Contact (1997)

2017 #79
Robert Zemeckis | 144 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Contact

Contact is 20 years old today. I don’t remember it going down particularly well on its release (Rotten Tomatoes backs me up on that: it scores just 62%) and I’ve largely paid it no heed, other than it still comes up now and then. I can’t remember what gave me a sudden urge to watch it last month, but doing so was a bit of a “where have you been all my life?!” experience.

It stars Jodie Foster as scientist Dr Ellie Arroway, who’s obsessed with scanning radio signals from space for signs of alien life, much to the ridicule of her serious colleagues. While working at an observatory in Puerto Rico, Ellie becomes romantically entangled with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a Christian philosopher, in spite of their differing views. Their affair is cut short when Ellie’s government funding is cancelled and she leaves to seek independent financial backing, eventually finding it from reclusive billionaire S.R. Hadden (John Hurt). Beginning research anew in New Mexico, her persistence eventually pays off when her team detect a repeating signal, and suddenly her kooky little project is of global concern.

'90s beats

Adapted from a novel by scientist Carl Sagan (of Cosmos fame), Contact is notable for its very grounded and plausible approach to the science of possible first contact. It’s like the anti Independence Day: rather than giant technologically-advanced spaceships turning up out of nowhere and threatening us, we receive a signal with mathematical properties (maths being a universal language) and consider opening lines of communication. Of course, it gets more speculative from there, but that’s unavoidable if you’re telling a story where we hear from aliens. Regardless, all of the science, as well as the political developments that ensue from it, feels very truthful. I’m sure there must be some of the ol’ corner-cutting Movie Science involved somewhere, but that’s usually necessary for the sake of telling a reasonably paced story. Despite that, some viewers find its methodicalness to be “slow” or “boring”. Conversely, that’s part of why I liked it so much: it doesn’t wave its hands around to obscure the discovery part just so it can get to the Cool Stuff — it is the discovery part.

Concurrent to the “how this might actually go down” plot, Contact seeks to explore the axis of faith and science, putting them in juxtaposition to show that, for all their obvious differences, there are also psychological similarities. That’s the purpose of McConaughey’s character, really: a very religious, but amenable, figure for Foster’s very scientific outlook to bump up against. Their romantic storyline works in favour of keeping this discussion balanced: you don’t end up projecting one as the hero and the other as the villain when they’re both halves of the central relationship. It results in some thoughtful perspectives on where the line between science and religion blurs.

“One day, I'm going to win an Oscar...”

Foster gives an impassioned performance as the dedicated Ellie, who’s so committed to both her cause and the truth that she doesn’t compromise, even when it might get her ahead. Her tunnel-vision focus on science means she can come across as a bit of a cold fish, which makes sense given the character’s backstory, but for some viewers that seems to render her too distant to embrace as the heroine. It goes as far as some saying the film’s ending has no heart because Ellie is so cold. Conversely, I think that’s almost why it works. She’s a person who has shut herself down because of her loss, but she still has some small flame of hope that keeps her searching. What happens at the end fully taps into her emotions, fanning that flame. Surely there’s something powerful in that?

Among the rest of the cast, McConaughey shows he had skills long before the McConnaissance, William Fichtner does a lot with a small supporting role, and Tom Skerritt plays a total dick in a way that feels like a real-life total dick rather than a movie version. By way of contrast, James Woods’ character is the other way round: he’s a good actor, but was perhaps railroaded into being a little heavy-handed as a somewhat-villainous National Security honcho. That said, with the current US administration’s attitude to science, maybe he’s sickeningly plausible today.

Pod person

Although not an ID4-style extravaganza, Contact features a great use of special effects — or, rather, that’s why they’re so great: they don’t exist just so they exist; they exist because the story needs them, and they’re more powerful and beautiful for it. This is true not only of some final-act trippiness, but also scenery shots of the giant Machine that gets built, which are made more real by their understatedness. Can you imagine this film now, as it would be made by most directors? There’d be constant helicopter-style shots of the thing. (The exception, of course, would be someone like Denis Villeneuve, as conclusively proven in Arrival.)

