Monday, June 23, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #93 - Contact (1997, dir. Robert Zemeckis)

For Science Fiction to work for me it has to meet two criteria; 1) It must have a premise that seems plausible, and 2) it must preserve some sense of wonder. These are seemingly incompatible requirements, yet the best science fiction (Blade Runner, 2001 A Space Odyssey, The Time Machine, etc.) strikes this very balance, making us stare in amazement like a child, yet forcing us to ponder bigger questions of science, sociology and philosophy. Contact follows Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster at her wide-eyed, pre-tortured best) as a scientist whose early loss of her parents drives her to search for life outside of earth. We come to understand her obsession is in some ways a method of searching for her lost father. She’s scanning the heavens for aliens, but her heart wants a reunion with her dead parent. Manning a lonely array of radar towers in the desert of New Mexico, Arroway picks up a faint sound – she has made contact! The movie takes a good long time to get to this point. In the meantime we are introduced to Matthew McConaughey’s character: Palmer Joss, a religious man who advises presidents and falls for Arroway. In what will become a career of vacuous hunks, he sets the standard with this one, although his role is crucial in that he sets up the central conflict of the film: which posits that a belief in unproven science is a similar to the leap one takes to believe in an unseen god. It is an important part in the film, but overall one can’t help but think that McConaughey’s role was expanded because of his unbearable hunkiness. The movie really succeeds when it makes Arroway’s discovery real.

The signal Arroway picks up turns out to be instructions from another civilization that, when followed, will allow mankind to build a machine to travel to the Vega star. The construction and views of the machine are the movie’s greatest strength. The machine, sitting offshore at NASA in Florida is awe-inspiring. I have literally gone back to the scenes with the machine over and over. They hold the magic ingredient that Hollywood directors seek. It is like the scene at the end of Planet Of The Apes when Charleton Heston comes upon the destroyed Statue Of Liberty in the sand. It is familiar and fantastic all at once and the images sear themselves into the viewer’s mind, becoming part of your consciousness forever. The space travel machine in Contact is possibly my favorite special effect ever, because it seems possibly real while taking your breath away with its scale and function.

Through a series of plot twists involving a stellar supporting cast (James Woods and Tom Skerritt both playing variations on the devil) our heroine Eleanor Arroway ends up getting to pilot the machine for its inaugural voyage. In another series of beautifully realized visual miracles, director Robert Zemeckis sends Foster through a series of wormholes ending up in a different galaxy where she is greeted as an ambassador from a new planet. The machine is the first step in helping civilizations understand space travel, and Arroway is just the tip of the spear. We are assured there will be future exploration. Unfortunately, to those watching Arroway’s journey on earth, it appears as though it only took seconds and that nothing really happened. Ah - there’s the rub! Now we see: Arroway trying to convince an unbelieving populace about space travel they can’t see is just like Palmer Joss trying to convince the non-believing Arroway that a god she can’t see exists. It is not a surprise that the movie is based upon a story written by the great scientist Carl Sagan. Sagan understands the nuanced arguments that tie science and faith together at a very fundamental level. Until we see with our own eyes, we tend to not believe, unless that peculiarity of human behavior – faith – takes over. In the end we find an optimistic Arroway encouraging school kids to look to the stars. She has become a preacher for science, and we are left with our own struggles and beliefs.
- Paul Epstein

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