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

The Hum in the Drum Monthly Update for June 2017

There was so much hummable music in this month’s movies that I considered a music-related category for the Arbies then dropped it because I didn’t want to have to decide.

So I’ll leave it up to you what track you choose to listen to (I’m going with Mike Relm’s Baby Driver remix) while we reflect on the month that was…


#76 Space Jam (1996)
#77 The Muppet Movie (1979)
#78 Gran Torino (2008)
#79 Contact (1997)
#80 That’s Entertainment! (1974)
#81 Wonder Woman (2017)
#82 The Mummy (2017)
#83 Moonlight (2016)
#84 The LEGO Batman Movie 3D (2017)
#85 Moana 3D (2016)
#86 John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
#87 The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
#88 District 9 (2009)
#89 Baby Driver (2017)
#90 Transformers: Age of Extinction 3D (2014)
Contact

Baby Driver

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  • I watched 15 new films this month, exceeding the rolling average of the last 12 months (previously 14.1, now 14.2) and equalling the average for 2017 to date (which was and is bang on 15).
  • At the halfway point of the year, I’ve reached #90, which suggests a final tally of 180. Of course (as I mentioned last month, actually), this time in 2015 I was also at #90 and eventually turned that into 200, while this time in 2016 I was way ahead at #115 but only turned that into 195. So… it’s basically meaningless, is what I’m saying.
  • At the risk of spoiling one of my year-end stats, The Mummy marked the most cinema trips I’ve made in a single year since 2008. And there’s half the year to go yet, with at least the same number of films again earmarked as must-sees.
  • This month’s Blindspot film: Neill Blomkamp’s Oscar-nominated allegorical sci-fi actioner, District 9, which came to Netflix UK this week, I believe for the first time, but I didn’t get round to reviewing it.
  • This month’s WDYMYHS film: Clint Eastwood’s retirement from acting (until it wasn’t) in Gran Torino, which I also haven’t reviewed yet.



The 25th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
I haven’t got round to reviewing most of them yet so you wouldn’t know it, but there are a good number of favourite-able movies this month — at least five solid contenders for my year-end top ten, I’d say. But setting aside tales of alien instruction manuals, black boys looking blue, toy superheroes, and musical Polynesians (not to mention wonderful women and gun-toting boogeymen), for my favourite movie this month I have to pick Baby Driver.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Conversely, this was easy. Several movies this month may have underwhelmed me, either in themselves or compared to the hype, but the only one I outright hated was Space Jam.

Best Serious Drama About First Contact with Aliens of the Month
It’s taken me 20 years to see Contact and I loved it. I’m not sure if I would’ve loved it as much 20 years ago, mind, so maybe now was the right time.

The Silicon Valley Producers’ Favourite Movie of the Month
I wonder if Transformers: Age of Extinction is popular in the Silicon Valley writers’ room right now, considering it features T.J. Miller (spoiler alert!) suffering a horrible demise.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
For the third time this award goes to the latest edition of The Past Month on TV, which covered the start of the new Twin Peaks, the “Monk trilogy” on Doctor Who, and more.



It was another good month for my Rewatchathon. I’m still behind where I should be (we’re halfway through the year, so that’d be at #26), but across the last two months I’ve averaged six rewatches a month — if I keep that up, all will be fine.

#16 Mamma Mia! (2008)
#17 John Wick (2014)
#18 Transformers (2007)
#19 Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen Big Screen Edition (2009)
#20 Transformers: Dark of the Moon 3D (2011)

I didn’t intend to watch Mamma Mia, but the other half put it on and, while I still only half watched it, I paid more attention than I’d expected to. It’s a very daft movie, but it’s so deliberately silly and cheesy that I can’t help but find it amusing. I re-read my nine-year-old review and it pretty much still stands.

Rewatching the Bayformers films was interesting. I wrote a little about Transformers, Revenge of the Fallen, and Dark of the Moon on Letterboxd if you’re interested, but in summary: I liked the first less than I remembered, enjoyed the second a surprising amount, and completely changed my opinion of the third. I technically watched a different cut of the second one (it’s all of 30 seconds longer), so I’ll probably include a little bit about that in a future review roundup.


Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever another Marvel Studios character can.