directed by Robert Zemeckis
(Warner Brothers, 1997)
Radio waves drift out into space, taking with them the voices of the ages: FDR, JFK, Dean Martin. Before you know it -- before anyone on Earth knows it -- the signals have been received. And soon they're headed back, carrying with them a message of hope -- or fear.
What will happen when earthlings make contact with extraterrestrials is anyone's guess. Contact is Carl Sagan's and Robert Zemeckis' guess.
It's a good guess, an interesting guess, a many-layered guess, a guess fraught with anxiety and hope, political agendas and uncrushable optimism -- the kind of a guess you'd expect from a man who spent his life translating science into plain English and the man who gave us Forrest Gump.
It offers us the same kind of stellar cast as Gump -- Jodie Foster as researcher Eleanor Arroway, who devotes her life, and nearly loses it, to make contact; Tom Skerritt as the bureaucrat who wants to either shut her down or take credit for her discovery; James Woods as the presidential adviser who knows how to make political hay out of paranoia; John Hurt as the mysterious benefactor who uses his acid wit to cut through government red tape -- and the same kind of complex story: people's lives weaving in and out of one another's until the threads form an inescapable net.
It even offers us the same kind of perceptive social satire and ironic guffaws: the first TV transmission from space is Hitler opening the 1936 Olympics. Imagine what his neo-followers make of that.
Unlike Gump, however, Contact fails to provide us with the most critical commodity of all: something new to think about.
Time after time Zemeckis raises the action to the point of dramatic crescendo, only to fall back on the most well-worn cliches: This is really a matter of faith as well as science; because scientists must have faith in what they're doing.
There's no box of chocolates here. Contact is pure vanilla -- lovingly made and sumptuously served up -- but still vanilla. Add to this a syrupy performance by Matthew McConaughey as Foster's sometime love interest, sometime nemesis, and you have the formula for diabetic coma.
That's unfortunate, because when Contact does take off -- when Arroway first detects the extraterrestrial transmissions or finds herself in a worm hole through space -- it soars. And the sets alone are worth the price of admission.
But with nothing new to say, Zemeckis is left with nowhere to go, and his film doesn't so much end as grind to a halt.
Zemeckis may think he's made Contact. I'd say it's a near miss.