"If it is just us...seems like an awful waste of space."
Before we get to my comments on the 1997 sci-fi film "Contact," I thought it might be enlightening to hear from a serious fan of science fiction and an equally serious student of extraterrestrial contacts. So I asked my friend Willie Swenson to add a few prefacing remarks to the review. Willie holds an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Consciousness Studies from JFK University; he's a longtime member of MUFON (the Mutual UFO Network); and he's a member of CSETI (the Center for the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence). His chief interest in all of this is Exopolitics, whose aim is to develop a planetary policy for dealing with alien contact.
The Film According to Willie:
When Ellie Arroway touches down upon the surface of an alien world, she is greeted by what appears to be her long-dead but dearly missed father. The alien-generated representation portrays her journey, and that of humanity itself, as just a beginning. The being explains that contact happens in small steps, and that is the way it has been done for billions of years.
Like Dorothy in the movie version of "The Wizard of Oz," Ellie journeys from the shadows of her black-and-white consciousness into a world of color with increased dimensions and perception. This movie is not just about their technology meeting ours. It is far more extensive. It is a movie about a higher-order consciousness trying to represent itself to a lower-order consciousness...and we are the lower order. How terrifying for some people to discover that reality is not what they think it is...how wondrous for others. To quote the late Army Lt. Colonel Phillip Corso when he encountered an alien being who petitioned him for safe passage off Earth, and he asked the alien what was in it for him, the alien replied, "a new world if you can take it." ("Connecting the Dots" by Paola Harris, Wildflower Press).
Yet the powers that be back home in "Contact" are having no part of this new world. Their interests lie in protecting the status quo. Ellie returns to find herself and her reported subjective experience under attack by the age-old and effective weapons of ridicule and personal discredit. Many of us who are involved with the uphill battle of convincing the public that extraterrestrials have had contact with humanity for some time, and that some governments are aware of this fact, know all too well the ability of those in power to suppress knowledge. On the other hand, as UFO sightings worldwide increase each year, this movie reflects what some believe to be the gradual preparation of the public for formal contact with an extraterrestrial civilization.
As science fiction I rate "Contact" a 9/10. Not that it is perfect but that it all works well to explore and hold the audience's attention over what it is about. It's a kind of movie that gets better and better with age because of the relevance of its ideas to an evolving culture. I think it has the stuff to be a sci-fi classic, and I would put it up there with the original "The Day the Earth Stood Still." Both films explore the shadow side of the human psyche to reject or control the unknown. Both films remind us of our species' xenophobia.
"The Day the Earth Stood Still" subordinates the irrationality of the human psyche to the logic of a rational, scientific machine world. The alien messenger in the person of Klaatu was really not so different from the humanity of the day, and his message was easy to understand, even if it was upsetting: "Conform or we will annihilate you with the same scientific reality that you now believe in." It was also a message that alien reality is very much like human reality, only more rational and technologically advanced. After all, they look just like us and share our conscious aspirations of peace and material-free enterprise. "Contact" is different in that it challenges the scientific reality we believe in. Its implications are that our future as a species may be beyond anything we would currently accept or be comfortable with.
At the core of this delightful and emotionally powerful film are the themes of science vs. religion, the objective vs. the subjective, facts vs. faith, and the rational vs. the irrational. Ellie is positioned in the middle, struggling to make sense of it all. In the end she transcends the polarities of this world to catch a glimpse of a much larger one.
Willie's film rating: 9/10
The Film According to John:
Thanks, Willie. Well said. As for me, I read Carl Sagan's 1985 novel "Contact" the year he published it. I understand he had originally intended it as a movie all along, but it wasn't to be until screenwriters James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg and director Robert Zemeckis ("Back to the Future," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Forrest Gump," "The Polar Express") used it as the basis for their own movie. I thought at the time that the book was a fine, thought-provoking piece of science fiction, different from the usual action adventure we get in the genre, so when the film came out, it delighted me.
The fact is, despite the plethora of sci-fi movies that Hollywood has made over the past half century since the UFO craze spread in the late Forties, "Contact" is one of the few straight science-fiction works to come along. That is, rather than rely on too much fantasy, this one concentrates on things that could really happen and things a lot of people like Willie believe may have already happened. That's not too hard to understand when you remember that the late Dr. Sagan was himself an astronomer, a man who stuck to tried-and-true scientific theories instead of fanciful Tinseltown inventions. For me, only a few other films can approach pure science fiction, among them "Things to Come," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Fahrenheit 451," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "A.I: Artificial Intelligence," and, of course, the greatest of them all, "2001: A Space Odyssey." That I can even think of "Contact" in the same context as these other sci-fi classics is my highest praise for the film.
Here's the thinking behind the story, which is hardly original with Sagan: There are billions and billions of stars in our galaxy and billions and billions of galaxies. The odds that our little star is the only one among countless gazillions to have a planet revolving around it are pretty slim. Indeed, at the time Sagan and other scientists were suggesting there were planets elsewhere in the universe outside our own solar system, we hadn't even discovered any yet. Today, astronomers find planets circling practically every star they study. What's more, the odds of our planet among countless other planets being the only one capable of supporting intelligent life are equally slim. So most scientists these days think the universe is swarming with intelligent life.
The problem is distance. In the vast gulf of space, the distances between stars is so great that even at the speed of light (which we'll probably never achieve) we couldn't reach any of them in anything less than years, in most cases millions of years. There is little hope of reaching distant planets unless we could do so through something like radio waves sent out into space. Or unless we could somehow fold the fabric of time and space to reach them, the concept of "wormholes" theorized by some astronomers and so prized by sci-fi writers.
