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Contact

Year: 1997
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Carl Sagan
Cast: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, James Woods, David Morse, Angela Bassett, Jake Busey, Rob Lowe, Larry King, Bryant Gumbel, Jena Malone, William Fichtner, John Hurt, Jay Leno, Geraldo Rivera
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Very few movies offer something as refreshing as stark, calm intelligence. Contact is not only a fascinating story and is not only well told with great direction, performance and effects, but it's almost completely devoid of the sort of heavy handed emotional melodrama that soils so many American studio films.

That's thanks in most part to Carl Sagan, who wrote the novel and had a hand in the screenplay, advising on the science throughout much of the film when he sadly passed away during production.

Two particular elements lift Contact head and shoulders above most other movies; the realism, and the lack of dogmatic absolutism. At every stage, the media, political, scientific and religious landscape that surrounds the Vegans' message and construction of the machine is almost exactly as you could imagine it happening, down to the egos and politicking that surrounds it all.

It's also the first movie I think I've ever seen come out of America where the hero is a true scientist; sceptical, cynical and smart, for whom the belief there's no God is a cornerstone of character. Some of the best dialogue in the film is due to the eternal science vs. religion debate, and personified in Ellie (Foster) and Palmer (McConaughey), it's conducted the way it should be; calm, free of dogma and political posturing, just people who believe different things working out the issue without guns, symbols or rhetoric, realising that we can still live together and love each other. Contact really questions whether there's a God and indeed if the question is relevant.

There's one subplot some people will construe as schmaltzy, that of Ellie's relationship with her father and the fact that it drives her in later life to search extraterrestrial life out of a sort of inherent loneliness. I found it gave her character a depth that was well suited, and while the movie would have been just as good without it, it's our relations and emotions that make us human and give us our ambitions and tastes and what we want to do with our lives. At no point did it turn Ellie into a gibbering, emotional simpleton like family/God/faith etc does to most movie characters.

Jodie Foster is brilliantly subtle as the astronomy prodigy who exerts her talents on (as she puts it in a moment of cynical self-detriment) 'little green men' and the SETI project. Her studies cause nothing but friction among the scientific establishment, represented by consummate political player Drumlin (Skerritt), the boss who's constantly hijacking her work and lecturing her on wasting her talent on science that's not good for business (but who's happy enough to claim it as his own when it pays off in the most historic way).

After a fling with theology writer Palmer Joss (McConaughey), Ellie's frustratingly shut down, cut off, starved of funds and telescope time and has to navigate the world of political and financial arse kissing to try and get money to continue her search, which she does from eccentric industrialist Hadden (Hurt).

The unthinkable happens and an alien signal is received from the direction of Vega, a star only 26 light years away. The signal turns out to be a mathematical string, then a TV picture, then instructions to build an incredible device that will presumably put humanity in contact with its designers.

The race is on among not only who will build it, but who will go. After having her research and findings gradually taken out of her hands by both the government (James Woods as the slimy and combative Defence Secretary Kitz) and Drumlin, who walks the political walk better than she ever could, tragedy strikes the test launch at Cape Canaveral.

But Hadden has other plans, and Ellie gets to take the trip of a lifetime. The only other scene that can be seen to be ridiculous - of Ellie's visit to Vega - makes perfect sense on subsequent viewings. The beings, their world and their way of communicating, would (as science correctly theorises) be so removed from ours we'd hardly recognise any of it for what it was. That's just one part of the high scientific intelligence of the film - when humanity really does contact aliens, it won't be about flying discs, strange helmeted beings or crashed craft at Roswell. We probably wouldn't even recognise them as life.

So they did the next best thing - they put it in terms Ellie could understand; the beach at Pensacola - the furthest she reached on her ham radio set as a kid, and her father - his image borrowed from her mind to explain how they did it all.

And between all this in a film of only a little over two hours, Zemeckis and Sagan manage to squeeze much more in. There's a strong statement on gender relations, and all the actors (particular Foster and Skerritt) speak volumes with the slightest gestures about how women are treated in a man's world. Witness the number of times Ellie is standing up for herself when a man of senior age or position shuts her up like a naughty child.

It also says a lot about the oldest conundrum in political relations; what's more important - the individual or the collective? But the strongest and best background theme is played out by Jake Busey as the religious nut who terrorises Ellie and most of the events she attends in relation to the signal and the machine, and who enacts the most shocking act of the film.

Together with Rob Lowe as the spokesman for a religious right lobby group, they speak volumes about the sort of fundamentalism that infects the political process across the US and much of the western world. The scientists take much of the rap for the state of things when they've had their paymasters like the church and every other institution has, and it also has a strong comment on humanity as a mob. As Ellie drives toward the VLA the crowd gathered is full of every religious, attention-seeking nutjob in America, presumably making her wonder if it's all been worth it.

Every character has something to say and a unique place in the story; as the signal is received, we hear Palmer being interviewed by Larry King about his book; as he says, we surf the web, we shop online, but has technology made our lives better?

With some effects shots done by fledgling NZ digital effects shop Weta (as a favour from Peter Jackson to Zemeckis for acting as executive producer on the former The Frighteners), it's brilliant in every sense, populated by some of the best actors with the best lines in ages and without question one of the best films of the 1990s.

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