Contact (1997)

ATTACK OF THE SCI-FI SOAP OPERA SERIAL
PART ONE

by Sean Ledden

PROLOGUE

A couple of weeks ago my trusty TV of 14 years died a quick and unexpected death. Grief-stricken, I rushed out to buy a new flat-screen LCD and celebrated by watching some of my favorite old wide-screen spectacles, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Its scenes of luminous UFO’s soaring over the American landscape are still some of the most wondrous images ever created by Hollywood. But the loooonnnnngggg third act, in which Richard Dreyfus’s increasingly nutty character drives his family up the wall reminded me of a nagging problem I’ve seen in lots of recent big-budget American sci-fi movies.

And so I thought I’d bitch about it in a collection of reviews I’ve entitled, as you can see, “Attack of the Sci-Fi Soap Opera Serial!"

PosterGood science fiction should be an adventure that expands your horizons and gets you to look at the world with new eyes. But over the last decade I’ve noticed a dismaying trend in American movies, where science fiction merely provides an excuse to wallow in soap opera clichés and confirm received wisdom. These movies don’t look out onto the horizon, but gaze inward at their own navels. And good grief, it seems the problem even crops up as early as 1977, when Close Encounters came out.

Getting back to that third act, it comes after the thrilling opening in which Dreyfus’s Roy Neary experiences a miraculous visitation from the nighttime skies over Indiana. Start to finish, from the unearthly light at the railroad crossing to the final ascension of the 3 glowing craft up into the clouds, this sequence is charged with mystery and wonder. Adding to the fun are signals from space that lead some sort of secret government investigative team to the remote reaches of Devil’s Peak, Wyoming.

And then, having revved up the audience and primed us for a chase to discover what’s behind it all, Steven Spielberg throws the movie into neutral and we’re stuck in the Neary household for almost 13 minutes of screen time as we watch the family disintegrate. Apparently implanted with some sort of mental image by the UFO’s, Roy keeps making little sculptures of a mountain-like shape out of whatever is at hand. As Roy grows more obsessed his wife (the wonderful Teri Garr) and kids grow more freaked out. And then he has an epiphany and really goes off the deep end. Convinced he finally has the mountain-like shape “right,” he trashes the house, the yard, even the neighbor’s property to create a giant installation worthy of MOMA in the family room. He’s then “comically” surprised when his family snaps and deserts him. Ha ha!

I always thought, “What the hell? Why is Spielberg putting so much emphasis on this?” Then I realized it was all an allegory for the divinely inspired artist who’s misunderstood by the uncomprehending squares around him. Well sure, down with uncomprehending squares, and all that, but in this movie it’s a bit of self-indulgence (guess which divinely inspired artist Spielberg probably had in mind when he visualized Roy Neary’s torment and isolation) and it brings the movie screeching to a halt. The quest to solve the mystery from the skies gets elbowed aside by a painfully earth-bound soap opera centering on a misunderstood suburban dad.

Fortunately, the movie regains its stride once Roy hits the road for Wyoming and we’re in for a wild ride to the secret government base at Devil’s Peak, and the awesome spectacle of the landing mothership. Capping it all off the aliens themselves make an appearance. They smile charmingly at the hushed and expectant crowd of earthlings, and (here my head cocks to one side like a confused spaniel) they cold-shoulder everyone but Roy. Only he can enter their miraculous ship and ascend with them up into the heavens… Hmmmm. You know, Spielberg really had me, right up until that last bit. Yes, yes, I get it that only those who were “called” by having the mountain’s image planted into their brain got a ticket to ride – but shouldn’t this have been about the historic meeting of two civilizations? And while the encounter at Devil’s Peak is a great photo op, what really happens? Nothing of substance.

Ah, but I’m missing the point, aren’t I. It’s not about the historic meeting of two civilizations and the dawn, for mankind, of a larger existence – it’s an allegory about the life mission of the true artist. Painfully isolated from the common herd from which he springs, he follows his inner vision at great cost, and then ascends, alone, up into the heavens of inspiration. So – Close Encounters is really an interior existential drama masquerading as science fiction. Sigh. What’s more, the notion that only the true artist can travel to “heaven” has in icky Ayn Randian feel about it. (I bet the aliens have a copy of The Fountainhead in their library.)

I still love Close Encounters for its glorious high points – but gee, I wish Spielberg had made a real science fiction epic, and one where everyone gets invited to ride in the mothership. Then its “uplifting” finale would have been a genuinely optimistic statement on the possibility of transformation, instead of a secret declaration of the innate superiority of an elect few.

