Contact: Special Edition Review
Coming off the back of his Oscar for Best Director for Forrest Gump in 1994, Robert Zemeckis had more clout than at any time in his career up to that point. Having established himself as a leading director of fantastic cinema with ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ and the hugely successful ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy, few were surprised when he announced his intention to make his next film a science-fiction epic. What was less predictable was the seriousness of his source material: cosmologist Carl Sagan’s thought-provoking novel Contact.
‘Contact’ the movie jettisons much of the novel’s harder science into deep space, but the plot is fundamentally the same: a driven radio astronomer, Dr Ellie Arroway (Foster) receives a broadcast from a distant constellation that, once decoded, proves to be a schematic diagram for a giant machine. An international consortium forms to build the mysterious structure, but the key question of what it actually does remains a mystery until the very end.
That’s the story in a nutshell, and ‘Contact’ is very much about fitting mind-bendingly huge visions into small packages – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. One part of the film where this dynamic works is the beginning: For those of you who haven’t seen it, Zemeckis gives us the film’s title, then a plain black screen for five seconds. Just as we’re beginning to wonder what’s going on, he hits us with a shot of the earth seen from space, at the same time blasting us with a high-volume babble of multiple sound sources, as if we’re being forced to listen to half a dozen radio and TV stations (dating from 1997, of course) simultaneously. Slowly the ‘camera’ pulls back and as it does so, the events and recordings we’re listening to grow steadily older. As the Earth recedes into the distance we’re accosted by the soundtrack to Dallas; Mars zips by to the tunesome ‘Funky Town’ and by the time the bulk of Jupiter heaves into view we’re hearing Walter Cronkite announcing the assassination of President Kennedy. As we pass through various clouds and nebulae the recordings get older and older until, by the time we see our entire Milky Way, there’s just static. The final stunning thirty seconds are played out in complete silence, accompanied by mind-expanding visions of the vastness of our universe, which then steadily resolves into just a reflection in the eye of 9-year old ham radio expert Ellie Arroway.
It’s a very clever beginning. The juxtaposition of the warmth and intimacy of radio with the vast coldness of space is disconcerting. The film’s central metaphor – sound waves travelling through space as one human being reaching into the unknown – is set up immediately and in an innovative and elegant way. It also works on an emotional level: ‘Contact’ is about the infinitely small, yet somehow crucially important role humanity has to play in the affairs of the universe, and what better way to illustrate this than whizzing through Saturn’s rings while listening to Dino?
Young Miss Arroway (Malone), we soon learn, is a precociously intelligent child being raised by her widowed father. Gifted with telescopes and naturally fascinated with the universe, Ellie seems destined for a secure and happy childhood. However, her father also dies and we’re given to understand that the obsessive streak – and immaculate rationality – which define her career are derived in part from an aching sense of loss. Jump forward twenty-five years and Ellie is a pioneering radio astronomer whose chosen field of research is, as she puts it ‘… looking for little green men’. In Puerto Rico to use a giant radio telescope, she befriends the local staffers and becomes rather more than just friends with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConnaughey), an ex-priest writing a book. The happy time ends abruptly however, with the arrival of Dr David Drumlin (Tom Skerrit), a politically savvy senior scientist and arch manipulator of facts and funding who promptly pulls the plug on Ellie’s research – deeming it ‘impractical’ – sending her and her colleagues back to the States. After years of applications, Ellie finally gets a grant from Hadden Industries – a giant corporation run by the mysterious billionaire S.R Hadden – to rent time on a giant field of telescopes in New Mexico. It’s here, late one night, that she encounters a powerful sound signal emerging from the planet Vega. Decoded, the signal proves to contain volumes of data written in an alien language, a discovery that understandably attracts much of the world’s attention, including that of Drumlin, who is back on the scene and keen to take credit for Ellie’s discovery. They’re unable to translate the alien writing, however, until Mr Hadden (Hurt) contacts Ellie personally and helps her out. Translated, the data turns out to be engineering schematics for a giant machine which seems to hold out the promise of communication with the species that designed it. As construction begins, however, various political and religious factions begin jockeying for position, and Ellie’s lone voice of truthful, scientific rationality seems destined to become drowned out by more calculating and aggressive tones.
First of all, this is a beautiful looking film. Zemeckis is technically a very accomplished film-maker and his movies always look great. His signature, slow-moving camera movements are in evidence here, slyly drawing you deeper into the story without you even being aware of it. Working with long-time cinematographer Don Burgess, he’s integrated special effects so seamlessly into the visual narrative that they’re often invisible. I interviewed Burgess around the time of Zemeckis’ next film ‘What Lies Beneath’ and he explained to me the great lengths the pair go to in order to get complex effects shots while at the same time maintaining extremely smooth camera motion. There’s some gorgeous sequences here that really are little masterclasses in how to use CGI to invisibly enhance storytelling, rather than create jaw-dropping ‘wow’ moments for the audience (although I have to admit I quite enjoy those too).
