Classics never die, but they seldom get replaced. Cinema is populated with enduring, venerated works of art that deservedly adorn list after list, but those lists are rarely updated, and less often expanded to include new, equally worthy entries. Organizations that give out annual awards are constrained not only by the limitations of formatting, but perspective - they can’t anticipate which film will survive the buzz of its initial acclaim or success and become part of the cultural firmament. And then there are just certain films or even genres that too infrequently receive the critical attention they deserve, are too obscure to break through to bigger audiences, or just aren’t taken seriously enough to merit consideration alongside the ones we “all” already know we love or respect. A Case For Greatness, this series, tries to argue for, and to champion, forgotten or underappreciated films in a variety of genres that may be worthy of being called “classics.”
Science fiction is a genre filled with classics, but outside of 2001: A Space Odyssey and a very small handful of others, few of them operate with a true sense of realism - or try to tell a story that attempts to capture events the way they might actually unfold. “Hard science” fiction films like Gravity and Arrival, have met with enormous critical and commercial success with audiences because they explore ideas relatable to our lives in an identifiable geographic and cultural context. All of which brings us to Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, an adaptation of the 1985 Carl Sagan novel of the same name, about a SETI scientist investigating - and possibly finding - evidence of extraterrestrial life as the world watches and reacts to this profound and terrifying discovery. A modest hit upon its release in 1997, the film endures as a smart, suspenseful, deeply engaging experience, and it’s worthy of joining the others above - at least in conversation - with the genre’s superlative cinematic efforts.
Robert Zemeckis is a director who has long embraced technology in order to enhance storytelling, and Contact reconciles his technical and sentimental sides perhaps better than any of his other works, even as the film forms a dialectic about the divide between belief and science. Jodie Foster stars as Ellie Arroway, a scientist working for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Life) who helps uncover mankind’s first contact with a possible alien species. It’s on this journey that she encounters David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), a presidential science advisor willing to minimize, and later take credit for, work she does that he initially believes is career-endingly impractical; and later, Palmer Joss, a spiritual philosopher who engages her about belief - and perhaps more importantly, faith. Ellie takes a journey that challenges her years of education and instincts as a believer in only what she can empirically prove.
Even without the layers of philosophical meaning, or the razzle-dazzle of the special effects, Contact offers a beautiful example of a character’s psychology externalized in storytelling. Ellie loses her mother and father at an early age, and spends the rest of her life both desperately pursuing and fleeing from the emotional connections she never quite had. That “loneliness” drives her interest in seeking new civilizations, in finding other beings in a limitless universe that, as her father puts it, “if it is just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” But the formative experience of her father’s death hardens her by prompting her to tell the truth, persistently and in an unvarnished way that repeatedly alienates her from colleagues, and more importantly, from opportunities that not only she wanted but actively worked toward and deserved. (Calling his death “God’s will” seems like a hurtful thing to say to a child who must now grow up without parents, a lie to soften an inescapable truth.) At the same time, her inclination toward confrontation protects her from a sense of deeper intimacy with those same colleagues, and later, the romantic entanglements that occur with Palmer after the two of them first connect.
What additionally stands out is how relevant the film is as a portrait of a woman in a field, or community, dominated by men. Once the discovery is made and relayed, Drumlin, NSA head Michael Kitz (James Woods) and others swoop in to control the effort to uncover and decode the message they’ve received; Ellie’s plainspoken honesty is no match for Drumlin’s unctuous charms, much less his complete (though importantly, self-aware) willingness to speak over, and step over, her and anyone else to make sure his name is featured prominently in history’s account of the events in the film. In one particularly heartbreaking moment, Ellie finds herself virtually eliminated from the process when Palmer uses his personal knowledge of her to pinpoint a possible weakness in her candidacy as leader of the expedition, and then must watch as Drumlin prevails by answering the same questions in a disingenuous way.
