckis, US, 1997)
*Spoiler Alert! - This review gives away key plot elements.*
I always admired Carl Sagan. Not only was he instrumental in truly historic space missions such as the Voyager probe in the 1970s, he was the guy who first got me thinking in great detail about the really big questions to be found in the universe with his landmark television series Cosmos. What's more, he seemed to be a gentle and genuinely nice guy. In his dulcet tones and with his thoughtful and sedate manner, he effortlessly explained some of the most awe-inspiring facts, theories and concepts of the world we live in and life in the cosmos in general. I bought a copy of the book of Cosmos for my dad one Christmas and when Sagan's first novel, Contact, was published in 1986, I keenly picked up a copy. To be honest,I was a bit disappointed with the book. It was very well-written and had strong characterisation but I found the plot development a little too slow. A review of the book appeared in issue 2 of Dark Star Magazine in 1988. Even then rumours of a filmed version of the story were common and came to a head several times with Sagan often being involved in preliminary talks with filmmakers and backers. So by the time Robert Zemeckis' film was released over a decade later the details of the book were a distant and faint memory but I was looking forward with much enthusiasm to the film.
At the cinema, the peaceful opening sequence that has a shot that begins in our solar system and gradually moves further out of our galaxy and further still into the outer edges of the universe was not only visually stunning but awe-inspiring. I was immediately surprised. This lengthy sequence is the very first thing you see in the film and happens in complete silence. (Unfortunately, on TV the effect is dramatically diminished.) What follows largely closer resembles Sagan's novel. We see young Ellie a girl with unbridled passion for the stars. She lives with a lone parent - her father who she worships. The two of them are inseparable and whilst he supports her fascination with the universe he can't help temper it with a does of real world common sense, afraid that she'll ignore the things we must all face. Looking towards the heavens, she asks where her dead mother might actually be and Ellie paints a picture of paradise - a perfect beach scene - an ideal Heaven. With the wonders of the universe being able to be explained by science Ellie can't accept that some things, like her mother's death, simply cannot be rationally justified. However, this gulf between her life and that of the world she lives in set firmly forever when her father suddenly and unexpectedly dies. Ellie is told to accept his death as 'the will of God' but she needs to know the reason why it happened - surely there must be one?
Fast forward several years and Ellie (now played by Jodie Foster) is a research scientist working on the US government's SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial life) project, fighting funding cut-backs and sceptical peers. She has fleeting relationship with a young priest who challenges her views. But she cooly tells him that for her to believe in God she'd "need proof". Spiritually or professionally, Ellie demands, needs answers. Fast forward some more years. One day she gets what she believes is a signal from space - from an intelligent source. This is confirmed when the source begins sending back transmissions received from Earth years before. This idea is conveyed in a chilling scene when the first visual transmission is carefully processed to 'clean up' the image that turns out to be footage of Adolf Hitler at a Nazi party rally. Of course, the US military takes this on face value and treats it as a threat of alien invasion War of The Worlds style (this being pre-Independence Day). The scientists on the other hand logic that the Nazi images are co-incidental to the transmission signals used by humans being strong enough to break free of the earth for the first time. These early transmissions are quickly followed by a stream of signals that carry what appears to be a 'blueprint' for the design of a vast machine of some kind. Of course, opinion as to what the machine will actually do once it is constructed is once more divided. On the US government's team of advisers is a priest Palmer Joss - who was the young man with whom Ellie had a brief affair years before. In many ways Contact is a successful film in that, for a mainstream Hollywood studio picture, it goes some way to addressing 'big' issues; like "is there a God?".
Robert Zemeckis brings to the production his usual flair for the glossy, well-made studio movie. The camera work in particular is impressive and the special effects, though kept in check for much of the film, are stunning. Technically he also returns to Forrest Gump territory and uses footage of real US president Clinton cleverly spliced and manipulated to look as though this world-famous leader is expressing his concerns for a possible impending alien invasion. But much of what sets Contact apart from popcorn fare like Independence Day is ultimately fudged. The script sets Ellie and Palmer up as proponents of the two major factions in humanity. Those who believe in a God who created the universe and those that believe we are an insignificant speck in a big scheme of things that has everything to do with natural forces and nothing to do with divine intervention. There's much discussion of 'God' in Contact. The film tries to suggest that because Ellie has her own 'experience' that it is her 'god'. It could be argued that far from experiencing 'God' she witnessed something that opposes the idea of a divine being - creator of all things. Bearing in mind that America is a profoundly religious country (almost 70% of Americans believe in creationism over Darwinism), I suppose it should have come as no surprise that the conclusion it posits is that there is no conflict in a universe full of aliens co-existing with God. Everyone is happy and no-one is offended. During a big technological special effects sequence a technician, staring in awe at the sight, says "Oh, my God". And that is Zemeckis' point. Unfortunately, this feels like a cop out - mostly because it is. The acting is good ,and Tom Skerritt is worthy of special praise for his performance as a conniving rival to Ellie.
Carl Sagan sadly died shortly before the film opened. For the most part it closely follows the novel and the 'close encounter' sequence is exactly as I remember it from Sagan's book. I think the softly-spoken scientist would have been pleased with the finished film. Maybe it is because I had read the book prior to seeing the film but I could more clearly understand the subject matter being merely a platform upon which to raise these big philosophical questions. Whereas when I read the book these issues largely passed me by and I was left simply wondering why it had taken so long to get to the juicy SF stuff. Sagan provided the forward to Stephen Hawking's hard science bestseller A Brief History of Time. Interestingly, Hawking too concludes that science and religion need not conflict with each other when explaining how the universe came to be. So Zemeckis is in illustrious company with his 'on the fence' views. I can't help thinking, however, that Contact would have been a better film if it had concluded that there was no God. That would have really set this film apart from the safe Hollywood tradition. But within the limitations in which the US movie 'industry' operates, Contact isn't a bad stab at thought-provoking entertainment.
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