"Do you think there are people on other planets?"
"I don't know. But if it's just us, it would be an awful waste of space."
- Dialogue from Contact
You can hear an echo there of the hopeful, curious voice of the late Carl Sagan, who spoke optimistically of "billions of billions of stars," and argued that if life can exist at all (and it can) then it should presumably be found all over the universe. Dr. Sagan's novel Contact provides the inspiration for Robert Zemeckis' new film, which tells the smartest and most absorbing story about extraterrestrial intelligence since Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
It also makes an argument that sounds like pure common sense. Because the universe is so large, it would hardly be practical for alien beings to go zipping around in space ships, tracking down hints of intelligent life. Why wouldn't they simply set up an automated program to scan the skies for signals - and then auto-respond with instructions on how another race (ourselves, for example) could contact THEM?
This idea - so simple, so seductive - inspires the intriguing payoff of Contact, which stars Jodie Foster as Dr. Ellie Arroway, a radio astronomer who has dedicated her life to the cosmological field of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). She uses a giant radio telescope in Puerto Rico to scan the skies for signals that might originate from intelligent beings.
The movie is about Ellie's search, but it is also about her mind and personality. It's surprising to find a science fiction film exploring issues like love, death and the existence of God; science fiction movies generally tend toward titles like Independence Day, which are about actors being attacked by gooey special effects.
Ellie's scientific quest is a lonely one. Her superior, Dr. David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), tells her the SETI field is tantamount to professional suicide, but her obsession runs deep: With her father (David Morse), she shared the excitement of picking up distant stations on a ham radio outfit. He died while she was still young, and she became convinced that somehow, someday, she could contact him. This conviction is complicated by the fact that she does not believe in God or the supernatural; perhaps her SETI is a displaced version of that need.
In Puerto Rico she meets Palmer (Matthew McConaughey), a young man who does believe in God. They have a brief but tender and important love affair, and then, when the dubious Drumlin pulls the plug on her research, she leaves for New Mexico, and another research site.
Ellie's research project has been all but ended when there's a sudden breakthrough: Unmistakably intelligent signals from space! The signals, which include a startling bounce-back of a TV image from Earth, provide a schematic diagram for a machine that, apparently, would allow a representative of the human race to travel to the home of the race that sent the signal.
Movies like Contact help explain why movies like Independence Day leave me feeling empty and unsatisfied. The universe is so large and old and beautiful, and our life as an intelligent species is so brief, that all our knowledge is like a tiny hint surrounded by a void. Has another race been around longer and learned more? Where are they? We have been listening for only a few decades. Space and time are so vast. A signal's chances of reaching us at the right time and place are so remote they make a message in a bottle look reliable. But if one came ...
Cast: Jodie Foster plays Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway; Matthew McConaughey is Palmer Joss; James Woods is Michael Kitz; John Hurt is S.R. Hadden; Tom Skerritt is David Drumlin; William Fichtner is Kent Clark; David Morse is Ted Arroway; Angela Bassett is Rachel Constantine; and Rob Lowe is Richard Rank
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Running time: 150 minutes
MPAA rating: PG (for some intense action, mild language and a scene of sensuality)