Re-watching a movie from your childhood is weird. Every moment is wrapped up in nostalgia. This is definitely the case for me with Robert Zemeckis’s 1997 film Contact. In my youth, I, of course, liked the film, but didn’t quite understand it. Honestly, I had a weird fear of any movie that dealt with space, so I think that definitely affected my opinion on it.
This was, like most films, something I was introduced to by my father. My dad had shown me episodes of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos prior to my first viewing of the film. I’ve seen the film so many times it’s difficult to remember what my initial responses were the first time I watched it. However, I do remember having a talk with my dad afterwards where he explained to me the science behind the film…wormholes and the theory of relativity. This film was such a special one to see as a child because it’s smart, thought-provoking and centered around a tough heroine (we still need to see more of those!).
For those not in the know, Contact follows Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), a scientist who, despite judgement from others in her field, decides to devote her life’s work to SETI, a real organization, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. She meets Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a religious author, a “man of the cloth, without the cloth.” When she discovers a signal not in the neighborhood, Ellie gets swept along the what-if scenario of contacting intelligent life, with all the politics, the ethical questions, and the danger that comes with it.
Here are just a few reasons you need to watch or re-watch Contact ASAP:
The casting is everything in this film. I can’t imagine this story without Jodie Foster at its helm. I’ve spoken about Jodie once before when I discussed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which she made when she was just a child. When she was considering taking the lead in Contact, Jodie was in a different position. For one thing, she was an Oscar winner for her role in The Silence of the Lambs, probably the scariest film I’ve ever seen!
Jodie had also had her directorial debut a few years before, so I think it’s safe to say she had her pick of roles. Initially, she didn’t sign on to the film due to script issues. But, with Zemeckis’s passion and an extensive re-write, Foster came aboard. Jodie said of her role, “The idea of someone searching for some kind of purity, searching for something she can’t find, was something that was very close to myself. I process everything through my head first. I cope through my head (Foster, TCM Article).” IMHO, she brought intelligence, levity and earnestness to Ellie.
Matthew McConaughey got his major break in 1993 when he played Wooderson in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. He was just 28 in this film although he seems older. He’s not doing his standard “Alright, alright, alright…,” but he’s about one step away. He’s very charming and serves his purpose. You can see why Ellie is smitten.
James Woods plays the villain of the story, if there is one. He’s smarmy and corporate and perfect in this part.
John Hurt is terrifying as the Howard Hughes-esque billionaire S.R. Hadden. I used to hear him say this line in my nightmares.
I have to say though, no one terrified me more than Jake Busey who played a terrorist named Joseph. My brother said he looks like Carrot Top. Regardless, every time I saw him in this film, my stomach dropped.
Oh, and Jena Malone is cute as Young Ellie. This was only her second film.
The film was, of course, based on the novel of the same name by Carl Sagan. Strangely though, it originated as a screen project with then-production executive Lynda Obst. When it looked as though there would be no film, Carl went and wrote the novel, only to have the studio then become interested in adapting it.
James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg penned the script, with help from Sagan and his wife. I’ve already discussed James V. Hart once before when I wrote about Tuck Everlasting, which he also wrote the script for. Ann Druyan, Sagan’s wife and collaborator said, “Carl’s and my dream was to write something that would be a fictional representation of what contact would be like. But it would also have the tension inherent between religion and science, which was an area of philosophical and intellectual interest that riveted both of us (Druyan, TCM Article).” Truly, this is what makes the film so fascinating. The relationship between Palmer and Ellie is really about the relationship between science and religion. It asked the question, ‘Can these two fiercely defensive sides find common ground?’
I also really loved the idealism of the film. There’s a line when Ellie is talking to Tom Skerrit’s character, Dr. Drumlin, another scientist. He tells her that the world isn’t fair. She responds, “Funny, I always thought the world is what we make it.”
This cannot be understated. Alan Silvestri, known for his scores for Back to The Future and Forest Gump, was the composer for Contact. To me, the score is inextricably linked to the film and its ideas. I just can’t separate them. It almost sounds like a lullaby.
Robert Zemeckis had already established himself as a great sci-fi director when he made the Back to the Future films, but at this point, he was riding high from his Oscar winner from 1994, Forrest Gump. Another director was already attached to Contact, George Miller, but weeks before shooting, the studio decided to fire him. Zemeckis came on board with the understanding that he would be able to interject his own ideas into the script, including a new ending.
Zemeckis’s love for characters and humor are what make Contact really work. The relationships feel real and so, there’s weight to the events that take place. The only thing I would say is that I don’t agree with Zemeckis’s choice to use real reporters in the film. Larry King, Jay Leno, and even President Bill Clinton make appearances. While he was going for a sense of verisimilitude, those moments took me out of the film.
Don Burgess, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Forrest Gump, shot the film artistically and added a level of intensity. The scene where Ellie goes through the wormholes, you’ll literally be on the edge of your seat!
The Film IS #FatherDaughterGoals
This really gets to the crux of this film for me. The relationship Ellie has with her father is sweet, based on him teaching her about astronomy. It’s a perfect film to watch with your dad. When you see the scene where Ellie meets the alien and they’ve taken the form of her father, you WILL BE CRYING.
Contact, to me, is about (as corny as it sounds) not being afraid to reach for the stars. The message the film sends is that we should stick to our convictions and keep asking questions. This movie doesn’t insult the intelligence of its audience. It wasn’t aimed towards four year-olds as many films are today. There was real love put into making this film and you can tell.
Carl Sagan unfortunately didn’t live long enough to see the film released, but no doubt, Contact is a tribute to him.
Trailer Below. The film is available to stream on Netflix. If you’re looking for something to fill the sci-fi shaped hole Stranger Things left, try Contact. You won’t be disappointed.
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