Beware all ye who enter here in search of little green men. Contact, based on the 1985 best-selling first novel by scientist Carl Sagan, doesn’t deliver any aliens. As directed by Oscar-winner Robert Zemeckis (the sappy Forrest Gump) from a script by Michael Goldenberg (the way-sappier Bed of Roses), Contact aims to be a film of ideas but serves too many of them half-baked.
Luckily, Jodie Foster’s performance is a dazzler that dodges the plot’s black holes. She plays Ellie Arroway, a rebel astrologer like Sagan, who died in 1996 and backed the search for extrater-restrial intelligence. Sagan provoked the mind with questions about what’s out there. It’s the heart that Zemeckis is after.
The opening shot, designed by Ken Ralston, inspires awe as the camera zooms past the Earth, moon and stars, and settles in deep space. There is the sound of static as the young Ellie, encouraged by her widower dad (David Morse), uses a crude ham radio at home to make contact. The unknowable universe is linked with primitive human endeavor in a single, stunning image.
Zemeckis turns the tone mawkish by playing up Ellie’s relationship with her adored dad, who dies and leaves her like the flip slide of Gump – a brilliant orphan. The pace quickens when the adult Ellie, using enormous telescopes in New Mexico, receives a signal – originating near the star Vega – that beams back one of Earth’s first television transmissions: Hitler ranting at the 1936 Olympics. The transmission contains a code for building a machine for a space journey. Ellie volunteers to travel the 26 light-years. She had four others for company in the novel, but, hey, this is Hollywood.
That’s the trouble. Matthew McConaughey shows up as theologian Palmer Joss, ostensibly to argue the existence of God but mostly to provide Ellie with a cute love interest. The book had a woman president; the film substitutes Bill Clinton in trick photography that allows the prez and Ellie to rub elbows like Gump did with JFK and LBJ. The only other notable female is Rachel (Angela Bassett), a presidential aide who advises Ellie on where to buy a hot dress for a reception. No joke, though it should be.
For the other actors – James Woods as a calculating politician, Tom Skerritt as Ellie’s Judas mentor, John Hurt as a dying billionaire with an ET fetish – it’s one note and out. Only a spoilsport would give away what Ellie finds on her space odyssey, but, thanks to Foster’s vital spark, Sagan’s plea for a worldwide commitment to reach out, no matter how much fear it breeds in science, government and religion, comes through. Even in this earnest, sputtering vehicle, Foster – as essential to Contact as Tom Hanks was to Gump – makes getting lost in the stars an exhilarating adventure.