The fact that ‘Contact’ is a great story is thanks to Carl Sagan, who by all accounts was extremely insistent on ‘science’ being depicted accurately in the film (before his death during its production). Sagan was both a wide-eyed dreamer and a committed rationalist; he was also an extremely experienced scientist and public figure who clearly understood first hand the scheming and backstabbing that goes on at higher levels of office. Even though much of the book’s more complex arguments – science versus religion, faith versus rationality – have become rather boiled down in their transfer to the screen, the sense of an intellectually rigorous framework of ideas is still there. The most interesting aspects of ‘Contact’ – the objections of the religious groups, the fundamentalist response, the concept of the machine and its method of transmission – feel as if they’ve come from Sagan postulating in a very clear, rational way, how extra-terrestrials would choose to make themselves known and what the human response to this would be. In fact, looking at some of the scenes now, in the awful light of 9/11 and – perhaps more accurately, the Oklahoma bombing – Sagan’s vision of the measures radical fundamentalists will go to seem eerily prescient.
The most powerful force in 'Contact', apart from Sagan and Zemeckis is, of course, Jodie Foster. She's completely believable as the driven, brilliant Ellie, a forceful but deeply vulnerable character who has the courage to back up her intellectual conclusions with her life. Having seen the film about half a dozen times now, her level of focused intensity in each scene is quite extraordinary. I think this is Foster's best work since 'Silence of the Lambs'.
Mention has to be made also of the exceptionally strong supporting cast. William Fichtner is a brilliant actor who’s usually cast in either tough-guy roles (‘Black Hawk Down’, ‘The Perfect Storm’) or sleazy villains (‘Heat’). Here he changes gear to give a completely convincing performance as the gentle, blind radio astronomer Kent Clark, based on real-life SETI Institute scientist Dr Kent Cullers. James Woods clearly enjoys himself as the reptilian NSA agent Michael Kitz and Angela Bassett exudes total authority as Presidential Aide Rachel Constantine. As the colossally rich engineering boffin S.R Hadden, John Hurt is appropriately enigmatic (it helps that he’s made up to look remarkably like Arthur C. Clarke) and Jena Malone is utterly captivating as the young Ellie (anyone who saw her as Jake Gyllenhaal’s girlfriend in ‘Donnie Darko’ will be happy to see that the promise she showed in ‘Contact’ is being fulfilled).
The only real weak point in the cast – and it’s more a fault of casting than of acting – is Matthew McConnaughey’s Palmer Joss, a priest who left the priesthood because he ‘… couldn’t handle the whole celibacy thing.’ Oh, please. Admittedly it’s not an easy role: he has to deliver lines like: “I'm not against technology, doctor. I'm against the men who deify it at the expense of human truth,” while looking as if he’s just stepped out of a Colgate commercial. With his Southern vowels and bovine docility, McConnaughey has all the spiritual authority of Major McCheese. He ends up looking wildly out of a place, a shallow piece of pec-pastry for Foster’s character to, ahem, bounce off.
I was also disappointed by the soundtrack. I’m usually quite partial to Alan Silvestri’s scores (I loved his work on ‘The Abyss’), but I thought this one pushed the emotional tone of the film too much towards – you guessed it – mawkish sentimentality. The simple piano line that becomes Ellie’s key theme sounds as if it belongs in one of the ‘Home Alone’ movies, or another family film where ‘sharing, growing and learning’ are the lessons to be imparted.
But where ‘Contact’ really disappoints is the ending.
Ellie finally enters the machine and embarks on the most extraordinary journey imaginable. These sequences are superb and I won’t spoil them by describing them, except to say that it’s one of the most brilliant visualisations of potential space travel I’ve ever seen in a film. Unfortunately, the destination doesn’t match the journey. Having spent the best part of two hours building up a rigorous and believable storyline, the film adopts a very simplistic emotional tone at its climax, a mawkish reduction of the infinite and universal to the cloyingly personal. It’s a denouement as sentimental in its way as the close of Spielberg’s ‘A.I’ where the android-boy’s undying wish – to be a real boy and be reunited with his mother – is magically granted by aliens. That film, however, was sci-fi in its more fantastical sense, whereas ‘Contact’ is essentially a character-driven drama with a ‘speculative-fiction’ plot and I think the mawkish resolution detract from the film’s impact.
