Our review of Contact (Blu-Ray), published October 22nd, 2009, is also available.
"You know, there are four hundred billion stars out there, just in our galaxy alone. If only one out of a million of those had planets, and just of out of a million of those had life, and just one out of a million of those had intelligent life; there would be literally millions of civilizations out there."
"Well, if there wasn't, it'd be an awful waste of space."
Cinema has evolved in many ways. It has turned from a quiet little novelty into a near trillion dollar business. It has supplanted theater and books as the most popular form of popular entertainment. Hundreds of films come out every year, the numbers almost always rising as more and more studios and countries and people enter the field of moving pictures and sound as a method of storytelling.
But every so often, rarely, almost by accident sometimes, comes along a piece of cinema that does more than just earn money, does more than just provide an idle diversion for a few hours. Perhaps once or, if we're lucky, twice a year, a film comes out that speaks to deep issues in clear and understandable ways. That touches something in the audience, raises questions that should be considered, and does a little bit to stimulate discourse in society.
Contact is one such film. The legacy of the late, the brilliant, Carl Sagan, it manages to be clear and direct without being superior or difficult. It covers broad scientific, intellectual and philosophical ground without going over the heads of the audience, and also delivers an entertaining story. It even managed to make money for it's studio.
Contact is a story that speaks to the kind of simple-yet-complex subject matter Philosophy students write theses on, then argue endlessly for the lengths of their careers. It asks questions society still has not begun to debate, and will probably allow to lie fallow until Something occurs that thrusts us all directly into the very problems we're not considering.
The story is very straightforward. We meet Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster, Silence of the Lambs, Nell, Anna and the King) as a young girl with dreams of all things Space and Astronomy and Why. She becomes Dr. Ellie Arroway and dedicates her career to SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). Despite resistance from the scientific and political communities, she is finally vindicated when a Message is received from a nearby star that is an undeniable sign of a sophisticated intelligence. The Message eventually is deciphered into instructions for building a Machine, which is done. Upon traveling through the Machine, Dr. Arroway is left to be the messenger to the rest of Humanity that we should Explore and Grow.
Jodie Foster is an amazing actress, and truly breathes life into Dr. Arroway. We feel her drive, her devotion, her desperate desire to Learn, to Know. Played improperly, Dr. Arroway could have devolved into a 'mad scientist', or 'crazy eyed fanatic'; but Foster avoids this and makes the character vibrant, likeable and central. She is surrounded by equally magnificent performances by a host of talented actors. Matthew McConaughey (Dazed and Confused, A Time to Kill, Edtv) takes the role of Palmer Joss, who acts as the spiritual center of the film, providing a voice to the religious and spiritual messages wrapped up in the possibility of humanity facing first contact with an alien intelligence; and he does a remarkable job of playing the role with quiet passion, calm intensity. Some of the best work he's ever done onscreen.
James Woods (Vampires, The General's Daughter, Any Given Sunday) takes a turn as the National Security Advisor, providing a bit of paranoia amid the wide eyed optimism of the 'eggheads', as he calls them on occasion. Tom Skerritt (A River Runs Through It, Steel Magnolias, Top Gun) plays the film's villain, David Drumlin, the politically connected scientist who first opposes and blocks Dr. Arroway's efforts at every turn, then takes credit for the Message discovery and shoulders everyone else aside to become the key player in the Machine's results. Angela Bassett (Strange Days, Waiting to Exhale, What's Love Got to Do With It?) has a quiet role as the President's advisor, but she's a fan favorite actress who is immensely talented. Here she plays the voice of moderation, of patience, and guides the story along whenever it needs a bit of help for the audience. Smaller appearances are made by Jake Busey (PCU, Starship Troopers, Enemy of the State), probably the first time most of the audience saw him onscreen, Rob Lowe (The West Wing, Wayne's World, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) and Jenna Malone (Stepmom, For Love of the Game, Bastard Out of Carolina).
