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Starring Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, John Hurt,
Tom Skerritt and Angela Bassett
IN SHORT: Ponderous, yet engrossing, Contact tries to cover so many bases that only the terrific performances within can save it.
Carl Sagan spent many of his final years trying to make clear an answer to a simple question that would properly state the scientific view, and at the same time quell those whose fundamentalist opinion stood in stark contrast to any "no" answer, to the question "Is there a God?" or more specifically "Do you believe..."
If I remember correctly, and apply the necessary corollary, the new film Contact is a fitting epilogue to a life spent applying the logic of a scientist to the necessary mystical aspects of religious belief. I'll speak English now...
Quite simply, how can you look at the magnificence of the cosmos and not believe that there is something greater behind it? How can you bind that belief in the stricture of religion as it stands? More specifically, how do you explain that which is unexplainable?
That being put out of the way, Contact, the film based on Sagan's novel of the same name, is an overly long, sometimes ponderous but almost always entertaining two plus hours. You can almost hear Sagan's voice in the dialog coming out of the mouths of the characters. You can see the effort to get all conflicting opinions into the script. That, plus adding the required love interest, is almost an overwhelming task to accomplish. Contact comes real close, but misses by a hair because it tries to do too much.
Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) has always had a fascination with talking with the unknown. As a little kidlet, she used a shortwave radio; her contacts pinned to a map by her dad. As an adult, using radiotelescopes, she seeks a sign that something is up in the heavens. This determination overshadows everything -- the logic of career building and the desire for love, to name two. The one guy to get into her pants is Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), an almost priest who can't reconcile religious teaching with scientific logic. He comes, she goes and we'll get back to this relationship later.
A senior scientist (Tom Skerritt as David Drumlin) continually pulls the plug on Ellie's projects. He says it's to shock her mind back into reality, but when she does find what she's been looking for, he takes the credit.
The third side of the square is a Howard Hughes-like industrialist (John Hurt), dying of cancer. To say much more would spoil the story.
So Ellie finds alien signals, which contain the blueprint to a machine which may link our planet to Vega, their source. Immediately, Drumlin steps in and uses his political clout to make himself front-runner in the process to select a candidate to "ride the machine". Ellie's ally in the political game, as it turns out, is the one man she wouldn't develop a relationship with.
As word spreads to the masses, the Christian fundamentalist right enters the story in multiple guises and President Clinton is added to the mix of characters on screen by the same process director Robert Zemeckis used on Forrest Gump. How Ellie gets to be the rider is at first dramatic, and at second, contrived. But that's not the point, right? The point is getting to the aliens.
And if you think I'm going to tell you what you will see, you're reading the wrong review. It isn't what you would expect -- Spielberg has spoiled us -- but it is totally logical and in keeping with everything else set up in the movie.
The problem is, what happens when Ellie gets back. From this point on the movie stutters through three endings and, quite suddenly, feels very long.
Foster's performance is, as usual, fully formed and wonderful to watch. McConaughey does the best he can, in a role that seems forced into the story to provide a love interest. Of note are James Woods as the close to paranoid National Security Advisor and Angela Bassett as a Presidential aide, his calmer counterpart. William Fichtner is outstanding as the scientist who works side by side with Ellie as she moves from project to project -- and would be the perfect man for her if he didn't let his blindness get in the way. The character never says it, but the longing in the performance is palpable.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Contact, he would have paid...
...and I have real mixed feelings about going so low. I didn't want to, but, to quote the guy four seats down, "When is this thing gonna end???" is just how I felt, too.
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