Summer Double Feature Movie Review: Contact

Our summer double features continue with reviews of Contact and The Abyss.

Cast and Crew

Main Cast

Jodie Foster as Dr. Ellie Arroway
Matthew McConaughey as Palmer Joss
Jena Malone as Young Ellie
David Morse as Ted Arroway
Tom Skerritt as David Drumlin
James Woods as Michael Kitz
John Hurt as S. R. Hadden
Angela Bassett as Rachel Constantine
Geoffrey Blake as Fisher
William Fichtner as Kent
Sami Chester as Vernon
Timothy McNeil as Davio

Main Crew

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Written by Carl Sagan (original novel), Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan (story), James V. Hard and Michael Goldberg (screenplay)

Synopsis

The SETI project bears fruit with the receipt of a message originating from the star Vega. When decoded, the message is found to contain instructions for a giant machine, which will send one human… somewhere.

Note

This is a review of the Region 2 (United Kingdom) DVD special edition of Contact. I believe the film is unchanged from that shown in cinemas; the ‘special edition’ appears to refer only to the addition of three commentary tracks.

High Points

  • The opening sequence.
  • The first hearing of the message. After seven viewings, this still sends a shiver down my spine.
  • Ellie’s first sight of the terrorist preacher, outside the VLA facility. The production here is beautiful, with her visible through the car window in which his face is reflected, and the result is very powerful.

Low Points

  • The National Security Advisor and the man from the Conservative Coalition are both in roles which are too predictable and stereotypical.
  • The build-up to the test of the first Machine runs through several points where you think it’s going to climax, but it doesn’t. While sometimes this works to build up tension, here it feels more irritating.

The Review

The originality must suffer, as this is a book adaptation. However, so many of the plot details, characters and even situations have been changed from the book that it claws back some of those lost points. It’s the same story, told through a different filter. Unfortunately it suffers from some stereotyping of some characters, leading us to think that we’ve seen some of them before in other stories, but given how many people were cut out from the book, this was perhaps necessary. Four out of six.

This film is not particularly demanding on the effects department in many scenes. Fortunately for the visual effects industry, some scenes become almost or entirely 100% visual effect. This film was made in 1997, but the effects hold very well when compared to modern productions. Perhaps the worst bit was the video of Hadden in microgravity on Mir, which didn’t quite look right to me. The wormhole sequence, opening sequence and various starscapes were amazing. Five out of six.

Being based on a book with an excellent story, and having said book’s author as a co-producer, has got to help this film. Sure, it’s adapted significantly, but despite the changes made (presumably with Carl Sagan’s blessing), it holds together extremely well. The book’s version of the story would probably have been too complicated to tell well on film, so this route seems to have been the better course. A lot of the depth is gone of course, but there is a lot of depth in the book and most audiences wouldn’t want or understand a lot of it. Looking at the film by itself, as a piece of thoughtful entertainment, I cannot fault the story in any significant way. Five out of six.

Although I looked for it, I couldn’t find fault with the acting. I’ve not seen any of Jodie Foster’s other work, but she appears to have been a near-perfect choice for this role. The rest of the cast also turn in excellent performances, even the minor characters and extras. Six out of six.

I always find this film has a strong emotional response. The death of Ellie’s father, the spine-chilling first sound of the message, the elation when they realise what it is, then the assorted betrayal, death, discovery and the trip through the wormhole itself conspire to give the film a range of feelings and moods. The conclusion then wraps it up perfectly, and presents it to the viewer in a true catharthic moment. It doesn’t quite leave you crying, but it’s not that far off it. Five out of six.

The production values are high. It particularly shows during the sequence where we see the people gathered outside the VLA, whether to praise the aliens or denounce them in their various ways; there’s a lot of detail and thought there, and it’s executed impeccably. Camerawork is good throughout, running into a few moments of sheer brilliance (see the high points above). The sound mixing leaves nothing to be desired, the editing is on time in every case, with some very smooth transitions between scenes in places, especially the first time we move from child-Ellie to adult-Ellie, and we know instantly who she is without the need for a caption or dialogue hint. Six out of six.

Overall, I give it five out of six as one of my favourite big-budget sci-fi films.

In total, Contact receives a grand total of thirty-six out of forty-two.

6 replies on “Summer Double Feature Movie Review: Contact”

  1. Babbster says:

    Books vs. Movie Adaptations
    This is one of the few films where the [significant] changes made from the book work out very well. The biggest change of paring down the travelers from a team down to one focuses the movie perfectly and made it very accessible. I read the book after the movie and as I was reading it was easy to see that the book just wouldn’t have worked as well in a direct adaptation, at least not in anything under four to six hours.

    The stereotypes mentioned in the review are indeed a little “too much” but I think they were a necessary evil. There is so much happening in this movie, and it covers such large tracts of politics and philosophy, that at some point you’re going to have characters who are only there to service the plot. There just isn’t room in the movie (again, without going the miniseries route, which might have been a good idea) for those characters to be anything more.

    Anyway, I agree completely that Contact is a fine movie. It’s worthwhile for both SF fans and those who couldn’t care less about the genre.

    • Eldhrin says:

      Re: Books vs. Movie Adaptations
      Yup. It’s also one of the few movies which I enjoy while also enjoying the book – usually it’s one or the other (such as with Lord of the Rings, I find the books very dull while the films eliminated all the pacing problems; or with Harry Potter, I love the books but find the films highly cringe-worthy). It’s fantastic how they managed to tell all the important parts of the story using such an altered cast of characters, and also successfully updating things to reflect the progress of technology (the Internet, for example, is a perfect replacement for the telefax devices described in the book). Dead impressive.

    • roseblood says:

      Missing highpoint
      ***************POSSIBLE SPOILER*************

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      Rachel Constantine: I was especially interested in the section on Arroway’s video unit. The one that recorded the static?

      Michael Kitz: Continue.

      Rachel Constantine: The fact that it recorded static isn’t what interests me.

      Michael Kitz: [pauses] Continue.

      Rachel Constantine: What interests me is that it recorded approximately eighteen hours of it.

      The fact that the ending leaves open the posbility of some sort of delusion vs. the posibility that the device worked.

      • Babbster says:

        Re: Missing highpoint
        Actually, I thought the exchange you described pretty firmly confirmed the latter. Had they left that exchange out, THEN you would be left with mystery.

  2. chad says:

    Good Movie

    I really like this movie, especially how it doesn’t have a “hollywood” ending. Very little gets resolved other than Foster’s/Ellie’s personal journey. But we also get a message of hope and come out of it feeling good. It’s hard to do that in a convincing way without wrapping up every loose end and letting the good guy win, neither of which happened. At the same time, Foster/Ellie wrapped up personal loose ends and won a personal battle, so we did get that satisfaction. Weird. Good writing.

  3. Trekkie says:

    One of the best sci-fi movies.
    I was and still am enthralled with this movie. Probably not because it’s Star
    Wars, Star Trek, but because it’s a person who spent their life dreaming and
    fighting for something, to discover it.

    There was a Perfect Moment in this film for me. When Elile begins her
    journey and sees outside the ship at the nebulae like things and looks at it in
    sheer joy and they did that wonderful effect of bringing the child actors face
    out of Jodie Fosters face and morphs the voice back as she describes out
    beautiful it was.

    Makes me tear up every time. I can just imagine the sheer joy of getting to
    experience something you thought you’d only be able to dream of, and that
    maybe no person would ever experience.

    Very cool. Honestly I’ve tried to to read the book and never got through it,
    might have to dig it out yet again and try again.

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