Warner Bros. // 1997 // 149 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // October 22nd, 2009
A journey to the heart of the universe.
Being released on Blu-Ray for the first time, 1997's Contact is a movie that can't quite figure out what its target audience is. Luckily, Jodie Foster's performance has broad appeal, as does the imagery and special effects work. These strong components are well-displayed on this Blu-Ray release, which improves the technical quality of the DVD release immensely, but the lack of new special features make it a tough sell as an upgrade.
Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster, Taxi Driver, as an adult and Jena Malone, Saved!, as a child) is a brilliant scientist in passionate pursuit of contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life. She's been fixated on the stars -- and on radio communication -- since her childhood, when her father (David Morse, Dancer in the Dark) encouraged these brainy hobbies before his untimely death while Ellie was still just a girl. Her kind-of boss David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt, A River Runs Through It) tries to stop her from wasting her talent, as he sees it, but Ellie perseveres with her research, along with a small but loyal crew.
When she and her team finally get their big break -- a message from outer space -- they are quickly caught up in a media circus and a government takeover of the project. As Ellie fights to remain involved in her discovery, she also reignites an unlikely romance with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), a religious leader who has become an adviser to the president.
Contact sets itself up for failure by positioning itself in a no-man's-land between groups of potential fans. It's not action-packed enough for those wanting a sci-fi alien adventure, and it's too long and science-focused for those wanting one of those swelling-score drama/romances. At the same time, the concessions it makes to these two audiences -- in the sci-fi thriller and romantic drama genres -- crowd out the science and politics enough that viewers looking for something super-serious and thoughtful will also tune out. Despite this identity crisis and a disappointingly insipid ideological turn at the end, Contact is somehow way more likable than it deserves to be. What ultimately makes it so affecting is the fantastic lead character created by actresses Jodie Foster and Jena Malone (playing her at different ages), and the beautiful audiovisual treats director Robert Zemeckis and his special effects team offer up.
Ellie is a great protagonist for this story, and an unusual one, too: she's a brazen lady of science who can wax poetic about the stars or chew somebody out for not believing in the value of her project. She's also more passionate about her work than about her love interest, and she's fine with casual sex. Foster puts real fire into the adult version of this character, while Malone foregrounds adult Ellie's compassion and vulnerability with a sensitive portrayal of her younger life. Suffering tremendous loss and loneliness in her life, Ellie channels her energy into scientific pursuits that she unconsciously hopes will fill those gaps. Though this character's strength and unity is violated by some poorly written parts of the script that I'll discuss below, she is still an emotionally compelling and steadfast guide throughout Contact.
The other highlight of Contact are its moments of incredible audiovisual richness. The best is the first: the extended journey outward from earth through the entire universe as scientists know and imagine it. As we fly backwards away from our own planet and eventually our own solar system and our own galaxy, we hear older and older radio broadcasts -- first pop songs from the '90s, then music and news broadcasts from previous decades until we get so far back that there was no radio. Then we hear silence...for several more minutes. We've reached the part of space that no earthly radio signals have yet reached and we just keep going and going until we're pulled back through a shower of unknown galaxies and the blackness of space melts into the black pupil of young Ellie's eye. This opening shot is masterful in both its concept and execution. It's the best demonstration of the vastness of the universe I've seen, and also of its cold, silent beauty. It wonderfully conveys the twin themes of loneliness and hope for connection that the enormity of the universe connotes for Ellie, and for many of us. Though this brave sequence is the film's stylistic highlight, it maintains its appreciation for the aesthetic wonder of astronomy throughout, and it deftly employs special effects in a way that complements the film's subject without showing off unnecessarily.
The story's strength is the way it takes a hypothetical situation -- a message from intelligent life in distant space -- and turns it over and over between its hands, thinking about all the sectors of society and how they would react to this massive event. While these elements of Contact recommend it, there are some major detractors elsewhere in the script and casting. The screenwriters take Carl Sagan's novel as their source material, but I certainly hope that novel was more nuanced than the resulting movie script. The story's central philosophical point that scientists, like religious folks, have to rely on faith at certain points in their work is an interesting one, but Contact pushes it to a silly and simplistic extreme that drains it of appeal. The script is also littered with way too many characters that symbolize God, fathers, or both in connection: Ellie's own father, Drumlin, Joss, the "aliens." The most over-the-top of these (though kind of a fun character) is S.R. Hadden, Ellie's eccentric benefactor (John Hurt, The Elephant Man). He's pretty close to omniscient and omnipotent, always watching Ellie through surveillance cameras and swooping in over and over again with money or information that will save her career. Plus, he lives in the sky -- on an airplane and later a space station.