I can understand why Contact didn’t catch on with audiences back in ’97. This was the year after Independence Day became the second highest grossing movie of all time, which shows what interested the minds (or, at least, adrenal glands) of the wider viewership. Nonetheless, I don’t understand why it didn’t find stronger recognition among those who appreciate thoughtful, realistic science fiction. It hasn’t really dated in the past two decades (aside from the chunky desktop computers everyone’s using, anyway), and its debates and messages continue to resonate as a reflection of the society we live in, so maybe there’s time yet for its reappraisal.

5 out of 5

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The Thing (1982)

2015 #97
John Carpenter | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

The Thing 1982It’s just an ordinary day at the US Antarctic research base staffed by helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and his compatriots, until a helicopter buzzes overhead dropping grenades on a dog it’s pursued across the ice fields. The dog finds sanctuary in the US base; the helicopter and its crew are less fortunate. Realising it’s from a Norwegian facility an hour’s flight away, MacReady and the doctor brave inclement conditions to investigate. They find numerous corpses and the base burnt to ruins. What horrors befell the Norwegian base? And have they inadvertently brought them into their own…?

I think we all know the answer to that second question. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if the answer was, “nope, they’re good.”

Derided by some on its release for being naught but wall-to-wall gore, The Thing naturally developed a cult following among horror/sci-fi fans. The funny thing watching it today is that, while the special effects still retain the power to shock in their gross extremity, they’re limited to a handful of quick-fire sequences; indeed, those seeking out The Thing to get their blood-and-guts fix nowadays often seem to declare it “boring”.

Naturally, they’re missing the point. At its heart, John Carpenter’s film is a psychological thriller: an alien is in the group’s midst; it has taken on the form of one or more of them; who can you trust? How can you tell? It’s both a dilemma in an abstract “sci-fi concept” sense, and no doubt a parallel from an era when spying and the threat of ‘the other’ infiltrating society were still major issues. I suppose it’s a facet that’s come round again these past few years, with the increasing rise of home-grown terrorists, previously decent citizens lured and brainwashed by propaganda. The most enduring themes are always timely, I guess.

Are you MacReady for this?Even if you don’t want to get deep about it, The Thing has the “who’s human?” thrills to keep you engaged on that level. Accusations of boredom no doubt stem from the fact it’s a bit of a slow burn, the early acts building suspicion and unease as MacReady and co investigate. Even after the true nature of the threat is revealed, Carpenter paces himself, though the frequency of incidents begins to mount inexorably as we head towards the climax. Well, that’s just good structure.

If the film has one problem, it’s there are too many characters. We know MacReady: he’s Kurt Russell, and he’s singled out early on as the hero — though we come to suspect even he may not be ‘right’ as the film goes on. As for the rest, I believe there are eleven of them, and at best they are loosely sketched. At least a couple are easily conflated and therefore confused, and for the rest, there just isn’t time to get to know them properly, so we’re less invested in what happens to them. There’s a reason most “who will survive?” movies have something like five or six characters in peril, not twelve.

In spite of all that, The Thing does remain best remembered for its extraordinary effects. Even though you know it’s rubber and silicon and corn syrup and whatever else, and even though the intervening thirty-odd years and lashings of CGI have enabled even more, even darker imaginings to be brought before our eyes, the visceral physicality of these effects, the way they play on long-established fears, and apply those to the human body in nauseatingly contorted ways, is plenty enough to render them still effective; certainly so within the context of a film that is, as I say, really more of a thriller than a gore-fest.

These people are going to dieFor me, it’s the psychological quandaries that are gripping and exciting, rather than any enjoyed disgust at the emetic special effects. However, knowing the characters a little better — thus caring if they’d been replaced or not, and also perhaps allowing us a chance to try to guess for ourselves — would have just made it that bit superior.

4 out of 5

The Thing was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

The 2011 prequel, also titled The Thing, will be reviewed tomorrow.

