In other words, “Contact” is a serious and sober piece of speculative fiction, designed to play off of apprehensions about the forthcoming millennium in a positive and uplifting manner. Beautifully crafted and legitimately involving once it locks onto a dramatic track, film benefits from remaining mysterious about how far it intends to go in pursuing its themes, but also suffers from long-windedness and preachy final-reel explicitness as to its message.
Central focus of James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg’s smart but somewhat lumpy scenario is Dr. Ellie Arroway (Foster), a brilliant, devoted scientist who has passed up other opportunities to spend her time listening for possible messages from deep space over radio telescope dishes. Repeated flashbacks to her youth establish her precocious intelligence and close relationship with her father, whose death when she was nine heightened her sense of isolation (her mother died in childbirth) and eliminated any possibility for religious belief.
At the outset, Arroway has government backing for her listening post in Puerto Rico pulled out from under her by erstwhile sponsor and presidential science adviser David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), although not before she has had a brief fling with handsome lapsed seminarian Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey).
Set up again with private backing from a mysterious benefactor, Arroway and her small staff are still listening away in New Mexico four years later when they tune in on a signal that sounds eerily like a giant striding heavily across the land. The broadcast, emanating from the star Vega, also contains harmonics and is sent in patterns consisting only of prime numbers; a visual component is discovered to be, of all things, an image of Adolf Hitler inaugurating the 1936 Olympic Games.
No one could possibly know right off what to make of all this, but the president and his men, represented by mean-spirited national security adviser Michael Kitz (James Woods), want immediate answers, as do the religious fundamentalists who fear any suspected meddling in the holy status quo. Whoever is delivering its messages via the airwaves has also sent elaborate digital data which, after its hieroglyphics have been decoded, proves to be a diagram for constructing a space capsule and launching pad that will supposedly enable earthlings to reach Vega at the speed of light.
With astonishing speed and efficiency, the government finances the building of the enormous launch facility, which resembles an elaborate theme park installation with wondrous moving parts. Arroway, who had hoped to be selected to make the 50-year round trip to Vega (the space traveler would only age four years, however), gets aced out by her superior, Drumlin. But a weird catastrophe winds up giving the young woman another chance at the trip, with results that emphasize the astonishment of the universe and the possibility of a convergence between science and religious faith.
Sparked at all times by the scientist’s probing, inquisitive, quick-thinking personality, the film is filled, first and foremost, by investigative activity. Making stimulating what must certainly, in reality, be boring data-gathering and analysis, the film rolls right over any number of implausibilities and gaps in logic in pursuit of its grander themes, which seems fine while the story is unspooling since the overall tenor of the proceedings is far more intelligent than is the norm in movies these days.
Nonetheless, there are irritants. All those who would question or oppose the heroine are made to look venally right-wing or religiously far-out. It’s funny the first time when President Clinton is made to seem to interact with, or comment upon, the fictional characters and situations, but this “Forrest Gump”-like gag is seriously overworked here. And McConaughey’s role of a presidential spiritual adviser whose attraction for Arroway persists over the years comes off like a middleweight part unnaturally pumped up to heavyweight status in a misguided attempt to create a male lead; the film’s one ridiculous scene has him turning up on remote Hokkaido Island on the eve of Arroway’s top-secret mission to state his feelings for her.
On the other hand, there are plenty of captivating moments. The array of huge radio telescopes is sometimes photographed to resemble modern versions of the Easter Island statues; the visual enhancement of a grainy image into a shot of Hitler is creepily unexpected; the sight of Arroway in her armor-like space suit marching toward her bizarre craft summons up unearthly echoes of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” while her “trip” represents a distinctly modern, and technically advanced, version of the heady stargate sequence in Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Once Arroway reaches her “destination,” the film, while reaching a peak of ineffable physical beauty, falls into a slight lull, only to bog down further during an extended congressional hearing in which the scientist takes the stand to extol humankind’s virtues and stress her faith that we are not alone in the universe.
When “Contact” is at its best, notably during its strong middle third, it is very good indeed, but it is not as sharp or incisive as it might have been in summarizing its concerns in nonverbal ways; for example, the visual “trip” contains far too much distracting commentary from its passenger.
But the picture’s style and technical quality are consistently outstanding. Zemeckis’ directorial hand is ultra-smooth and reassuring, and his time-tested confidence in combining live action with special effects pays off yet again in a virtually seamless presentation of fantastic events against a background of heightened contemporary reality. Don Burgess’ cinematography is particularly noteworthy, and the astute contributions of production designer Ed Verreaux and the many special effects experts play major roles in putting the story across.
Front and center throughout, Foster is excellent, very credible in her projection of innate intelligence, dedication to career and banishment of any personal life. Among the largely one-dimensional supporting cast, John Hurt is good fun as the impossibly wealthy and eccentric financier of Arroway’s project, a man who prefers to see out his days on the Mir space station than to continue to inhabit the Earth.