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Another movie about aliens? Well, it takes all kinds to make a universe, I suppose. Coming so soon on the heels of "Men in Black," new-flick-on-the-block "Contact" does a 180-degree turn from the sassy, no-big-deal attitude of its predecessor. Here, communication with extraterrestrials is a very big deal, though there's nary a conventional alien (if there is such a thing) to be seen. The result is a thoughtful, honorably conceived film, with all the best intentions in the world, that, alas, is frequently dull and lacking in imagination, and drags to a downright anticlimactic climax.
Jodie Foster is ideally cast as Ellie Arroway, a brilliant astronomer who has devoted her life to attempting to communicate with the extraterrestrial life she feels sure must exist somewhere among the billions of stars. Battling continual funding problems and other setbacks, her search is finally vindicated when a radio transmission arrives from the distant star Vega. It is decoded to reveal instructions for building a machine believed to be capable of transporting its occupant through deep space.
Despite the belligerent objections of James Woods' National Security Advisor, the political phenagling of Ellie's nemesis, the President's opportunistic national science advisor David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), and the gentler opposition of religious scholar Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), spiritual mainstay of the White House and Ellie's romantic interest, she is selected as the transportee. After "wormholing" breathlessly through hyperspace, what she finds at the end of her journey is no little green men but a quasi-meta-physical Carl Saganish lesson (small wonder, since the movie was co-produced by the late Sagan and his widow, and is based on his novel).
"Contact" has its moments, but they are few and far between, separated by long stretches of a painfully slow-moving plot. The opening sequence--a zoom-out from Earth, past planets, stars, galaxies, accompanied by radio sounds transmitted by Earthlings (including bits of human history), and reaching a surprising final destination--is intriguing, and much more satisfying than anything that follows. The movie lumbers along for about an hour until the signal arrives. Then it kicks into high speed, only to lapse once again into plodding. There are a few unexpected and welcome turns--most notably the chilling sight of the first visual image transmitted from Vega; and whenever elusive, eccentric billionaire S.R. Hadden (John Hurt), Ellie's secret ally, pops up.
But the movie's ultimate revelation is disappointing and frankly pretty cheesy, circling (without landing on) a vaguely "spiritual" resolution of Ellie's quest. On an intellectual level, it's no resolution at all but rather a sop of vacuous humanism that teaches Ellie nothing except the value of patience--and perhaps a little humility.
Though Foster's acting is impressive, with a kind of steely radiance, her character remains essentially enigmatic. There's some suggestion of a basic psychological need, a loneliness on Ellie's part that symbolizes--or is symbolized by--her all-consuming desire to prove that "we are not alone." But if this is so, one wonders why she seems so uninterested in pursuing any kind of human relationship.
Of course, the soulmate the script gives her is an odd choice: apparently intended to serve as the agnostic Ellie's spiritual check and, perhaps, her alter ego; McConaughey manages to be a likable and reassuring figure. But even his best efforts can't hide the fact that his character is both sketchily drawn and almost laughably improbable (imagine him a fixture in Bill Clinton's White House).
In any case, McConaughey and the rest of the supporting cast are all subordinated to Foster's principal--an understandable decision, but not necessarily the best one. The shortest shrift is given to Angela Bassett as a crisply level-headed Presidential aide who appears just often enough to make you wish she'd been given a meatier role. Woods as the necessary pain-in-the-ass gets a few laughs, but not enough to prevent a certain deadening feel from setting in.
In short, "Contact" is the kind of film that leaves one longing for a little less earnestness and a little more fun. Or, at the very least, that its earnestness would culminate in a message of somewhat greater clarity and depth than it does.
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