The flaw that dims the luster of Close Encounters would, unfortunately, grow to monstrous proportions in the following years and devour many sci-fi movies of the future. (Cue crowd of screaming extras.) So travel with me through a galaxy of sugary sentimentality, broken hearts, mended relationships, gooey romance, wise aliens, and uplifting life lessons ….IF YOU DARE!

CONTACT (With something… Maybe…Or not.)

Contact


With Close Encounters the mixing of UFO’s and the emotional life of the artist is at least a creative decision by the director. Twenty years later the confusion between contact with an alien intelligence and being “Touched by an Angel” is a fearful and calculated commercial decision. And so we come to 1997’s Contact: two and a half hours of emotional trauma masquerading as a scientific spirit of inquiry, timid culture-war commentary, and bizarre, self-defeating plot twits. Come on! Let’s take an (abbreviated) tour.

Based, sort-of, on Carl Sagan’s novel and directed by Robert Zemeckis, Contact opens with the best scene in the movie – one long take as the camera hovers in orbit about the earth, and then travels out into deep space. As it goes further away the radio and TV sound signals on the soundtrack travel back in time until we reach a point where they vanish. But the camera keeps traveling, silently, out into the vastness of the galaxy and beyond. Terrific!

Then we’re back on earth in the bedroom of adorable little 8-year old Ellie Arroway. Searching for contact with far away people via ham radio she successfully reaches Pensacola, Florida. Then she asks her dad (the always appealing David Morse) two big questions. The first is “Dad, could we talk to mom?” (presumably mom died some time ago). The other is, “Are there people on other planets. (See what I mean? It’s Touched by an Angel meets Lost in Space – and somebody probably used that appalling combination during the pitch meetings!) But at least dad’s answer to the second question is a good one, “If it’s just us, it seems an awful waste of space.”

Contact

A very nice shot of Ellie at the Very Large Array.

We jump to the adult Ellie, who’s played by Jodie Foster with a grim, wounded intensity that becomes oppressive as the movie goes on and on and on. Now a radio astronomer at the huge Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico, Ellie is grimly and intensely involved in SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. She battles her handsome ass-hole of a boss Dr. Drumlin (Tom Skerritt, and his world-class moustache), who believes that SETI is a waste of time, while she parries the attentions of a dreamboat new-age-y kind of almost Catholic priest named Palmer (Matthew McConaughey). Phew, men are a lot of trouble, aren’t they? Especially if you’re a brilliant but emotionally crippled scientist who’s afraid to connect with people. Which is ironic, because she’s searching for….oh, never mind. It’s drama! (The movie explains that Ellie’s mom died in childbirth, and then stops to show us how her dad kicked the bucket when she was 9. Ouch. No wonder she became a scientist.)

Back to Palmer. For some vague reason I didn’t catch, he graduated from the seminary but never took the vows of a priest. And so, after a brief, but profound exchange with Drumlin…

Drumlin, “Science can be practical and profitable.”
Palmer, “Science is the search for truth.”

…He hits on Ellie. His winning line is an echo of what dad said, that it would be a waste of space if we were the only ones in the universe. Fortunately this is a classy movie, so they end up in bed, and not a hot tub surrounded by dozens of lighted candles. (Halleluiah!) They then enjoy the afterglow by debating, every so politely, the existence of God. – I told you this is a classy movie. She explains how she got kicked out of Sunday school for asking embarrassing questions, while he recounts a spiritual epiphany that almost got him to become a priest. (Question: Is talking about God right after un-married sex a kind of blasphemy?)

As usual with discussions of this kind, nothing is settled. And Ellie, wounded fawn that she is, runs away from intimacy and back to the radar dish (scientists are like that) – only to discover that her handsome asshole of a boss has pulled the plug on her project. Orphaned again, so to speak, she hits the road begging for corporate dollars, and is finally saved by the mysterious and unseen corporate titan S.R. Hadden. So now the “action” (I know, all this set up is a long slog) moves to the Very Large Array in New Mexico.

Here, finally, 35 minutes into the movie, the alien signal arrives….And along with the opening sequence, this scene is the only genuinely exciting thing in the movie. What at first seemed simple turns out to have hidden depths, and the rush to understand the layers of meaning hidden in the incoming alien code reeks of intellectual adventure. Yes, reeks! At last, it’s understood that the signal is broadcasting a blueprint for a fabulous machine that can probably transport a human being to distant worlds. Does humanity dare build it?