Carl Sagan spent his entire life working with, and studying, all things Space. Dr. Arroway is, in a way, a representation of Sagan's lifework. He died before the film was completed and released, in 1996, but if you compare the film to his novel, upon which it is closely based, you find few differences. What audiences received on the screen retained the story and message of his written text, and expanded upon the impact by giving us the awe of listening to the Message come across the radio frequencies unexpectedly for the first time. To see the great Machine built on a site at NASA's facilities in Florida. And to travel with Ellie as she is plunged through the Machine on a journey into, literally, the Unknown. The very last image in the movie says, simply, "For Carl." If Dr. Sagan is out there somewhere, watching us, I imagine he's pleased.
It is extremely fortunate for fans then, that Warner Bros. gave the disc transfer of this landmark and impactful film the full attention it so richly deserves. This disc was release relatively early in the life of the DVD format, but is a wonderful example of what can be done by a studio if it cares enough to produce a quality disc.
The video is a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that holds up extremely well despite its age within the format. While this is not a reference quality video transfer, it is a very good one regardless. Colors are solid, but a tad subdued; this is a visually quiet film. Edges are generally strong and defined, but in places degrade slightly. There are, however, no instances of artifacting or grain, the print is very clean.
The soundstage is nicely done. As mostly a drama, dialogue is front and center, but never do you strain to understand it. When scenes become more active (during the opening pullout, when the first Machine is destroyed, when Ellie travels through the second Machine), the soundstage expands around you seamlessly, making good use of the surround effects and low frequency. And again, the dialogue is never lost in the noise.
The best features on the entire disc are the audio commentaries, however. There are not one, or two, but three separate commentaries to enjoy. The first is with Jodie Foster, who talks specifically about her experiences with the character, with the other actors, and with the making of the film. The second is with director Robert Zemeckis (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) and producer Steve Starkley, and follows the typical pattern for a commentary track recorded by a director and producer, discussing shots and story issues, things that were changed or that worked from the start, and other pieces of trivia about the production. The final commentary is with special effects supervisors Ken Ralston and Stephen Rosenbaum, who talk at length about the extensive, and often undetectable, use of FX in Contact.
In addition to the commentaries, there are bios on the cast (Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Angela Bassett), which is a pretty standard "extra" thrown in these days; but the disc also has entries for Alan Silvestri (composer), Carl Sagan, James V Hart and Michael Goldenberg (screenwriters), and the director, Robert Zemeckis. There are text screens on four key pieces of the film; "From Novel to Screen," "Creating a Fantastic Event," "The Message" and "Constructing the Pod," which discuss each item in turn.
And finally, there are seven featurettes included on the disc, each detailing pieces of the film. Four cover various "making of" shots; "The Making of the Opening Shot," "The Making of the NASA Machine Destruction," "The Making of the Harrier Landing," "High Speed Compositing Reel." The other three discuss how specific shots were created, including storyboarding and preproduction discussions; "The Machine Fly-by," "Hadden's Plane," and "NASA Control Room."
Everything is accessible from the extremely well done menus. They load fast, are easy to navigate, clearly convey the features available, and generally do everything a well designed menu should. Since so many discs have less than adequate menus, Contact's certainly stand out.
All told, fans of Contact have enough material on the disc to keep them occupied for the better part of a day, and all of it is value added; meaning none of it can be considered filler or fluff. Each item expands on your knowledge and understanding of the film and its creation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As said above, the video transfer, while anamorphic, doesn't quite hold up in little places here and there. Many viewers probably won't notice the small percentage of edge crispness that is lost in places, after years and years of fuzzy television and VHS tapes. But the video must lose some points for it, unfortunately.
The menus are also not animated, but since they work so well, this is a minor, at best, quibble.
I can hardly gush enough about Contact and the remarkable place it now occupies in cinematic history. Those who haven't seen the film probably think I'm gushing more than enough. Regardless, the film is highly recommended. The disc is top notch, near reference quality. A definite quality addition to any DVD library.
Verdict? Judgment? No way, all involved are to be commended at the highest levels, in the strongest possible terms. Get out of here!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Jodie Foster
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