But what’s interesting about the film is that it offers an emotional experience that isn’t wildly sentimental - a beautiful display of restraint for Zemeckis after indulging himself (or maybe just the material) in Forrest Gump. Ellie is alone, hoping to find not just life, but companionship, in the universe; but recurrent visual motifs underscore how much bigger the world is outside of her home, and the laboratories in which she works, and how unconcerned and indifferent the world is to her tiny little worries. Notwithstanding the film’s breathtaking opening, which pulls back from a view of Earth from space to reveal the totality of the universe, Zemeckis’ camerawork here is much less showy and more functional than it seems: he frequently moves in and out of Ellie’s environment, not just to showcase his ability to seemingly push through a pane of glass or slip through a space too small for a camera to fit, but to highlight the fact that there’s a larger world literally outside her door, dwarfing her and her concerns.
At the same time - and it must be prefaced with the acknowledgment that Contact features an enormous, thrilling, effects-laden set piece as one of its final sequences - Zemeckis skillfully foregoes spectacle to tell a story where small sounds, and even complete quiet, frequently dominate the soundtrack, and more than that, it mostly avoids overdramatizing either human or “sci-fi” moments. Sagan likely deserves much of the credit for the restraint used in depicting, for example, the signal itself - a repeated pulse of distortion whose rhythms tap out a series of prime numbers. But seldom has a movie meant to attract audiences in the middle of the summer from a major studio made so much concerted effort for the audience to lean in - to try and pick up what Ellie is listening to, and more importantly, what she’s hearing. That technique creates a kind of intimacy with the audience that makes them feel even more like they’re on the same path as Ellie and identifying emotionally with what she’s searching for, and how she feels every time a new roadblock presents itself.
More broadly, the movie very skillfully addresses how an event like this would unfold in the media - or at least in the media of 1997. Zemeckis and Warner Bros. enlisted a number of pundits from CNN to bolster the “news coverage” of the story within the film, and its effect is palpable; we really get a feeling for the importance of these characters and their roles in this larger cultural conversation, and we also hear the tenor of the reporting and speculation that would naturally occur as a byproduct both of such an historical moment and the need for analysis and discussion in a news cycle that had already gone 24-7.
Moreover, Zemeckis used real broadcasts and speeches by then-President Clinton that add further legitimacy to each new development, prompting his administration to issue a broadside to Hollywood for its use of the footage. (Although it seemed to open the floodgates for other movies to enlist real-life anchors and reporters for their movies - most recently, when Christopher McQuarrie used Wolf Blitzer in a pivotal scene in Mission: Impossible - Fallout, CNN actually implemented an ethics policy regarding fictional reporting as a result.) That technique serves a dual purpose, as Zemeckis and screenwriters James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg dramatize the way in which the world at large imprints its own meaning upon these events, be it an excitement and sense of eager collaboration from the scientific community, a concern and determination to control progress via militarization, or a broad scope of fear from the world’s populations, reeling at the promise, or threat, of beings that challenge the premise there’s one God, or that God exists at all.
As hinted at above, the climax of the film is not just a technical marvel but a master class in suspense, the culmination of Ellie’s journey to meet what she hopes are an extraterrestrial species - which, ironically, she must complete by herself. But what makes that experience so magical from a storytelling perspective is the way that it challenges, and changes, her character at her core. For people (like myself) who are not especially spiritual, there’s something inspiring and beautiful about her pursuit of an “objective” truth throughout the film, and the integrity and passion with which she commits to the principles of empiricism.
What ultimately makes Contact such a uniquely emotional experience - again, for what was meant to be a studio blockbuster - is that at its core, it’s a story about recognizing that we don’t have all the answers, that there is no singular, indisputable truth, and that sometimes simply acknowledging that is enough. That belief, and faith, must be enough. Ellie is humbled, transformed, by something that for the first time in her life, she cannot explain, and we take that journey with her. And that in the end, the most important epiphany Ellie makes is neither anti-science or anti-faith, but pro-humanity - an important and powerful reminder of the inevitable, but reassuring, end result of all of our searches for success, happiness or meaning: The only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.