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.