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teaser Contact (1997)

Robert Zemeckis was riding high with Oscar® wins for Best Picture and Best Director for Forrest Gump (1994) when he chose Contact as his follow-up picture in 1997. Based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning astronomer and author Carl Sagan, it was a rare Hollywood attempt to create serious science fiction cinema. Call it speculative fiction, with a foundation of science fact, thoughtful conjecture, and idealism in a somewhat cynical world of modern politics. "Carl's and my dream was to write something that would be a fictional representation of what contact would be like," explains Ann Druyan, Sagan's wife and collaborator. "But it would also have the tension inherent between religion and science, which was an area of philosophical and intellectual interest that riveted both of us."

The novel had in fact begun life as a screen project developed by production executive Lynda Obst with Sagan and Druyan. When the project languished, Sagan transformed it into a best-selling book, which instantly renewed studio interest, if only to put it through another ten years of rewrites. As it neared a start date for shooting under the direction of George Miller (The Road Warrior, 1981), the producers, dissatisfied with the ending, pulled the plug and fired Miller. Zemeckis, who had earlier expressed interest in the script "until the last page and a half," was offered the film with the understanding that he could bring his own ideas to the project, including the ending.

Carl Sagan, best known to the general public as the host and co-writer of the PBS science series Cosmos, was one of the most effective spokesmen for the advancement of science and space exploration in the world. He had been intimately and passionately involved in the search for intelligent life in the universe and in the SETI project. The novel Contact was, in many ways, an illustration of his beliefs and a fictional format in which to debate his humanist take on science and religion. He was intimately involved in the screen adaptation of the novel and production of the film, determined to keep science and discovery a central part of the film, even though he had been diagnosed with cancer and was dying when Zemeckis came on board.

Robert Zemeckis was more focused on the earth-bound drama of the film's heroine, Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster), a young, passionate scientist devoted to searching for signs of intelligent life in the universe. She battles the derision of powerful members of the scientific community (notably the President's Science Advisor, played by Tom Skerritt), as well as the assaults of religion, military mindset, and problems of women scientists in a world dominated by men (numerous women scientists were invited to share their experiences and their thoughts on the portrayal of Arroway in the script before production began). Zemeckis and Sagan argued passionately over the script, and together they condensed the original novel, which sprawled many years and featured hundreds of characters, into a story centered around Arroway and the odyssey that begins when she receives a radio signal from the Vega system, over 50 light years away. It starts out simple, a series of pulses representing prime numbers ("the language of science"), and soon reveals a far more complex series of messages in companion signals. As the discovery spreads across the globe, the American government steps in and she fights yet another battle to continue her work and to maintain the integrity of the project.

Jodie Foster had been interested in the project from an early date. "The idea of someone searching for some kind of purity, searching for something she can't find, was something that was very close to myself. I process everything through my head first. I cope through my head." She had originally dropped out due to problems with the script, but Zemeckis coaxed her back with his take on the story and his revised script.

With all the science and technology, Zemeckis and the writers made room for spiritual debates (some of them painfully slight), political commentary, and a strangely tepid and inert romance between the thoroughly rational and scientifically-minded Arroway and new-age missionary turned spiritual guru to the President, Palmer Joss (played by Matthew McConaughey as a quasi-religious stud), "A man of the cloth, without the cloth," in his own words. While they seem to be at odds, Joss brings a rational voice to the coexistence of the spiritual and the scientific: "We're both looking for the same thing." What's less convincing, however, is a Presidential spiritual advisor who wields the power to influence policy. Arroway's guardian angel, who funds her orphan project and helps her through the political gamesmanship, is a reclusive, Howard Hughes-like billionaire industrialist played by John Hurt as a benign puppet-master. The blind astrophysicist Kent Clark (William Fichtner), Arroway's colleague and collaborator, may be named after a fictional hero (it's a play on Clark Kent, Superman's alter ego), but he's based on a real life blind SETI scientist named Kent Cullers. James Woods and Angela Bassett co-star as administration officials who take charge of the project when the discovery goes public.

The $90 million production was shot on location in New Mexico (at the site of the VLA, or Very Large Array, a field of 27 linked dish-shaped radio telescopes), Arizona, Washington D.C., Florida's Cape Canaveral, and at the world's largest radio telescope in Puerto Rico, in addition to the soundstage shooting in Los Angeles. Special effects were created by a combination of model and miniature shots and digital computer effects, which was in its infancy compared to the work being done today. Just as he had in Forrest Gump, Zemeckis manipulated real-life news footage and political speeches to fit within his dramatic world, and cast more than 25 real-life reporters and TV personalities to play themselves to give the media coverage of the "event" a sense of verisimilitude.

The climactic scene of contact pays tribute to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with the added visual spectacle of 1997 digital technology. It's alien communication as a spiritual vision, which stands in sharp contrast to the nuts-and-bolts realism of the tools and machines of the earthbound side of the drama. "The machine in Sagan's novel was somewhat vague, which is fine for a book," said Robert Zemeckis. "In a movie, if you're going to build a giant physical structure of alien design, you have to make it look believable." The gigantic structure of interlaced rings which spin to create an energy field has the unmistakable look of an atom recreated in steel on a macro scale.

Carl Sagan died in 1996, before Contact was completed, but his legacy lives on in the film, not only in the science and in the idealism of Arroway, but in Arroway's dialogue. When asked if there is life out there in the universe, she answers: "If there isn't, it's a pretty big waste of space." The quote originally came from Sagan himself.

Producers: Steve Starkey and Robert Zemeckis
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg, Ann Druyan (story), Carl Sagan (story and novel)
Cinematography: Don Burgess
Art Direction: Bruce Crone and Lawrence A. Hubbs
Music: Alan Silvestri
Film Editing: Arthur Schmidt
Cast: Jodie Foster (Eleanor Arroway), William Fichtner (Kent), Matthew McConaughey (Palmer Joss), David Morse (Ted Arroway), Jena Malone (Young Ellie), Tom Skerritt (David Drumlin).
C-153m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.

by Sean Axmaker

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