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CONTACT(director: Robert Zemeckis; screenwriters: Jim V, Hart/Michael Goldenberg /based on Carl Sagan’s novel; cinematographer: Don Burgess; editor: Arthur Schmidt; cast: Jodie Foster (Ellie Arroway), Matthew McConaughey (Palmer Joss), James Woods (Michael Kitz), Tom Skerritt (David Drumlin), William Fichtner (Kent), Angela Bassett (Rachel Constantine), John Hurt (S.R. Hadden), Rob Lowe (Richard Rank), David Morse (Ted Arroway), Jena Malone (Little Ellie); Runtime: 150; Warner Brothers; 1997)
“Carl Sagan would have been proud of the film’s scientific accuracy if he had lived to see the film through to its conclusion…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This film, based on Carl Sagan’s novel, is a mixture of sci-fi, romance, sentimentality, and drama. It is brought to the screen by the director of Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis. It relies on its ideas and its convictions to sustain its powerful but soppy story, rather than its special effects. This is contrary to many modern sci-fi films that have just become special effect vehicles. The Ellie Arroway (Jodie) role as a child of 8, is played by Jena Malone. She is being raised by her father (her mother died at childbirth). He provides her with tender loving care and respects her curiosity to learn, encouraging her interest in astronomy. Unfortunately, he dies of a heart attack when she is just ten.

At last we see Ellie, grown-up as an independent and intelligent young lady, working for the National Science Foundation on a project of cutting-edge technology. Jodie Foster is feisty, vulnerable, appealing, self-righteous, and obsessed with seeking scientific truths. She is the alter ego for Sagan, challenging the scientific and religious dogmas of the day, championing a call for poetry and vision.

Ellie’s boss, Palmer Joss (Matthew), feels her research is futile and of no utilitarian value. He stops her ‘alien contact’ project, and is pictured as the perfect bureaucrat. Governments seem to trust this type and like to put them in charge of things, his seemingly rational voice seems to give them a false sense of security.

Ellie falls for a vacuous popularizer of worldly causes (Tom Skeritt). The physical attraction between them is overshadowed by their ideological differences for nothing can get in the way of Ellie’s belief in evolution, not even this hunk.

S.R. Hadden (John Hurt) comes to Ellie’s rescue as an eccentric, wealthy scientist, on the lookout for adventurous scientists; his foundation privately sponsors her research. Ellie succeeds in making contact with some sort of life in outer space; and, the government, with Michael Kitz (James Woods) in charge of security, co-opts her project for national security reasons. Here the story turns melodramatic and goes off on too many different tangents to adequately keep its focus on its primary aim — that there is life in outer space. For these scenes, the film should have used the dictum from Occam’s Razor: The simplest way to do something is the best way.

As a sci-fi’er, with a good story line even though it tends to get too schmaltzy at times, this film is up to par with those Star Wars films; but, it is outclassed by 2001. Carl Sagan would have been proud of the film’s scientific accuracy if he had lived to see the film through to its conclusion, but I don’t think he would have been too happy with the elementary-school theological debate between the space pioneer and the government officials.

The main argument about the relationship between God and science, comes about when Jodie is asked by a government panel from the Space Agency whether she believes in the God of the Bible. She wavers, not trying to answer the question directly because if she said she didn’t believe in God they wouldn’t let her go up in space. I think the best answer a scientist could give in this scenario, was not given by Jodie…but, then again, she was allowed to go up in space–which, I guess, makes her response the right one. But, I believe what someone like Steven Hawkings might have said might be more in tune with the thinking of most scientists, that it is through these scientific machines that we will come closest to reading the mind of God. Albert Einstein might have said that the God of order created this beautiful world we live in and that the other kind of God, the one of prayer and the one of interpretation by man and interjection is a personal God and is therefore a speculative one. The world had to be created out of the first concept of God; the world is not a result of an accident, according to Einstein: it is a thing of great beauty and could only be created by a God. At least this is what my science friends tell me is the more typical attitude toward God in their community, rather than Jodie’s Hollywood-ish response.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”