Is Contact the best science fiction film that no one talks about?
I had never seen Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 film about mankind’s first contact with extraterrestrial life, but after listening to Movies.com editor Peter Hall call it one of his favorite films of all time, I decided to rectify that. What I found was one of the most thoughtful and entertaining sci-fi movies ever made, a film that deserves to be in the same conversation as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
And then Peter and I sat down to talk about why a movie this good has been so overlooked.
Jacob: Let’s talk about Contact. The funny thing about this… I remember seeing the trailer when I was younger, but otherwise I knew nothing about Contact going in. I didn’t know what it was about, I didn’t know if there were actual aliens in it or if it was all speculative. So, as someone who loves the movie so much, why do you think people aren’t constantly talking about it? It’s a great movie, but you don’t always hear it being listed among the great sci-fi movies of all time, let alone the ’90s.
Peter: I don’t know. I distinctly remember when it came out; I was in middle school. I remember a friend spoiled it for me before I could see it. His interpretation was that [Jodie Foster] never actually went to space and met aliens and so forth, but that’s clearly what does happen. I do wonder, as far as popular opinion is concerned, if people just don’t get the movie and if they think it’s anticlimactic.
Jacob: I think a lot of people, in the wake of Independence Day, were hoping to see actual aliens or see alien destruction. It’s actually a really thoughtful movie about what it would mean to actually meet extraterrestrial life, not a thriller or an action movie.
Peter: It’s such a realistic depiction of what first contact could be like. It’s just humanity trying to reconcile the fact that they’re not alone and getting in their own way every step of the way. There is one person who gets to see what will happen further down the line, but she herself will never experience it beyond that moment. As optimistic and hopeful as I think the film is, I think it can also be depressing for people because it isn’t that sort of thrill ride. I feel like it just got overshadowed in the ’90s by those bigger movies that delivered on what you’d imagine an alien contact movie to be. As for why people haven’t rediscovered it or why it’s not constantly celebrated like it should be… I don’t know.
Jacob: This may seem like a weird comparison, but what the film most reminded me of was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the Enterprise crew goes back in time to the 19th century and encounter Mark Twain, who is extremely cynical about humankind. Long story short, he ends up on the Enterprise and sees what humanity becomes and realizes that things are bad right now, but in the future, it will get better. We have to keep moving forward because if we can overcome what we are now, we can achieve great things. That classic Gene Roddenberry optimism is all over Contact, just in a more realistic way than Star Trek.
Peter: That’s the primary reason I love it. It is so optimistic about humanity and our chances. The chances of survival for a species. It’s very comforting how it approaches the ideas of the universe and space in general. Even the bad guys in the film, the guys who get in the way, the fact that they’re eventually defeated by the people who want to believe and do want to have faith in mankind and how good people are inherently good… It’s weird that 15 years later, that still stands out as something that most movies don’t do.
Jacob: But even the bad guys are painfully human. Their reactions are totally understandable. Jodie Foster is our hero, but I get why James Woods would be nervous about alien contact. I understand Tom Skerritt would want to be the guy who makes first contact instead of her. This is a movie about how we can transcend human flaws, so it’s great that everyone is flawed. Even the bad guys have drive and motivation. They could have easily shoehorned in a completely one-dimensional villain or they could have given the aliens evil intentions, but they don’t. It’s entirely about how humanity’s greatest opposition is always going to be itself.
Peter: One of the lines of dialogue that I always remember in the film is when they first discover the designs for the alien machine. The reason Foster doesn’t think the aliens will be malevolent is because it would be like going out of your way to kill a microbe on an anthill in Africa. But then Drumlin asks how she would feel if she actually did that. Most alien movies make that point, but this is the one movie that’s like “Well, there would really be no point to do that.” Watching it again last night, I was struck by how highly singular the movie is and how it would never, ever get made today and I still don’t understand how it was made in the ’90s.
Jacob: This movie asks you to directly engage in the faith-vs.-science debate, which people are just trying to avoid at all costs these days. Today, it’s either one or the other. This movie suggests that faith and science work together in all aspects of your life.
