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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Contact (1997)

I thoroughly enjoyed Robert Zemeskis’ Contact when it was first released in 1997.  For years now, it’s been a movie that I’ve been eager to add to my DVD collection, but I was holding off for a better special edition than the bare-bones DVD release from ’97.  It’s been a long wait, but when Contact was finally re-released on disc in a jazzed-up new edition — and on blu-ray, no less — I eagerly snatched it up.

Based on Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact tells the story of Ellie, a young girl whose interest in science and astronomy are fanned by her father.  Through much of the early parts of the film, we follow Ellie’s development as a scientist and her growing fascination with the search for signs of extra-terrestrial life.  It’s a search that increasingly comes to seem like a fool’s errand as, over the years, all of the sources of funding for that research dry up.  If that was the end of the story, of course, there wouldn’t be much of a movie.  Needless top say, Ellie and her team do eventually discover a signal that appears to be extra-terrestrial in origin, and their quest to unlock its meaning leads Ellie on an astounding journey and brings mankind to an incredible turning point.

I’ll stop my summary there, even though I have really only covered the first thirty-or-so minutes of the film.  For me, the most compelling aspect of Contact is watching the story unfold and gradually become bigger and bigger.  I still remember my pleasure in seeing the film for the first time and thinking to myself, with great delight, “just how far are they going to take this??”  Even having seen the film and knowing what’s coming coming, I still find the story to be terrifically engaging.

I am an enormous sci-fi fan.  Sadly, the vast majority of sci-fi films seem to revolve around menacing aliens and action-adventure hi-jinks.  Now, I’m all for a good action movie, and there have certainly been plenty of action/adventure sci-fi films that I have thoroughly enjoyed.  But I love that Contact is a much more cerebral story, one in which the science of the tale is just as important as the narrative’s twists and turns.  It’s also a story that is centered by the character of Ellie’s emotional journey, and that is what gives the film its power.

Jodie Foster is quite compelling as Dr. Ellie Arroway.  She brings a fierce commitment and intensity to the role.  Foster is an actor who always seems to be thinking — you can see it in her eyes — and that is key for her performance as this brilliant and driven woman.  I love that the central character in this sci-fi story is a woman, and I love that she is as complex and interesting a character as we see here.

The ensemble that surrounds Ms. Foster is also top-notch.  David Morse (The Negotiator) is very tender as Ellie’s father, and he steals the few scenes that he is in.  I love David Morse, and it’s terrific to see him in this sort of role (as opposed to the scary bad-guys he usually plays).  William Fichtner (a face I guarantee you recognize, even if you don’t know his name — he’s been in a ton of TV and film roles, and recently he was the bank manager menaced by the Joker in The Dark Knight) brings an interesting spin to what could easily have been a boring role as Ellie’s friend and fellow scientist, Kent.  Tom Skerritt (Picket Fences) is terrifically smarmy as David Drumlin, Ellie’s superior who is convinced that she’s wasting her life.  Then there’s James Woods and Angela Bassett as members of President Clinton’s cabinet, Jake Busey as a menacing preacher, John Hurt as an enigmatic multi-billionaire… I could go on.  The cast is a delight, and every one of these skilled actors brings a lot of life to their characters (many of whom only appear in a few scenes and so have a very short time in which to make an impact).

Then there’s Matthew McConaughey as Palmer Joss.  Joss is a man with whom Ellie finds herself continually entwined over the course of the years chronicled in the film.  The two have an undeniable connection, right from their first meeting.  They have a great many similarities, but an entirely different set of belief systems:  Joss is a man of God, while Ellie is a woman of science.  This might seem like the plot for a dumb “opposites attract” story, but thankfully Contact is a much more interesting film than that.  Yes, Ellie & Joss are opposites who do attract one another, but what is really of interest is the contrasting of their two philosophies and ways of looking at the universe, from which most of the emotional energy of the film comes.  While Ellie is the central character of the film, I very much appreciate the filmmakers’ efforts to give Joss’ philosophies equal weight and merit in the story.  I know that some people think of McConaughey as the film’s weak link, and without question Jodie Foster is a far superior actor than he is.  But I must say, I quite enjoy McConaughey in this role.  His surfer-boy good looks and lackadaisical manner make Palmer Joss a much more interesting fella than a lot of the spiritual folks we usually see on film, and I think he has a nice energy with Ms. Foster.  It’s an unusual role, but I buy it.

Visually, Contact is a stunner — and the film looks positively GORGEOUS on blu-ray.  Robert Zemeckis’ affection for visual effects serves him quite well in helming this large-scale, epic story.  Contact is a film whose scope just grows and grows as the narrative progresses, and Zemeckis and his team bring the sci-fi aspects of the tale to believable life.  The man knows how to tell an adventure story with a sci-fi bent (Back to the Future), and he does a great job at balancing the script’s philosophical underpinnings and strong focus on character with the story’s exciting suspense and, eventually, adventure aspects.  He’s assisted by a smart script (adapted from Mr. Sagan’s novel), but it’s his sure hand as a director that keeps everything together.  (Watching this film again makes me sad that Mr. Zemeckis’ latest movies, in which he has been exploring the world of motion-capture technology — The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol — have left me so disinterested.)

Contact is a great film, and it was a delight to revisit it again after so many years.  This sits proudly on my DVD/Blu-ray shelf.

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