The movie starts out gentle, simple; the life of Ellie Arroway is just that. She has a Mulderesque drive for her search of extraterrestrial life or something "out there," apparently driven by the loss of both her parents at a young age and her desire to contact them, wherever they have gone. The first twenty minutes of the movie are almost painfully uneventful, and I'm gradually getting the feeling that this was not the slam-bang thriller movie I expected to see. I had no complaints, however--the gentle, calming effect of Zemeckis's direction and the scenes' picturesque qualities made me feel cozy, comfortable--but at this point I was still in the "something-has-got-to-happen-soon?" mode.
And then, the message comes.
Little tremors of harmonic sound effects, pulsing with the audience's heartbeat. We tense, we sit up. We get excited, we follow Ellie's every move as if our life depended on it. As the characters make discovery after discovery, our excitement continues to increase (and Tom Skerritt's character gets increasingly annoying). (The fact that they decided to put such an obviously stereotypical character in the movie only to kill him off in the end irritates me, too.) The plot twists, turns, and then twists again: it involves a manipulative and mysterious entrepreneur who seems to take interest and who eventually becomes the sole financial supporter of Ellie's beliefs. I'll get back to this character later.
And then the time comes--for the ultimate departure--and these minutes will surely become cinematic classics, at least within the science fiction genre. Here the climax finally arrives, here we find ourselves grasping the theater seats as if we were in that transport ourselves, ripping through wormholes in the middle of nowhere in the universe, surrounded by sights and scenes we have never before seen in our lives; Foster's wide eyed, tear-choked performance reflects every (awake) viewer in the audience. And that is why this movie is so endearing--in the end, we become Ellie--we become believers, we become pursuers of the truth, and when we walk out of the theater, we are bound to tether some of our cynicism. I have to give this movie (and Carl Sagan, the author of the book) credit for dreaming up such a different form of science fiction--a movie about outer space that does not involve alien invasion. Instead, mankind has to shore up the burden of confronting the universe and himself. In a way, the human soul is still an unknown frontier. This is Hollywood imagination at its very best (get Foster's "Hollywood making money off aliens" line?). This time, instead of mocking our intelligence, they challenge us.
Whether we believe in the "theories" and ideals presented to us is not important; Mccougnahey's "Truth" speeches are inspirational, but vague. On the other hand, there are some wonderful philosophical perspectives in this motion picture concerning the existence of God and the purpose of mankind. But as I said, whether we agree with what "Ellie's father" eventually tells her is not important; it is the magic of this film that draws us in. "Contact" has become the successful example of its own hypothesis. It makes us believe that we exist for a reason (a variable reason, depending on what meaning we extract from the movie), and that anything can be achieved. And a marvelous achievement it is. This movie works because everyone can get something from it; it is smart, sensitive, state-of-the-art, and it allows us to think about the subject matter ourselves.
On to the technical matters. IMHO, the performances in this movie are not as good as I might have expected from the top-notch actors that appeared in the trailor. For Angela Bassett and Tom Skerritt, it was their limited roles. Foster's performance has her usual quality, but I still maintain that "Silence of the Lambs" was her best. McCoughnahey is competent, but hardly outstanding. In the end, it was the blind man's performance that stuck to me--besides doing a helluva job at pretending to be blind (or is he really blind? Oops. :p), he also does a helluva job at tugging at our heartstrings--he manages to look heartbroken with a spacey daze (now that is something Stallone cannot do). My greatest apologies that I do not know the actor's name. You did a great job, sir. ;-) Zemeckis's direction is also dazzling--surpassing his work in "Forrest Gump" (I have yet to see his other efforts, while "Back to the Future" was too long ago and I was a young'un then.). Kudos to the set designer too, and much respect to Carl Sagan and his brilliant mind. This was a film that his work deserved. And special effects....oooo, special effects people!! You guys are too cool. Seeing those spectacular sights you gave me, I want to be an astronomer. :) The opening sequence is great, too--sounds from earth tumbling together while the whole galaxy drifts into a little girl's eyes. Another classic opening I shall add to my memory, along with "Seven," "The Island of Dr. Moreau," and many others.
There is one point of the movie that leaves a question mark, or maybe it was meant to puzzle us. The great leaps of logic concerning the meaning of the message are highly improbable, and here we have to mention that eccentric old man (who gives me the creeps because he reminds me of the "Heaven's Gate" leader). Was he the one who manipulated the whole thing? But how did he manage to insert 18 extra hours into Ellie's static? If not, how did he figure out the machine codes? One of the many questions the movie leaves to us.
In the end, we are left pondering about the meaning of the universe, the existence of mankind. Okay, so only some of us do, but I maintain that many are equally dazzled by the emotional and spiritual impact as Ellie's unmoving belief becomes ours--even though the project supposedly failed, even though several lives have been sacrificed (it seems meaningless, doesn't it?)--we know their (our!) attempts have not been futile. It was a journey into the heart of the universe, but at the same time we journeyed into the human soul and marvelled at what we found there.
Rating: A- (First viewing, 7/15/1997)
Some Comments From My Fellow Friends:
"[Ellie's] story is the archetypical search for self, in space and in time and within." -- Kristine (firstname.lastname@example.org)
"That the love story was showcased amid the science vs. religion controversy made it even more interesting." -- Robin (email@example.com)
"In the beginning [Ellie] couldn't understand Palmer's point of view about faith, but by the end she had had an experience that while not exactly about God, was a direct parallel to religious experience, because she had had an amazing and life changing experience that she couldn't prove and could only ask people to take on faith." -- Jenna (firstname.lastname@example.org)
"It made me think, which is hard to find in a movie anymore. I found myself almost wanting to ask my 'rents if I could go back and watch it all over again." -- Tara (email@example.com)
*The author apologizes to the persons whose names she believes to have mispelled throughout the whole review, especially Mr. McCougnahey's.