Accordingly, what if we sent enough signals into space that a civilization as advanced our own received them and responded? And what if they were so advanced they could bend the time-space continuum to travel from one place to another in the universe in the blink of an eye? And what if they wanted to share their technology for wormhole space travel with us? That's the idea behind "Contact," and it's not so far-fetched a theory as you might think, since a lot of today's scientists actually support it.
The main character in "Contact" is Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster), a dedicated astronomer who diligently believes in the notion of contacting other worlds through the use of giant radio telescopes. I've read that Sagan modeled this character on two radio astronomers of the 1930s and 1940s, Grote Reber and John Kraus, and, more important, on SETI researcher Jill Tarter. Obviously, Ms. Tarter is the primary model because she's the more-recent investigator and because she continues her work in the field as the Director of the Center for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Research, holding the Bernard M. Oliver Chair at the SETI Institute.
Anyway, in the story, Arroway struggles to get her work recognized and funded, finally landing a private donor in the person of multibillionaire industrialist S.R. Hadden (John Hurt) to help her with the project. Then she receives a signal from deep space, a set of instructions, and gets Hadden and the government to build a gigantic wormhole contraption for travel to distant stars. From that point on, the movie gets a bit melodramatic, even philosophical, but it never strays too far from scientific reality.
After a brilliant opening sequence, we meet the main character. Jodie Foster excels as Ellie Arroway, the actress throwing herself into the role with such enthusiasm and dedication, we can hardly resist her energy. She elevates the film's tension, frustrations, and excitement to a level probably few other actresses could have achieved.
The supporting cast also bring their special presence to the film, although the weakest among them is the co-star, Matthew McConaughey, as Palmer Joss, a New Age minister and special religious consultant to the President. He seems a bit lightweight in the part and tends to undo some of the film's hard edge. On the other hand, John Hurt as the reclusive, Howard Hughes-like multibillionaire S.R. Hadden, brings a proper gravitas to his character; as do Tom Skerritt as Dr. David Drumlin, the hardheaded, overly pragmatic Presidential Science Advisor who thinks Ellie is wasting her time; and James Woods as Michael Kitz, the country's National Security Advisor, another of Woods's patented snake roles, his character immediately wanting to militarize Ellie's project.
The movie's climactic sequence will remind viewers of "2001," a spectacular intergalactic light show made all the more dramatic in high-definition picture and sound. It's quite thrilling, really.
Not that there aren't a few things distracting about "Contact." For one, it's too long, as so many films are these days, challenging one's concentration, to say nothing of one's butt. I guess that's why we buy movies on disc, though; we can take intermissions whenever we choose. Second, while I understand the need for McConaughey's character in the story to help represent the conflict between science and religion--objective evidence vs. faith alone--I question the film's insistence on a romantic relationship between him and Arroway. And then there are a few too many convenient coincidences, plus the fact that Jake Busey's character is able to get away with what he does. Maybe the filmmakers just wanted to remind us this is a movie, after all.
Nevertheless, the film's shortcomings are trivial compared to its successes, and "Contact" remains one of the best straight sci-fi movies since "2001," with high-definition Blu-ray making it better than ever.
John's film rating: 8/10
The video engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 encode to reproduce the film in its native aspect ratio, 2.40:1. The first thing you may notice is that the color palette is somewhat warm, a condition your TV could aggravate if it is already overly red or set to color modes like "Movie" or "Game," which are often overly hot to begin with. If you've calibrated or adjusted your TV for entirely neutral tones, you should enjoy the movie's intentional warmth.
You may also notice that the movie's detailing while good is not the most precise, and that there is a slightly soft quality about the image, although in an entirely realistic way. Also, in one outdoor daylight scene, a broad expanse of sky over the Very Large Array, you may detect a small, almost imperceptible flicker. I'm not sure what that's about. Beyond these almost negligible irregularities, the video is quite easy on the eyes, a light, natural film grain providing the picture with a lifelike texture.
The disc comes with lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio and with a regular Dolby Digital track for those viewers who can't play back the TrueHD. In lossless, the sound could hardly be better. There is some excellent surround activity right from the start. Bass is deep and taut, front-channel dispersion is wide, and dynamic impact is strong. You couldn't ask for much more.
WB carry the Blu-ray extras over from their previous DVD release. These include three audio commentaries, the first by star Jodie Foster, the second by director Robert Zemeckis and co-producer Steve Starkey, and the third by visual effects supervisors Ken Ralston and Stephen Rosenbaum. After those are four special-effects featurettes, all in standard definition: "The Making of the Opening Shot," twenty minutes; "The Making of the NASA Machine Destruction," six minutes; "The Making of the Harrier Landing," nine minutes; and "The High-Speed Compositing Reel," six minutes. Next, there are three, brief animated sequences in SD: "Machine Fly-by," a minute and a half; "Hadden's Plane," a half a minute; and "NASA Control Room," a half a minute.
The extras wrap up with a music-only track; forty-two scene selections; two theatrical trailers; English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish subtitles; and English, German, and Italian captions for the hearing impaired.
As I've said, "Contact" is one of the best pure science-fiction films since "2001." With few exceptions, it's intelligent, thoughtful, and often stirring. Moreover, Jodie Foster's performance is riveting, and the special effects are first rate. It's exactly the kind of movie that makes high-definition reproduction so much fun.
"This was just a first step. In time, you'll take others. ... Small moves, Ellie. Small moves."