Monsters vs Aliens (2009)

2014 #21
Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon | 84 mins* | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Monsters vs AliensThere seems to be a certain brand of animated film that I think looks dreadful so avoid, then I hear good things about, so I try it and find that, actually, they are really good. There was How to Train Your Dragon, then Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and now — yes, you guessed it — there’s Monsters vs Aliens.

On her wedding day, Susan is struck by meteorite whose contents causes her to grow to 50 feet tall. Seized by the government and renamed Ginormica, she’s taken to a special facility that houses an array of other creatures: B.O.B., an indestructible blob; Dr. Cockroach, a part-insect mad scientist; the Missing Link, a prehistoric fish-ape hybrid; and Insectosaurus, a skyscraper-sized grub. But when evil alien Gallaxhar arrives seeking the energy that gave Ginormica her powers, it’s realised the only way to combat his giant robots is by unleashing the monsters. Yes, it’s The Avengers with ’50s B-movie monsters.

If that doesn’t sound like a fun concept, you’re probably already on a hiding to nothing. It has a love and understanding of B-movies that should keep many a genre fan happy, suggesting it was created for them almost as much as its true audience, namely the same kids as… well, every other US animation. I suppose in that regard it’s a bit like The Incredibles, still one of the best superhero movies in any form.
Monster Squad
That’s a big comparison to make, but one I think Monsters vs Aliens can withstand more often than not. The climax is a little samey — why do all action-y kids CGI movies seem to have the same final act? — but before then it has a nice line in satirical humour, bold and broad characters, and even some quality action sequences. This is not a film where someone had an idea and coasted on it, but where they poured in a lot of love and elements you might not expect — see: satire, in an American kids’ movie! Not to mention the emotion you’ll get from a giant moth. I mean seriously…

Computer-animated kids movies are two-a-penny these days, meaning if it doesn’t have “Pixar” above its logo or a number at the end of its title, there’s a good chance it’ll be brushed off as “oh, another one”. (Of course, to get the aforementioned number on a title you need a successful unnumbered one first — like the other two films I mentioned in my introduction, for example.) There’s probably a lot of dross that’s being rightfully ignored, but some gems seem to have passed by with less fanfare than their enjoyment-value merits. Megamind is one that comes to mind; Monsters vs Aliens is another.

4 out of 5

* Full running time is 94 minutes. A saving of 10 is what you get for watching it in a PAL version (i.e. sped-up 4%) created for broadcast TV (i.e. hardly any credits). ^

Alien vs Predator – Part 2

Five weeks ago (crikey, time flies) I began my series of reviews of the Alien, Predator and Alien vs Predator franchises with my thoughts on Alien: The Director’s Cut and the original Predator, both of which I’d seen before. Over the past few days I’ve moved on to the remaining Alien films, all of which I viewed in their original theatrical cuts and all of which were new to me.

Here’s a handy summary of what you may’ve missed, then, if you somehow had something better to do on a sunny summer weekend than check blogs every day.

2009 #14
Aliens

“Where Alien is a Horror Movie — but in space — Aliens is a War Movie — but in space. The central characters are a team of marines, as opposed to the original’s ordinary guys; where the first film’s design was dark, shadowy and oppressive, here it’s all gleaming tech, tanks and guns and spaceships and the like; and, just to underline the point, the score is full of military drums.” Read more…

2009 #15
Alien³

“Even if in some ways 3 combines the first two — single Alien, claustrophobia, unarmed heroes; but there are lots of them, most with experience of killing — it adds enough variety, especially stylistically… it soon turns dark, dirty and decrepit, abandoning both the the military sheen of Aliens and the old tanker grime of Alien.” Read more…

2009 #16
Alien Resurrection

“the most notable differences are its black humour, where the tastes of both [writer] Whedon and director Jeunet make their mark, and how grotesque it is — almost two extremes walking hand-in-hand. The deformed, perverted Ripley clones; the Hybrid; the Ripley-Alien sex scene — there’s nothing like this in the other films, and that’s a grand thing.” Read more…


In the third and final part of this series I’ll be setting my sights on the allegedly-underrated Predator 2 and the much-hated pair of AVP and AVPR.