A huge problem in both scripting and casting is the insufferable character of Palmer Joss. Matthew McConaughey seems wildly miscast as a man of faith with an unusual capacity for critical thinking and who's writing a book. I don't mean to insult McConaughey unduly, but he does much better when he's just Ellie's pretty-boy one night stand in their earlier encounter than when he's trying to convey deep intelligence. The actor and casting director aren't the only ones to blame, though, as the whole plot involving Joss is a major weak point of the script. Why would Ellie fall for a right-wing Christian theologian? Why would she still want to be with him after he admits to a serious breach of ethics that has a huge negative impact on her life? The script throws some details that try to convince us, but it's never that successful. If it seemed crucial to Contact to have Ellie make meaningful human connections as well as alien ones, then the writers should have spent more time creating a human connection we'd like and believe in. For me, it takes enough suspension of disbelief (and disappointment!) to watch Jodie Foster making out with a dude, even when the on-screen relationship is well-written and the dude is well cast. Here, it's just an eye-roll inducing distraction that gets in the way of better parts of the story.
As for Contact's Blu-Ray release, Warner Bros. really impressed me with the look and sound of this transfer. Such an aesthetically gorgeous film deserves to look this good, and fans will definitely notice the upgraded image quality here: it's bright and sharp, without noticeable artifacts. The colors -- especially in the twilight and "beach" scenes -- are rich and vibrant, with very nice levels of saturation. Though occasional scratches and flecks appear in the frame, a whole lot of them have been cleaned up since the original DVD release. Black levels hold up well, if not perfectly. My only gripe here is that for a movie about astronomy and the night sky, one should strive for perfection in black levels! The TrueHD audio track renders this dynamic soundtrack nicely, especially the lovely score from Alan Silvestri and the powerful pulse of the message from space.
While the feature's images and sound are handled excellently, the special features don't get the same treatment. There are lots, and they're interesting, but there's nothing new since the DVD release and there are actually a few text-based features from that release that have been subtracted. What's retained includes a whopping three commentary tracks: one with Foster, one with Zemeckis and producer Steve Starkey, and one with effects guys Ken Ralston and Stephen Rosenbaum. There are also four interesting featurettes on how key effects scenes were accomplished, narrated by Ralston and Rosenbaum. These featurettes are quite detailed, if a little primitive in their execution, and range from five to twenty minutes. It was especially illuminating to watch the explanation of how they did the opening through-the-galaxy shot. The challenges there came not only on the technical level but the conceptual level, too: how do you realistically visualize parts of the universe that no human being has ever seen? We also get three one-minute tours of computer-animated sets, including the Machine, Hadden's plane, and the Machine's control room. These animations look quite dated, serving more as a demonstration of how much better these computer programs have gotten since the mid-'90s.
Lastly, I was minorly appalled by the menu system, though it's a very small component of the overall release. The studio for some reason decided to cram every bit of menu information onto one screen instead of setting up different locations for audio options, scenes, special features, etc. as all sane menu designs do. So we get this single screen crammed with poorly organized blocks of text. I thought it was a holdover from a previous DVD release of Contact that they didn't bother to redo, but my standard DVD edition has more functional menus.
Summing up Contact in terms of her character, Jodie Foster says, "It's about a little girl who's entirely on her own, who's fallen in love with the universe through the eyes of her father." That's an eloquent description of the best part of the film, but a lot of the romantic and philosophical muck that surrounds this character is tough to wade through.
Jodie Foster and some pretty pictures exonerate Contact (Blu-Ray).
Review content copyright © 2009 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
* German (SDH)
* Italian (SDH)
Running Time: 149 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Music-Only Track
* Official Site