Peter: Another thing that strikes me about it, and I don’t understand how people don’t talk about this aspect of it, is that, production-wise, it’s such a brilliantly put together film. It uses a lot of advanced CGI and compositing techniques that weren’t really a thing at the time. You think of Jurassic Park as being the bellwether moment for CGI, where you could create photo-realistic CGI, but I don’t think many people realize that Contact is that movie for CGI backgrounds and extensions and layering in images in post. It does such an immaculate job of it. I was struck by how good that side of it was in 1997 and how much better it is than stuff today. One of the things that brings me out of any movie whether it’s sci-fi or a random TV show is when you can so clearly see someone standing in front of a green screen. There are a few effects that haven’t aged well, but beyond that, the actual integration of digital work is astonishing. The run up the stairs when she’s trying to get the medicine! I know how it was done, and yet I still don’t understand how that was done!
Jacob: That was the shot I had to Google because I was so curious! Apparently, they had to put blue screen on the mirror and combine two different shots. That’s the shot where everything clicked for me. For the first half hour, I thought the movie was nicely shot, but then I started noticing how remarkable the technical craft really was. It feels like the kind of thing that, like you said, isn’t even being done as well today. But it never calls attention to itself! People talk about Jurassic Park because the effects are big and in your face, while in Contact the effects are being used to tell the story and create seamless shots. The experience is so immersive and subtle that you don’t even realize most of the effects are there.
Peter: They do a lot of interesting digital stuff that subtly plays off the present, future and past. You probably noticed at the end when Foster’s in the pod and she’s traveling through the wormhole and they CGI her face to blend with Jena Malone’s face, switching between her current and younger selves. But even at the beginning of the film, there’s that pull out, which is an all-time great opening shot. The camera pulls back from Earth and you hear the radio broadcasts go back in time the farther you get from the planet until it’s just silence. And then it pulls out from Malone’s eyeball! But her pupil was digitally replaced with Jodie Foster’s pupil. It doesn’t necessarily add anything, but it completes that continuity of character between the young actress and the grown actress. In the commentary track, it’s strange how simply Robert Zemeckis talks about these bold maneuvers he’s doing. He says “I proposed this and no one knew what I was talking about and no one thought we could do it, but I said screw it, let’s do it.” I’ve seen the movie 20 times or more, but there are still effects that I didn’t realize are effects. Movies don’t do that all that often anymore. I feel like the effects have become so much more apparent every time they’re on-screen, while in Contact they’re so naturalistic.
Jacob: The only modern filmmaker who seems to do that regularly seems to be David Fincher and people celebrate him regularly. Like with Zodiac, where he re-creates an entire city and time period using green screen and makes it look seamless. But Zemeckis beat him to the punch. Zemeckis has been beating people to punch with visual effects for 30 years! I don’t think people give the proper credit for being such an innovator. People seem to get stuck on Forrest Gump and his occasional sentimentality. I don’t think he’s ever made a movie where he wasn’t trying to push things forward in a really special way.
Peter: And that’s why I don’t understand why Contact doesn’t have a grander legacy. It probably does among filmmakers. Perhaps it’s because it’s not so obnoxious with it and not saying, “Look at what we’re doing!” It slips under the radar.
Jacob: With Cosmos being back on the air and Carl Sagan emerging as a hero to a generation who weren’t even alive when he was most active, I wonder if this movie will see a resurgence among, if not our generation, then our kids’ generation. Hopefully, they’ll be the ones who look at the stars and get excited again.
Peter: I think and deeply hope Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar might do that, and I think its arrival is purely coincidental with Cosmos. I don’t know what it’s about other than Matthew McConaughey goes through a wormhole, but I hope it’s the spiritual successor to Contact.
Jacob: Any final thoughts?
Peter: I’m glad it wasn’t spoiled for you. I remember there was a stretch where people actively disliked this movie. I encountered people who disliked it to the point where they would outright spoil it. They spoil it because they think the movie never explains what actually happened. Well, I think the movie presents it pretty one-sided. There’s not that much room for interpretation.
Jacob: Yeah, there’s a mystery for about five minutes and then they let you know it actually happened. There’s no mystery. I’m glad it’s that way. It could have been a mystery and it could have been ambiguous whether or not she actually traveled through a wormhole and met aliens who wanted to make contact but not progress much further than that. But for me, the movie is all the stronger for saying, yes, this is true. It’s right to be optimistic and it’s right to believe the dreamers who want to pursue something grander and greater.
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