The next hour and 10 minutes – yes, an-hour-and-10-minutes – is a welter of faux news broadcasts that use real news anchors, faux press conferences that use footage of then president Clinton, and meetings with tough high level government types played by real actors. Oddly, the big question in this section isn’t whether or not we’ll build the machine, but whether or not Ellie believes in God. You see, she wants to be the first human to travel to the stars. But that means she has to be selected by a politically appointed committee – despite the fact that she was the one who first detected the alien signal. In a realistic touch, this committee judges candidates on how well they will represent earth’s (read America’s) “values.” (Despite its gloss of internationalism, this is a very, very American movie. Foreigners have a few bit parts, but all of the key roles are filled by the good old U.S. of A.)

So the key scene here is Ellie’s testimony before the selection committee. And guess who’s a member? That’s right, Palmer, that sexy Christian guy she dumped a few years ago. Uh oh. But by the moist way he looks at her – a way that manages to convey affection, pride and regret (bravo Mathew!) we know he still carries a torch for our orphan scientist girl. Actually, he showed up a number of scenes ago, and he and Ellie have already inflicted quite a bit of tortured romance and clichéd theological debate on the audience:

Palmer: I can’t imagine a world where God doesn’t exist. I don’t want to.
Ellie: I need proof.
Palmer: Can you prove that you loved your father?

This floors Ellie – but not me. My answer is “Yes, She Can!” By blowing something or someone up! Oh, and by the way Ellie, the key here is PALMER DOESN’T WANT TO IMAGINE A WORLD WITHOUT GOD. So what’s the point of arguing?

Contact

Ellie enjoys being persecuted for her atheism.

Back to the hearing, where Palmer torpedoes her by asking….. wait for it…. “Are you a spiritual person?” Ellie’s tortured response makes me think that being an atheist in today’s America is like being a Jew in Nazi Germany. It’s not the popular choice. And indeed, Ellie loses out to handsome asshole Drumlin, who hits all of the right notes in his testimony. Again, I have to give Contact credit for being realistic on this point. Perhaps unrealistically, Ellie doesn’t call Palmer a “Fucking asshole” the next time she meets him. Instead we get more of Jodie’s wounded fawn routine. And oh boy, I never get tired of that!

Contact

The wounded fawn. (Sob!)

Jumping ahead to the test run of the alien device now built in Cape Canaveral, we do get a bit of anger from the movie itself as a Christian fanatic, creepily played by Jake Busey, blows up the device and kills Drumlin in a suicide bomber attack. And yet ironically, this gives Ellie her chance, as mysterious corporate titan S.R. Hadden (John Hurt) shows her a second device that was built just off the Japanese island of Hokkaido. (For some reason never explained, Ellie doesn’t have to go before another committee for another hearing. Also unexplained is why everybody suddenly seems OK with sending an atheist into space as humanity’s ambassador.)

Contact

The very cool alien transport machine.

And now, 150 minutes into the movie, Ellie suits up for a ride to the stars. Contact is a lavish production: the alien transport machine is wonderfully realized, and the ride itself is a fun variation on the 2001 Space Odyssey trip. But once we get near Ellie’s final destination we hit patches of turbulence, i.e. schmaltzy piano music and a perverse kind of sentimentality. Gazing up at a very pretty galaxy, a moist tear escapes Ellie’s glistening eye and travels down her quivering cheek as she intones, “Some celestial event. So beautiful…So beautiful…I had no idea.” Of course she “had no idea,” even though she’s an astronomer who has certainly seen images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. That’s because she’s a scientist and an atheist, so we all know she can’t believe in beauty.

Then the galaxy disappears and Ellie floats down onto a beach much like the one she imagined for Florida when she was a little girl operating the ham radio. As she gazes out at the nighttime beach a half-seen, shimmering, slightly creepy shape walks toward her – this part is really cool. But when it approaches it turns into her long dead father, which nearly sends Ellie, who’s tense even in the best of times, into an emotional crisis. Once she’s regained her composure the alien justifies his choice, strangely, by saying, “We thought this might make it easier for you.” Huh? These aliens haven’t been watching our movies, have they? Because if they had, they’d know that impersonating a dead loved-one come back to life is the preferred way to bring on a heart attack or send someone to the nut house.

