Saturday, April 21, 2012

Favorite Films: "Contact"

Robert Zemeckis is a fascinating filmmaker, a director who pushes the technical boundaries of filmmaking in unusual ways, melding innovation with storytelling in ways that often end up cold, distant and frustratingly unfulfilling.  When his films work, they work spectacularly well -- just look at Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Cast Away, all movies that used visual effects so seamlessly and dazzlingly that the effects were as much a part of the story as the actors.

Then there are the failures, and I have often found myself apologizing for feeling the Best Picture-winning Forrest Gump belongs in the same category of Zemeckis films as Death Becomes Her, Beowulf or The Polar Express, though mostly because of its odd insistence that a dim-witted idiot savant should be hailed as some sort of hero for life acting upon him, hardly the kind of character we usually see or respond to in movies.  Zemeckis has most recently been focused on motion-capture animation, taking real actors and creating animated characters on top of them.  These films are emotionally lifeless and visually disturbing.

Not so with Contact.  For a movie as grandly conceived and massive in scale -- encompassing the entire universe -- it is surprisingly personal, a sincere and deeply felt effort to examine the surprisingly un-cinematic concepts of Carl Sagan, who wrote the underlying story and novel on which the movie is based.  For a story about space exploration, it is rather steadfastly earthbound, except for two remarkable scenes.

The first is the film's opening, inspired by the short film The Powers of Ten, which underscores one of the central themes of Contact, and the great contradiction of humanity: We are insignificant, yet our minds and souls are infinite.

This is not an easy thing to show on film, and Contact increases the difficulty level by embracing the endless division between science and religion by presenting the argument of faith from both sides.  Religion, any religion, is built on the faith of many people believing something they could not possibly prove.  Science, all science, is built on direct evidence, yet there are many things science cannot explain -- scientists rationalize this by saying that the answers simply haven't been discovered yet, but will.  They hold that faith.

Contact shows us a woman who has no religion, a scientist named Ellie Arroway, and brings her into the orbit of a deeply religious man named Palmer Joss.  Ellie's job is seemingly fruitless; she is a scientist who "listens" to the stars with massive telescopes, searching for any sign that there is other life in the universe.  Not only does she find it, but she also finds a message -- one that is tantalizingly tied to that opening shot.  The apparent contents of the message are at first alarming, then confounding.  Cleverly, they are decoded and revealed to be thousands of pages of blueprints for a machine whose purpose is unclear.  Mankind joins together to build it.

It's an act of faith on a massive level, masked by science, wrapped in an ugly coat of politics, and Contact both cleverly and persuasively approaches it all head-on.  Zemeckis uses digital trickery to blend real-life footage of then-President Clinton with his actors, often showing them on TV the way the public would consume the story as news.  If the way it's presented feels a little too pat and partisan at times -- well, as we've come to see 15 years later, that's indeed the way it would be packaged.

After a spectacular (and horrifyingly convincing) event destroys "The Machine," Ellie learns that there is, in fact, another -- and gets the opportunity to find out exactly what it does.

This is when Contact, already a gripping and compelling science-thriller, transcends ordinary science-fiction and pulls its themes together.  Ellie indeed seems to travel across the cosmos in spectacular fashion, appears to see things no human has ever seen, and even meets the extraterrestrials themselves, who take on a more familiar appearance in an effort not to thoroughly overwhelm her.  Looking out on what she sees, a stunned Ellie cries, "They should have sent a poet."

Her wide-eyed disbelief is disarmingly embodied by Jodie Foster, whose sharp, angular edges belie her soft soul.  Ellie is much like Foster's Clarice Starling, a woman determined to prove she is right, but deeply concerned that doing so may hurt others, or herself.

Palmer Joss is her opposite, and as played by Matthew McConnaughey would appear to be the movie's central liability: He seems too lightweight and jocular to be taken seriously as a religious leader and adviser to the president.  Yet, isn't that exactly what we've come to want from preachers, for them to be telegenic and non-threatening?  Look a little deeper and Palmer Joss is a man who does not dare show that he may have his own doubts about faith, tainted as he has become by politics.

All of this leads to a conclusion that is thought-provoking and emotional: To the naked eye, the hyper-expensive Machine seems to have done absolutely nothing.  To Ellie, it took her beyond the infinite.  She uses theoretical physics to explain this, the concept of an "Einstein-Rosen Bridge," a wormhole that opened up and led somewhere inexplicable, then returned her to Earth in what appeared to be a fraction of a second later.

Agnostic Ellie finds she has to plead for others to believe that she has experienced something real.  There is simply no way to explain this, she says through tears and a quavering voice.

That, of course, is what religious faithful have said for millenia: You get it, or you don't.  Contact suggests, directly and memorably, that science and religion are actually not as far apart as they might appear, that faith is faith, that a journey through the stars and a journey of the soul are equally momentous.  Zemeckis uses his digital prowess and experimentation to its best possible effect, along with fine performances from his actors.

We often wonder, at a grand, cosmic level, whether we are alone.  We hope we are are not, and cannot imagine we are.  Yet, there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.

It's the same thing philosophers have long wondered about ourselves.  Just as we are surrounded by billions of stars, we are surrounded by teeming humanity -- so, how is it possible we spend so much time feeling so alone?

Contact is among a very few films, along with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, that can make you look differently at the stars.  Impressively, singularly, it can also make you look differently at yourself.

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