Contact (1997)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * ½

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Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), a driven young astronomer attempting to intercept communications from extra-terrestrial intelligences, picks up such a message, which, when decoded, provides instructions for constructing a spaceship. After the governments of the world have cooperated in building this vessel, Ellie is given the opportunity to travel in it to another planet.

Robert Zemeckis' Contact is a trite, maudlin, and frequently annoying film. The director has tried to create an introspective and heroic story of personal tragedy, emotional conflict, growth, and wonder. Instead, he has cobbled together an uninteresting mélange of clichés and smeared them with layers of insipid ruminations and saccharine sentiments.

Not only is Contact puerile and cloying, it is also incessantly manipulative. Ellie is so moral, so driven, and so enthusiastic that she seems more artificial than affecting. Her opponents, colleagues, and benefactors are even worse. Over the course of the movie, she is made to deal with an obviously sneaky and insinuating scientist (Tom Skerritt) who, briefly, steals her place on the mission to the stars, a callous and paranoic bureaucrat (James Woods), and a wild-eyed lunatic terrorist (Jake Busey). Fortunately for her, she is helped both by her likeable and quirky colleagues and by a weird industrialist (John Hurt) who appears to have been inspired, in equal parts, by Howard Hughes and Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of the cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Such uninteresting characterizations do little to involve the viewer in the film's story. Instead of feeling Ellie's excitement, frustration, daring, or fear, the moviegoer is far more likely to be put off by the clumsiness the director displays in this use of his characters.

The numerous one-line cogitations which are scattered throughout the movie are even more of a nuisance. Meditative elements can be included in a given film in such a way that they arouse the viewer's awareness of some issue or another and cause him to reflect on that topic. When such elements are successfully utilized, they draw the viewer into the movie in which they have been included and both involve him with its characters and open his heart to the sentiments which are dominant in that work. Zemeckis has absolutely filled Contact with a variety of attempts at reflective moments, and he repeatedly strives to use them to engage the viewer with his characters and to elicit emotional reactions from him. Unfortunately, the director's dull ponderings are so consistently silly that rather than involving the viewer they merely irritate him.

In fact, Zemeckis' endless musings about faith and a supreme being are so shallow and, frankly, stupid that they rankle the viewer instead of intriguing him. At one point, for example, after Ellie has misquoted the "scientific" principle of Occam's Razor to her preacher boyfriend, Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), who, apparently, has never heard of one of Christianity's most important theologians, he provides what could well be history's most inept attempt to defend faith. When Ellie rejects believing in a being of whose existence she has no proof, Palmer asks her if she loved her deceased father. When she says that she did, he asks her to prove it. This, I assume, is intended as an argument in defense of faith. Palmer's challenge would, I concede, have some merit if he were questioning Ellie's ability to prove the truth of her assertion to him, but, in that case, the only faith he would be calling into doubt would be his own, namely, his faith in her honesty. If, however, and this is more probable, he meant that she needed to prove to herself that she loved her father then his point would simply be nonsensical. No one can reasonably deny that a person is directly aware of his own emotions, and faith is possible only with regard to those things which cannot be or have not been approached by a given means of valid knowledge, such as immediate awareness. Consequently, Ellie need only reply to Palmer that she knows she has had the experience of loving her father because she has had the experience of loving her father. Because she would have been immediately aware of her love for her father, it would not even have been possible for her to have had faith in the existence of that love. The movie is filled with such utterly foolish comments.

Zemeckis' equation of religion with faith is also a frequent distraction. While the three monotheistic religions of the West, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, do undoubtedly give faith a central role, a role which is, most likely, inevitable in them, given that they conceive of the ultimate reality, anthropomorphized as a deity, as wholly transcendent, they are, in fact, in the minority among religious traditions, whether these are collectively considered from a worldwide or an historical perspective. The movie, however, very strongly implies that for a set of practices, beliefs, conventions, and the like to be considered to be a religion, it must conform to the conceptions of what a religion is that are current in the three great monotheistic traditions. Non-theistic and polytheistic traditions, like those practiced by the majority of the world's inhabitants, apparently, just are not religions. Nor, for that matter, are those traditions that emphasize direct experience rather than faith, as do most of the religions outside of the three monotheistic systems. Such a narrow provincialism is, frankly, ethnocentric and, consequently, offensive.

Even if the director had refrained from saying that religion amounts to the ideologies found in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and focused only those traditions, he has still done them such a disservice with his lack of insight that he is more likely to repel the viewer from those faiths than to draw him to them. If the moviegoer is interested in a cinematic presentation of the beliefs of one of these three, namely Christianity, rather than boring himself with Zemeckis' shallow catchphrases, I would recommend that he take a look at Pasolini's wonderful The Gospel According to Matthew. It is a far richer and more satisfying achievement than is Zemeckis' movie. While Contact is more of an advertisement for a specific type of religion than it is a work of art, it is not a very effective one.

Despite its numerous faults, Contact is, on the whole, competently acted, and its production values are high. Although the film's characters are so completely forgettable that the actors are limited in what they are able do with them, many of the performers still do bring some amount of life to the movie. The special effects used are also nicely realized. While Contact is, on the whole, visually pedestrian, these effects keep the viewer sufficiently engaged in its fictional world so that, at the least, he is never bothered by it. While nothing in the movie is ever inspired, the presence of such qualities does make watching it tolerable.

Even with its moderate virtues, Contact is such a hackneyed, ham-handed, and didactic film that it is far more annoying than it is entertaining.

Review by Keith Allen

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