In this historic first encounter between humanity and an advanced galactic civilization we learn almost nothing of the aliens – although they do flatter us by saying that we are an interesting species, “Capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares.” Awww, shucks. Ellie’s “dad” goes on to explain how we feel “so lost, so cut off, so alone.” He adds that the only thing his race, and all the others that are part of some sort of advanced galactic federation, have found to make the emptiness bearable is “each other.” That’s a sweet sentiment – no irony here, but now the movie takes a truly bizarre turn. For despite the fact that the human race is tragically alone it will be some time before the aliens allow another earthling through the transport system. Why? Because “this is how it’s been done for billions of years.” That’s an answer? (By the way, did you notice that the alien as good as said “There is no God.” Although I’m sure the filmmakers would deny this if asked.)

Things get worse when Ellie returns to earth, because it seems to the American observers that she never went anywhere at all. She had been in a large metal ball that was dropped from a tower, into the middle of several huge rotating hoops. In the middle of the hoops a big light show opened up, suggesting a portal. But from a nearby observation ship it appeared that the ball merely fell through the hoops and immediately dropped into the sea below. The upshot is that no one believes her, and we have to endure another long scene of Ellie being crucified at a public hearing. For here (irony alert!) she is treated much as Joan of Arc was by the invading English – no one believes her tale of communion with a heavenly being. It seems the U.S. government, the same government that demanded she believe in God, now refuses to believe her tale of intelligent aliens without some “proof.” (Apparently the video camera she wore on her trip merely recorded static, so….) And, as a moist tear escapes Ellie’s glistening eye and travels down her quivering cheek, she perhaps at last understands Palmer’s point of view. After all, he can’t “prove” his own religious epiphany. (Irony alert!)

Contact

The wounded fawn, Part 10 (Sob!)

Why the U.S. government is so eager to believe that the multi-billion dollar machine is a complete bust, and thus a total waste of taxpayer money, is never explained. And speaking of proof, no one suggests they try sending someone else through the machine – so I guess they just let it rust up there in Hokkaido….Yeah, right.

But wait, there’s hope! Palmer believes her. And together they leave the capital building to meet a crowd of thousands of believers unconcerned with any lack of proof. Voicing the movie’s poignant plea that science and monotheism are really one in the same, Palmer steps forward and says, “As a person of faith I am bound by a different covenant than Dr. Arroway. But our goal is the same, the pursuit of truth. And I believe her.” Ellie and Palmer embrace. Cue applause! – And here a moist tear escapes my glistening eye and travels down my quivering cheek.

18 months later (No, that wasn’t the ending, and yes, there’s more schmaltz to come.) and Ellie is back at the Very Large Array in New Mexico. While giving a tour to some young grade school students she has this astounding exchange with a cute little boy:

Cute Little Boy
Do other people exist in the universe? (!?!?!?)

Ellie (with a crinkly smile)
Good question. What do you think?

Cute Little Boy
I don’t know.

Ellie
That’s a good answer. (!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?)

What the hell? Has everyone in the movie experienced some sort of psychotic break? Even if Ellie’s trip in the machine was a bust, radio dishes around the world picked up a signal that contained blueprints for a huge, alien machine. So how can anyone still question the existence of intelligent life on other planets? I’m so dumbstruck by this bizarre twist in an already torturous script I can only sit and listen numbly as Ellie condescends, oh so endearingly, to the children in her tour, and by extension, to the audience. Which, apparently, is full of frightened semi-intelligent Troglodytes ready to stampede at the thought of godless aliens up there in the heavens,

“The universe is a weewy weewy big place. (She doesn’t really say “weewy,” but she might as well have.) And if we are alone, it would be an awful waste of space.”

So, we’ve come right back to where we started. Two and a half hours of hackneyed romance and bloodless theological debate, and nothing’s changed. The whole thing was an exercise in pointlessness…And as that schmaltzy piano kicks in again, and a mysteriously contented Ellie gazes out at a Grand Canyon sunset, I lie on the floor and contemplate a prescription for some anti-depressants.

Sean Ledden (Jan 2009)

Afterthoughts

God, (pardon the expression) that was the most dispiriting “Uplift” I’ve ever experienced. But perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on the filmmakers – trying to sell an atheist scientist as the hero in today’s God Besotted America did take some courage. Not as much courage as promoting a child molester, but close enough. But you know, if you’re going to make the question of God a central theme of your movie, then contact with the aliens should either:
a. Confirm the existence of God, or
b. Refute the existence of God

If the aliens cannot, or will not do either of those things, you have no business dragging the question into the movie in the first place. I don’t know, but this seems like “Dramatic Script Writing 101” to me.

