Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene A Space of One's Own

By Jim Ridley

July 14, 1997:  Twenty years ago, kids returning home from school would turn on Channel 5's The Big Show, an afternoon picture show made up mostly of 1950s space movies. After a few months of steady viewing, the loyal Big Show fan learned to separate these flicks into two categories: serious, speculative dramas about space travel (lame) and hair-raising tales of bloodthirsty invaders (cool!). And yet, judging from the empirical data collected the next morning, in homeroom or on the playground, most kids wound up watching both kinds. In either case, you were assured of seeing rocket ships, foreign landscapes--and best of all, aliens.

What's funny about the recent spate of sci-fi films is how little these categories--and what we expect from them--have changed. Aliens and BEMs have come back into fashion because they fill two opposite but basic needs in our culture: a reaffirmation of something larger than ourselves, and a species everyone can look down on without feeling guilty. In the two newest examples, Robert Zemeckis' Contact and Barry Sonnenfeld's Men in Black, we see exactly what Americans crave from their speculative fiction in 1997 A.D.: God and PC-proof villains.

Of the two, Contact is more earnest, more high-minded, and more like a George Pal production from the early 1950s. Based on a novel by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, Contact uses the possibility of alien life to explore mankind's need for spiritual belief. A maverick astronomer, Ellie Arroway (a perfectly cast Jodie Foster), discovers a signal beaming from deep space. As Ellie, a confirmed atheist, struggles to determine the nature and intent of the signal, America's cultural and political leaders clash over its import. Is the world at peril? Are the aliens friendly? Is their arrival a confirmation of God's love or of Judgment Day?

It's a pleasure to see a big, engaging summer movie driven by issues and emotion, and the middle section of Contact--which juggles political squabbling, religious conflict, scientific debate, Zemeckis' trademark obsession with the buried subtexts of pop culture, and the building of a wonderful alien transport device that looks like a giant gyroscope--is a swell, solid piece of pop entertainment. What's more, the big payoff, a psychedelic rocket-ride into cosmic and spiritual oblivion, actually improves upon the Stargate sequence from 2001: It has visual splendor as well as visceral force. The awful rowing toward God has never looked more awesome.

Spaced invader Vincent D'Onofrio, an alien among earthlings in Men in Black. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon.

Much of Contact merits a leap of faith over the inevitable yeah-right hurdles--the ease with which earthlings produce alien metallurgy, the way a single weapons-toting nut is allowed to infiltrate a trillion-dollar facility. But the movie also asks us to swallow a lot of incidental sap, specifically Matthew McConaughey's thankless role as a dashing spiritual quester. He materializes at every remote location like the 2001 monolith--or more accurately, like that butter sculpture of Fabio that pops up in margarine commercials. And for all the movie's appropriate skepticism about government, Contact goes all soft and gooey over a visionary, eccentric billionaire (John Hurt) who alone shares Ellie's dream as he floats above earth. Ross Perot, Rupert Murdoch, and Ted Turner already see themselves as God; I'm sorry to say Contact shares their view. We'll see how the aliens fare with global media concerns the first time they step on somebody's copyright.

It says something about Contact's square ambitions that when the alien landscape appears, it looks just like Pensacola. At least Zemeckis never strays too far from Jodie Foster, his enormously appealing heroine. As Ellie, she's all-American yet secretive, and she even manages a fair approximation of rapture--just like the movie.

There's nothing rapturous about Men in Black, which is precisely the movie's scuzzy charm and its chief appeal. As in Alien Nation, aliens live more or less peaceably among us; they make up an underclass of cab drivers, pawnshop owners, and even the odd celebrity or two. (It's as good an explanation as any for Isaac Mizrahi and Al Roker.) The aliens tuck away their tentacles and mope along at their day jobs, and the agents assigned to patrol them have none of Jodie Foster's gee-whiz amazement. Even when they're confronting a giant cockroach bent on world destruction, lawmen Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith look about as awestruck as Joe Friday ticketing a jaywalker.

Where once they could depict almost any ethnicity or minority as col'-blooded fur'ners, American movies have had a hard time lately finding acceptable bad guys, what with the fall of almost all our foreign enemies and the rise of sensitivity groups (and overseas markets). Hollywood has again discovered why aliens make great villains: Who cares if you blast or besmirch a murderous insect? Here the "menace" is that fine actor Vincent D'Onofrio, playing a hayseed with a literal bug up his butt. If he really were playing a hillbilly he'd be outlandishly offensive, but as an insect in ill-fitting human form, his lumbering walk and growled threats are a hilarious parody of earthling aggression. He's matched not only by Jones and Smith, a great poker-faced comedy team, but by Tony Shalhoub as an alien arms dealer and Rip Torn as a gruff commander. And it's a hoot to see Linda Fiorentino playing a kinky medical examiner who becomes our last line of defense. If anyone can strike fear into invaders, it's the blas mankiller from The Last Seduction.

Men in Black has the right attitude toward movie technology: Get the most sophisticated special effects money can buy, and treat 'em like one of Ed Wood's paper-plate UFOs. The big joke is that the heroes are unfazed by anything they encounter: Rick Baker's amazing slithery beasts might as well be sock puppets. That may keep the movie from building much suspense or urgency, but it ups the movie's likability a lot. If Contact represents the Apollonian side of space movies--the side obsessed with matters of identity, humanity, and the spirit--Men in Black is a Dionysian wallow in grue, goo, and goofy gags. A lot has changed in the 20 years since The Big Show stopped airing: in special effects, in movies, in space exploration. What hasn't changed, as Contact and Men in Black prove, is our need to find something besides ourselves in the universe--whether it's beyond us or beneath us.

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