"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" - Carl Sagan
Seventeen years after Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan were approached to write a science fiction movie that would leverage the celebrated astronomer's knowledge of the cosmos, "Contact" has finally become a reality. Though the novel of the same name was published in 1985, the project had many false starts over the years, going through two directors (Richard Donner and George Miller), several screenwriters, and even a breach-of-contract suit filed earlier this year by Francis Ford Coppola, who claims that "Contact" actually sprung from preliminary discussions and agreements made in 1975.
If it's just us, it's a terrible waste of space.
The film opens with a wondrous CGI tour of the universe that begins in Earth orbit and takes us to the very edge of the universe, reminiscent of the journeys that were presented on Sagan's PBS series "Cosmos". The camera pulls back from the vast blackness of space, which then dissolves to the eye of a young Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway, who is encouraged by her father (David Morse) to explore the world around her, cultivating a curiosity to ask questions and a conviction to have them answered. Unfortunately, her father dies of a heart condition, and she is left alone at a young age. It is this isolation that leads to Ellie's tireless search to find the existence of life beyond the confines of Earth.
For as long as I can remember, I've been searching for some reason why we're here -- what we're doing here, who are we?
We then catch up with an older Ellie (Jodie Foster, who was the actress that Sagan and Druyan had in mind for the part) in Puerto Rico, at the Aricebo radio telescope, where she is listening for signs of intelligent life under the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program (SETI). There she crosses paths with spiritual scholar Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), and the spark of a relationship is begun. However, before it can proceed any further, Ellie is informed that the President's national science adviser (and Ellie's former mentor), David Drumlin (Tom Skerrit), has pulled the plug on Ellie's funding, citing the need to spend the taxpayer's money on science projects with more pragmatic applications. She then packs up with her team and manages to secure funding from a wealthy philanthropist, S.R. Hadden (John Hurt), to continue her search by renting time at the New Mexico VLA (Very Large Array) radio telescope facility.
However, three years later, with the derogatory moniker of 'Queen of the Desert', Ellie finds her lease of telescope time canceled. But just before the three-month deadline on her cancellation is up, Ellie hears a signal from the star Vega, 26 light years away. At first, she and her team find that the transmission has a periodic frequency corresponding to prime numbers, but further investigation leads to some gee-whiz revelations, including a piggy-backed black-and-white television transmission of Hitler opening the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936, and technical schematics of a machine that will transport one person to the origin of the signal.
Once word of the alien signal reaches the rest of the world, Ellie begins to lose control of her discovery. Outside, a media feeding frenzy turns the facility into a circus, and thousands camp in the surrounding desert, either to await the arrival of the Vegans, to celebrate the exaltation of Hitler by the alien signal, or protest the threat posed by the discovery on religion. Inside, Drumlin shows up and begins to start taking credit and photo-opportunities while National Security Advisor Michael Kitz (James Woods) arrives with soldiers to militarize the investigation. When the governments of the world finally decide to build the machine, Ellie finds herself one of dozens of candidates to take the trip to make first contact-- however, Drumlin is also intent on the same thing. As the race to make first contact escalates, Ellie finds an unlikely ally-- Joss, who is now an advisor to the President.
To call "Contact" a film about alien contact would only be half-right. The thematic foundation is actually an exploration on the nature of faith and the similar underpinnings between science and religion. The agnostic Ellie, who requires empirical evidence to substantiate the world around her, does not put her faith in the intangible-- to her, God is just an intellectual construct that allows man to deal with the unknown. However, as the story progresses, we see Ellie come to understand the basis of the beliefs of the 95% of the world's population that believe in a higher being, and how similar it is to her own line of scientific inquiry. She is so compelled to have her questions answered that she expresses her willingness to become a martyr-- to risk the possibility of death in an unproven Machine to continue her search for the truth. Her stubborn conviction to believe in something which she can offer no physical evidence becomes the basis for her newfound embrace of faith and the resolution of her development. It is Ellie's journey that is the main thrust of the story, and not the first contact (this is also evident in the fact that one of the changes from the printed format was focusing on Ellie instead of the ensemble of characters in the novel). Those that watch "Contact" may scratch their heads to the ambiguous ending, but if you view the film in terms of Ellie's search for her own personal God, then there is closure in "Contact" and the conclusion does have substance.
Like director Robert Zemeckis' previous effort, "Forrest Gump", "Contact" is an elegantly-crafted film with an 'epic' feel, full of creative transitional sequences and migratory camera work, capturing the exhilaration of discovery. The special effects are breathtaking, from the manipulation of Bill Clinton stock footage to serve the story, to the stunning journey through the wormhole created by the Machine. The 'couch potato' narrative style, last seen in "Volcano", is also found in "Contact", with the entire reporting staff of CNN in a series of cameos as videobites from news broadcasts propel the story along.
"Contact" is a welcome change to the cookie-cutter movies that populate the local mutliplex. It is pure cinematic magic, an enthralling two-and-a-half hours that will fill you with awe. It does justice to the source material and does a remarkable job of extracting the essential elements to create a palatable film that does not take shortcuts for the sake of mainstream accessibility. It is unfortunate that Carl Sagan did not live to see this film, which is a testament to his love of exploration and the sense of wonder that he has instilled upon the many lives he has touched.