And far be it from me to tell an illustrious group of Hollywood professionals how to do their job (note the false humility in my voice) but a good movie about alien signals reaching earth would have those signals arrive within the first 10 or 15 minutes. I mean, really, do we need all of that sappy backstory? Of course not. And another thing, the hook for the middle of the picture should be the Congressional vote on whether or not to fund the fabulous alien transport machine. After all, that’s the decision that will change humanity’s future. You could hang this portion of the story on a Senator or Congressman (or Congresswoman) who happens to be a key swing vote in what promises to be a very close vote. I see a very practical, nuts-and –bolts sort of American from a conservative state, possibly an ex-businessman (or woman) in something like automobiles or kitchen faucets. Having gotten into politics on a “balance the budget” platform they now find themselves, by chance, with a key role in deciding whether or not the nation, and the world, should go into debt to embark on a history-making adventure.

All sorts of pressures, both pro and con, descend on the poor lawmaker, and all reflecting the war in his, or her, heart. Imagine the night before the big vote, and he, or she, stops to look up at the nighttime sky. It’s something they have not done in years, if at all. Such a beautiful sight – but now it’s real in a way it’s never been before. It’s charged with presence. Yet there are so many reasons to vote no. First of all, the cost involved would be outrageous. Voting for the machine could ruin they’re chance for re-election. And success could not be guaranteed. And even if the machine is a success and we met them, what would happen next? Would they attack? – So many reasons to vote no. And yet. And yet…
The outcome of this vote has real dramatic impact, unlike Ellie trying to dodge the God question. I mean, Ellie’s testimony changes nothing of importance – sure, she won’t be the one riding the machine, but so what? Mankind will still be contacting an alien civilization, no matter who goes. And finally, once contact is made, a good movie wouldn’t lose its nerve and play games with the question of “belief.”

NEXT TIME ON THE
ATTACK OF THE SCI-FI SOAP OPERA SERIAL:

Mission to MUSH! (OOPS, I mean MARS)

Join me…IF YOU DARE!

Read more about Contact at

IMDB

9 comments to Contact (1997)

  • guts3d

    I remember this one, it was soooooo boring I closed one eye and half slept through it, which is probably what the script writers did as well. I remember the 3 dimensional thinking in the alien transmission, and wondering why in all the world did some generic rich guy figure it out when all of NASA and other Govt. code breakers couldn’t. We’ll miss you, Carl Sagan. But your book was weak, to be generous. Nice review as always, Sean!

  • Sean Ledden

    That’s a good point about the generic rich guy’s super brainy super power. How could NASA and the government code breakers compete with that! – It’s especially ironic thinking about it from today’s perspective, when the “smartest guys in the room” have pretty much totaled the world economy. Thanks for spotting it!
    Sean

  • Welcome aboard, Sean 🙂

  • oneeye

    I remember this one as well, and own it, although I can’t remember what possessed me to buy it. Some days I do actually pop this into the dvd player, but immediately skip to when the signal comes to array in NM, and then skip to when the uber smart rich guy figures out the ‘code’, and then to to the end where ellie gets strapped into the machine. Hmm, now that I think about it, I guess I didn’t like this movie either.

  • Dennis

    Yeah pretty dull film. Didn’t this one come out about the same time as another goofy alien film where, man I can’t remember exactly, something where they took over some town in Mexico I think because they needed warmth, oh and their knees bent backwards like a flamingo.

  • monoceros4

    Terrible. Absolutely terrible. Just think, Jodie Foster could have stayed with the quirky, always interesting William Fichtner. Instead she goes for bologna on white bread–even if, coming from a New Age clown like Palmer, it’s soy bologna on organic white bread.

    At the end, when James Woods pushes the idea that the whole alien contact was an elaborate prank of the John Hurt character and that the supposed extraterrestrial transmissions were from a number of ordinary satellites, there were many legitimate counter-arguments to be made. Surely it could have been possible for Foster to make even one or two of them before losing her reserve? Instead Foster launches immediately into a weepy speech about how I Want To Believe or something like that. Vomit.

  • guts3d

    Say what you want about Jodie Foster’s deer-in-the-headlights look in this movie, she still tugs my heartstrings. She is one beautiful lady.

  • Rob

    To all who didn’t like the film for one reason or another,
    It posed many philosophical questions . And didn’t try
    to answer them for us .So rather than try to tear it down
    maybe you should look at it in it’s totality as
    a descent adaptation of a book that I believe was
    a far better film then 99% of what studio are cracking out now.

    Just some thoughs

    Rob

  • guts3d

    Good point, Rob, I agree that it could have used some good cop / bad cop team up and some explosions, possibly an evil drug dealer as well. At least I would have stayed awake.

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