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Contact reaches out and makes a weak connection.

By Zak Weisfeld

July 21, 1997:  Carl Sagan is dead. I remember seeing him on a television show when I was a kid and being irritated that he refused to pronounce the first "h" in human. Carl would say things like, "There are over five billion Umans on the earth, but there are billions and billions of stars..." He was a PBS-friendly scientist, given to pontificating--not on the impossible complexities of modern physics, but on the wonder of the universe and hope for the future. He was the Jimmy Carter of science.

At long last, those of us who neither read nor watch PBS--but spend a lot of time watching big budget summer action movies--are going to get our taste of Carl Sagan. His book, Contact, which was read by billions and billions of Umans (though I don't count myself among them) has been turned into a feature film. I'm guessing that the fact that it was about aliens had something to do with it, as no one is rushing out to make of movie of Carl Sagan's book Broca's Brain.

Coming after Men in Black, The 5th Element, The X-Files, and the ceaseless nonsense in Roswell, N.M., Contact looked kind of exciting. Its pedigree held out a small promise of an intelligent look at the possibility of encountering an alien race.

Even for those unfamiliar with Carl's work, it was clear that Contact was going to be intelligent because it stars Jodie Foster, who is, as we all know, a very IMPORTANT, very SERIOUS, and very INTELLIGENT actress who only takes on roles that uplift her sex, her species, and her planet. And she's got the Academy Awards to prove it, too. Therefore, despite the fact that she's headlining a little green men movie, we should know that it's not your average little green men movie--it's a Jodie Foster little green men movie.

Any doubts about the seriousness of Contact are eliminated by the opening credits, which are, let's just say, pretty quiet and strangely reminiscent of the closing sequence of Men in Black. (For those of you still hoping to be surprised by Contact, let me warn you that I'm going to be forced to reveal a lot about the film in this review. Luckily, all the surprises I'm going to reveal are pretty lame, so you won't really have lost anything.)

Like the road to hell, Contact is paved with good intentions. It starts out with a decent story--a renegade scientist tunes into a radio signal from outer space, deciphers it, and takes a little trip to meet with the aliens. But Contact is hardly content to just entertain. No, we must learn.

Not only does Contact set out to educate us about what science is, it also proposes to show us the role of religion in our society--with a dash of national politics thrown in for good measure. We learn, through a rogue's gallery of straw men, that too much science is as bad as too much religion--and that there's a role for faith even in the most rigorous scientific undertaking.

Representing the dark side of religion is a leering, albino fundamentalist with a penchant for explosives, and the beautifully-cast Rob Lowe as the head of the Christian Coalition. Representing the good side of religion is Matthew McCon-aughey, who is right on the edge of unbearable as the sensitive-yet-hunky, pseudo-Christian adviser to the President and love interest for the obviously disinterested Jodie Foster. McConaughey's character, Palmer Ross, likes to talk about things like disconnectedness and loss of meaning as though if we could just get rid of flush toilets and digital watches, we might all be able to find peace.

MOVIE GURU RATING: Bad Karma

Jodie Foster, not wanting to share too much of the stage, plays both the good and bad side of science--but mostly seems to be playing Georgia O'Keefe. There are billions and billions of shots of Jodie out in the stark New Mexico desert, usually in some kind of big straw hat, looking intense and serious, just to remind us that we're not watching Independence Day.

What's saddest about Contact is that there's some good stuff in it. The initial discovery and decoding of the alien message do manage to convey the excitement of scientific discovery, and the Hitler television broadcast is a delightful touch. The special effects are also quite well done and nicely integrated. But, at two-and-a-half hours, Contact offers plenty of opportunities for the over-weaningly preachy tone and embarrassingly simplistic (not to mention inaccurate) depictions of science and religion to crush any semblance of interest.

The final tragedy is the big "time to visit the aliens" sequence (though I'm thinking we'd be sending a robot or a monkey for that first ride). After some wild, high end, Dr. Who-style space travel effects, Jodie crosses the galaxy and finally meets the alien--who shows up as her dad! Her dad! And then the alien tells her that we don't need to feel so small and alone anymore. Never have I witnessed such a colossal failure of imagination. Two-and-a-half hours of alien searching and pod building for some pathetic psycho-babble with her dad on a glowing beach? Do we really feel small and alone? And even if we do, is that really the most pressing matter in the galaxy--that we are occasionally troubled by ennui? In Hollywood maybe, but the whole galaxy? And I honestly don't want to talk about the grueling epilogue--with the hackneyed government cover-up and deification of Jodie Foster...I just hope that they'll have Independence Day out on DVD by the end of the summer.


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