Presented in 2:35:1 anamorphic widescreen, ‘Contact’ looks very good. The image is sharp, steady and colours are very clear. I could only spot a few scenes where graininess was a problem. The film comprises a lot of different film formats and cinematographic processes and it’s a testament to the good job Warners did that it still all holds together. In fact, as is sometimes the case with DVD, the fineness of the image sometimes reveals a bit too much about what’s being photographed i.e model work and some big colour cels that are used as background in at least one scene.
The nearest Contact got to an Oscar was its nomination for Sound and it’s easy to hear why. The audio quality is superb throughout, from the low bass rumbles of the Machine’s mechanism to the overwhelming aural assault that occurs in the film’s climax. It’s just as effective in the quieter passages, revealing the high level of detail Zemeckis and regular sound designer Randy Thom have given to the film. Sound effects are used to seamlessly connect scenes, as when the creak of the Ellie’s medicine cabinet door becomes the creak of trees by her father’s grave on the day of his funeral. A fabulous-sounding disk.
As far as I can tell, this ‘Special Edition’ is the only version of the film available i.e it didn’t supplant an earlier bare bones disk but has always been promoted as an SE. It was first released in the US at the end of 1997, although the R2 didn’t arrive in the UK until the following year, so perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that extras which seemed outstanding then look, it has to be said, pretty paltry now.
I say all this because the ‘Special Features’ are, to be frank, a bit of a joke. Choosing the Special Features menu option brings up what seems to be a healthy list of options. However, upon investigation, ‘Cast & Crew’, ‘From Novel to Screen’, ‘Creating a Fantastic Event’, ‘The Message’ and ‘Constructing the Pod’ are all text-only, fluffy background pieces about various aspects of the film’s production that you can click through in a matter of a few minutes. Most only contain the equivalent of an A4 page of information. Very disappointing.
Even worse is a section of the Main Menu called ‘Reel Recommendations’, a shockingly blatant attempt to flog some Warners DVDs. It’s divided into ‘Genre’ and ‘Actor’ sections, which offer other Warners titles by the main actors from Contact and other Warners films apparently in the same genre. This last section is so tenuous as to be laughable: since when do ‘Beetlejuice’, ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘The Exorcist’ qualify as movies ‘Containing Alien Encounters’?? A shallow and nastily manipulative marketing ploy.
The last section, ‘Alien Encounters’, contains what little meat there is in the Extras department, being comprised of the Commentaries, a Special Effects reel, the Trailers, Special Edition Credits and a music-only version of the film.
This is one area where the SE delivers. There’s three commentaries:
- Jodie Foster does one by herself that’s typically intelligent and perceptive, combining insightful comments about the plot and characters with stories about filming and production. It’s clear that she identifies strongly with the passionate, self-willed character, although I was a bit surprised by her comment that it didn’t matter whether Ellie’s experience really happened, as long as it was ‘…real for her’!
- Special Effects Supervisors Ken Ralston and Stephen Rosenbaum also contribute a comprehensive commentary track – this kind of thing can be pretty dull (and… OK, most people will still find this dull) but Zemeckis is a pioneer in his use of his effects and there’s a lot more of these in the film than there appear to be at first sight, so I found this pretty interesting. OK, I’m a geek. I admit it.
- Director Robert Zemeckis and Producer Steve Starkey’s track is pretty low-key and covers most of the usual points: casting, shooting, locations etc. Zemeckis sounds a little bored and only really perks up when he points out the special effects sequences.
The Special Effects (6:13): This is a reel of effects outtakes, largely dedicated to compositing and greenscreen sequences showing live-action scenes being filmed and then the digital effects being added. Very little care has been demonstrated in its presentation, it’s just a a slapped together effects reel, switching between 4:3 and letterbox 16:9 during different scenes. It’s narrated in an appropriately laid back fashion by Effects Supervisors Ken Ralston and Stephen Rosenbaum.
A really cheap-looking, unanimated title screen with no music.
Trailer 1: (1:32) A typical Warner Bros trailer that gives away all of the film’s plot up to Ellie’s entry into ‘the pod’. Grainy and shaky.
Trailer 2: (2:26) The longer version of the above, more tastefully done, but it gives away even more of the plot. Just as grainy and shaky.
Incidentally, there’s a great range of material available on the Contact web site (http://contact-themovie.warnerbros.com) which, amazingly, Warners are still hosting. Considering how old it is it’s actually a pretty good site – if you like the film, check it out!
Contact is an intelligent big-budget Hollywood sci-fi film, and – despite the ending – that makes it a rare enough commodity to make it worth a look. It’s also, in my opinion, crying out for a proper two-disk Special Edition, ideally with a DTS track. In the meantime, this is the only version available and – since its age means that it can now be picked up at some UK outlets for as little as £5.99 – I’d consider it a highly recommended purchase.