Boston's Alternative Source! image!

R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 07/10/1997, B: Peter Keough,

Losing Contact

Zemeckis's universe is a box of chocolates

by Peter Keough

CONTACT. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg based on the novel by Carl Sagan. With Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Angela Bassett, William Fichtner, Rob Lowe, David Morse, Jake Busey, and Bill Clinton. A Warner Bros. release. At the Cheri, the Harvard Square, and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.

Contact begins with an awesome sequence that poses the provocative notion that the universe is a glimmer in the eye of a wondering child. It's hard to imagine how the filmmakers might top this, and they don't. Their movie rapidly deteriorates into a steady state of inert exposition, earnest platitudinizing, exclamatory jargon, hit-or-miss social commentary, and pompous sententiousness before resurging with a special-effects extravaganza that reduces the universe to the visual equivalent of a Forrest Gump-ism. Redeemed somewhat by the passionate intensity and intelligence, and occasional sanctimoniousness, of Jodie Foster's performance, Robert Zemeckis's adaptation of the longwinded Carl Sagan novel is earnest, humorless, and, despite its best intentions, philosophically stimulating.


Also, an interview with Jodie Foster.


The premise combines the storyline of This Island Earth and 2001 without the brisk naïveté of the former or the sophisticated ambiguity of the latter. Ellie Arroway (Foster) is a quixotic scientist who scans the skies with radio telescopes in search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. An orphan à la The Silence of the Lambs, Arroway sublimates her own solitude into a quest to find companionship for a human race seemingly alone in the abyss of the universe.

Opposing her is Dr. David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt, suitably lubricious), the publicity-seeking opportunistic presidential science adviser who is riding the wave of anti-idealistic cost-cutting by trying to pull the plug on Arroway's project. She finds an unlikely ally in new-age shaman Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey, in a mix of self-righteousness and smarm), who literally provides her with a moral compass -- a toy from a Cracker Jack box. The pair briefly become strange bedfellows, but it's the Howard Hughes-like S.R. Hadden (John Hurt, adding much needed irony) whose funding and omniscient guidance make the difference. Still, after years of coming up with nothing but interstellar white noise, Arroway finds herself with just a few months to put up or shut up.

Of course the universe obliges. Yet as exciting as contacting an alien civilization might be as a concept, in cinematic practice it's lacking. It translates into lots of shots of Foster staring thoughtfully skyward as she listens in on headphones, or frantic technicians hammering away at keyboards, intercut with the semi-surreal vista of a field of radio telescopes nodding at the heavens.

You might well be nodding too before the extraterrestrials make contact through a klaxo-like signal emitting from the star system of Vega, 26 light years away. It summons government officials, religious zealots, banal pop-cultists, and media stars playing themselves to Foster's secluded New Mexico site, all trying to get their piece of the scientific discovery of the millennium. After much tiresome decryption, the signal proves to be a design for a machine (henceforth dubbed "The Machine") that resembles a high-tech ride at Six Flags and that will transport a single human being . . . somewhere. After much fitfully exciting foreplay, Arroway is chosen as Earth's representative, and the celestial roller-coaster ride is underway.

But not before the film relentlessly explores issues of religion versus science (glibly embodied by Foster and McConaughey in awkward embrace), self-seeking versus self-sacrifice, and the whole-ball-of-wax meaning of it all. In the Carl Sagan manner, these musings tend to be pedantic and solemn, so it's a relief to have James Woods on hand as skeptical and self-serving National Security adviser Michael Kitz. He grounds the proceedings in a serpentine cynicism and caustic wit. Also diverting and titter-inspiring are appearances by President Clinton culled from news footage and smoothly inserted to provide doublespeak policy statements on the unfolding Machine crisis.

As for the climactic special effects, they are not much more impressive than your average planetarium show, consisting mostly of Foster vibrating in a chair and gazing with awe, ecstasy, and terror at things that she claims "words can't describe." Apparently, neither can state-of-the-art movie wizardry. Although one could do worse than have Jodie Foster's face reflect the secret of the universe, when she tries to relate it to others in plain English, the staggering banality of this film shows through. Yes, the universe of Contact is like a box of chocolates, and you know for certain it's soft and gooey in the center.