The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and the initial meeting between humans and extraterrestrial life have been common themes explored in science fiction. Many science fiction motion pictures of the 1990s focused predominantly on these sorts of themes; 1996 alone saw the release of Independence Day, Star Trek: First Contact, and Mars Attacks!. It is clear that there was some sort of urge in the 90s for these kinds of stories to be told, but one particular film that seems to have stood out the most to me after all these years is Robert Zemeckis’s Contact (1997).
Conceived by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan in the late 1970s, Contact is one of those films that probably promised too much when it was first released. After all, Zemeckis and lead actress Jodie Foster won Best Director and Best Actress, respectively, just a handful of years prior. The film, however, did not seem to deliver on the same critical and financial scales of Forrest Gump and The Silence of the Lambs. I think this is a direct result of the genre’s oversaturation at that time because the film itself is actually something quite special.
Contact follows Dr. Ellie Arroway (Foster), a scientist passionately devoted to SETI. After her research team comes across a mysterious signal, Arroway is thrust into a tug of war battle between the affiliated complexities of practicing science, politics, and faith. The cultural impact of discovering extraterrestrial life unleashes a wild range of reactions from around the world. Now with the possibility of her dreams being reached, Arroway is pushed into the background, as science becomes the least dominant of the three complexities.
That description is basically the middle portion of the two and a half hour film. The first half could have definitely be trimmed down quite a bit, but the fact that I stayed fully captivated is a testament to its understanding of science and Foster’s engaging performance. I can’t picture anyone else in the lead role; Foster makes it her own.
It’s funny how my major qualm lies with the film’s run time because time itself is an important aspect of the story. I might enter spoiler territory with this next section, so read on with caution. To me, the film’s length further emphasizes Arroway’s own experience of time during the film’s climax. While she experiences an absence from Earth for approximately 18 hours, her absence is not apparent to those on Earth. If only this sort of time dilation occurred while watching the film. After all, when it comes down to it, a lengthy run time is what makes me shy away from repeated viewings.
I greatly admire the story that is told and attribute this to Sagan’s source material and it acts as a worthy entry to Zemeckis’s palette of visual effects-driven films (a prelude to his motion capture frenzy). But what makes Contact different than most other sci-fi blockbusters is that it touches upon those sociological conundrums that arise when humans are faced with larger than life forks in the road. I was particularly surprised with how the film never really shies away from the topic of religion. The relationship between science and religion is so fascinating and undetermined that it proves to be an excellent internal struggle for Arroway.
Contact is a film that presents a comprehensive look at how Earth would react to first contact. Through the perspectives portrayed are questions of how extraterrestrial intelligence would affect the progression of mankind’s development. How would modern conflicts such as armed warfare or widespread disease epidemics be tinged if “aliens” suddenly began to interact with us? Would our interplanetary discoveries put a dent in the conflicts here at home? Questions like these fuel the conversations that have agitated scientists and theologians alike. But perhaps, above all, such questions provide us with a sort of security from our own entanglements with loneliness.