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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Panic Room (2002)

2011 #16b
David Fincher | 107 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Panic RoomPanic Room stands out as (arguably) Fincher’s most atypical film. Whereas his others are all epic, in one way or another, this is the exact opposite. It’s very contained, virtually the entire running time spent on one night in one house, alleviated only by brief outside bookends and a guided tour of the house at the start. Fortunately, it’s still an outstanding little thriller.

For a start, it’s still clearly a Fincher film (much more so than The Game) thanks to the visuals. So it’s quite dark and stylish, of course, which at least one review I’ve read credited much more to dual cinematographs Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji. Not to dismiss either man’s influence and skill, but, piss off. You only need to watch Fincher’s previous films (one shot by Khondji, the other three by three different DoPs) to see that this is a director who knows what he’s after visually (as if his reputation for shooting an obscene number of takes for every little shot didn’t suggest that well enough). To say it’s only thanks to Hall and Khondji that Fincher could produce such a good-looking film does the director a disservice.

Nonetheless, his style is even more evident in the distinctive, physically impossible swooping camera shots. The best known starts with Jodie Foster in bed at the top of the house, before plummeting down several storeys to find the burglars arriving outside, then following them around the house (on the inside) as they try to find a way in (from the outside. Obviously.), Shh!all the way squeezing the camera through banisters, coffee pots, and other assorted obstacles. There are several such shots, the majority early on (though not exclusively — witness the Hitchcockian transparent floor, for instance). This is presumably to help enliven the relatively slow build-up; later, the story’s inherent tension largely takes over.

That said, the story gets going quite quickly, and never drops the ball in the way such contained movies usually do. Even entertaining examples, such as Exam, tend to wind up with moments where you can feel the filmmakers stalling for time; Panic Room has no such scenes. As well as staving off audience boredom, it keeps the film tight, the action constantly pushing forward.

And talking of action, no review of Panic Room is complete without mentioning the slow-motion sequence. Other action scenes in the film are Burglars threeperfectly well staged and suitably tense or exciting as required, but Foster’s slow-mo dash for her mobile, and back into the panic room as the three burglars come pounding up the stairs, is one of those sequences that transcends the film it’s in to become a stand-out example of the form. Any skilled action director could have produced a good sequence at full-speed from that setup, but by switching to slow-motion Fincher stretches out the tension like an elastic band ready to snap, putting us on the edge of our collective seat as we urge Foster on through air that seems as thick as treacle.

Similarly, one must mention the title sequence. I like it well enough, but have never understood why it attracts so much fuss and attention. What’s so exceptional about it? Though I must confess to enjoying it more than I used to, which may just be years of being told how good it is.

Good thief, bad thiefOne other particularly interesting element is how we feel about Forest Whitaker’s character. This isn’t Ocean’s Eleven or what have you — the thieves are clearly the villains, and two of them are properly villainous, even if they’re also ultimately shown up as amateurish and a bit useless — but Whitaker’s character gains our sympathies; not as a charming rogue (see Ocean’s Eleven again), or in some kind of honour-amongst-crooks way, or even a wrong-place-wrong-time way, but genuinely as a human being. It helps make things a little different, a little more interesting. Especially at the climax, though I won’t spoil why.

Panic Room doesn’t have as much to say as Se7en or Fight Club, or even The Game, and it feels distinctly low-key after the lot of them — indeed, as Fincher seems to have followed it with a series of genuine epics, it’s increasingly the sore thumb in his filmography. Which probably does it a disservice because it’s a superbly made and entertaining thriller. Whereas before I would’ve happily shoved it to the lower end of Fincher’s work, I felt it had greater re-watch value than The Game and I now like it a lot more than I used to.

4 out of 5

Panic Room is on Film4 tonight, Friday 3rd October 2014, at 11pm.

I watched Panic Room as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.

Taxi Driver (1976)

2007 #122
Martin Scorsese | 109 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Taxi DriverMuch praised, discussed and quoted, Taxi Driver needs little introduction. The weight of expectation also makes it hard to judge when first viewed.

Personally, I didn’t buy Travis’ slide into psychosis, which is unfortunate as it’s the core of the film and why it’s meant to be so great. In fact, I found Robert Pupkin’s broadly similar, self delusion-based character arc in The King of Comedy more believable. The ending was also dubious, although one theory does make it work better, so it perhaps depends on what you choose to believe.

Further viewings may help the film work better for me — as my rating shows, I still liked the film as a whole, but I wasn’t as impressed as I’d been led to believe I would be.

4 out of 5