Heavens Can Wait

A lot of ink has been shed in the press lately about the "seriousness" of the new Robert Zemeckis film Contact, starring Jodie Foster as an astronomer who receives humankind's first extraterrestrial message. Forrest Gump made Zemeckis a guru; now he's being primed as a philosopher king. Is it rude to suggest that the high-mindedness of Contact--the deepthink about science and religion and the soullessness of modern society--isn't on a much more elevated plane than most science-fantasy books and movies?

Just about every piece of sci-fi has its mite of "meaning." In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a sci-fi movie--even Attack of the Crab Monsters--that doesn't work the Is God Out There? angle. Contact is being applauded because it presumes to rise above its origins, when, in fact, its origins are all-of-a-piece with its pretensions.

And Contact sure is pretentious. It doesn't deliver on the deepthink, and it lacks the charge of good, honest pulp. It's schlock without the schlock.

The 1985 Carl Sagan novel upon which the film is loosely based started out as a movie treatment. But unlike most such treatments turned best sellers--Erich Segal's Love Story is the classic example--you can't really spot an impending movie in the book. It's too chunky with data, and it barely registers a romance.

With his principled skepticism and his genius for popularizing science, Sagan certainly was a force for good in the world, but--bless his heart--he wasn't much of a pulpster or sentimentalist. In creating his heroine, Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway, he attempted to sanction his own highflying fantasies within the comfy camouflage of fiction. But Sagan didn't have the novelist's skills or breadth of insight to bring Ellie and the book's many other characters to rousing, full-blooded life. What excited him was the science--the arguments about its purpose--and his characters were mouthpieces in the maelstrom.

Clunky as it is, what still comes through in the book is the spiritedness of the scientist's quest--though in writing Contact, Sagan may not have recognized that his imaginative reach was far greater in his nonfiction books and television specials. Still, in whatever form it took, we can still respond to Sagan's ecstatic commingling with the universe.

That's the kind of ardor you might expect to find in the movie version of Contact, which until his death drew on the participation of Sagan and his wife and collaborator, Ann Druyan. But the Contact filmmakers--Zemeckis and his screenwriters James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg--are gassy with uplift. They provide the sob-sister sentimentalities and sermonettes that Sagan was too smart, or too clueless, to include. The filmmakers don't build on the intelligence in the book; they tenderize it. Contact is a movie about intelligence that doesn't credit the audience with having much of it.

The film opens with a creaky prologue in which little Ellie, whose mother died in childbirth, loses her indulgent, beloved father. We're primed to recognize that this orphaned girl-scientist, whose father taught her to use a CB radio, is reaching out to the stars as a way to reach out to her parents. It's the kind of soggy psychologizing that condescends to us--as if, without this bit of "heart," we couldn't appreciate Ellie's intellectual quest. Her resilient skepticism--her unbelief in God--clearly exists to be overturned in the same way that, say, pacifists in war movies end up fighting for the cause. What we are meant to think is: Ellie doesn't want to believe in God, because she can't comprehend why He would take away her parents. We know she'll come around, at least partway. Contact is bound to get kudos for being "daring" enough to feature an up-front unbeliever as its hero, but the dare is never really taken up.

Ellie's counterpart, in one of the weirdest roles in recent movies, is the religious scholar and White House spiritual adviser Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), whom she first meets while listening for extraterrestrial messages in Puerto Rico. He shows up looking shaggy and hip--less Billy Graham than Bruce Springsteen--and you think maybe he's a carny con artist. But, no, he's an angel of mercy. He does manage to score on the first date, but that's okay, because, you see, he's in love with Ellie and she with him, except that she can't bear the closeness and sprints from his bed and his life before things get too sweaty. (If the filmmakers had any sense of fun, they would have had Ellie the Unbeliever cry out, "Oh, God!" in the throes of passion.)

Years later Palmer reappears, groomed and telegenic, hawking on the talk shows his book Losing Faith: A Search for Meaning in Modern Life--and danged if we still aren't supposed to take this guy seriously. By this time, Ellie is en route to her biggest coup: She will turn the world on its head by verifying that the rhythmic sonic squawks picked up by vast radio telescopes in New Mexico are in fact extraterrestrial messages. (They sound rather like a synthesized Rite of Spring.)

What would any of us really do if we were contacted by extraterrestrials? It's a large question. Contact brings it back down to Earth with a thud by undercutting the awe with blather from government-agency types such as National Security Adviser Michael Kitz (James Woods) and especially from Palmer, who still looks like he's on the make for Ellie. Their God-exists-does-not-does-too byplay begins to resemble a weird mating dance between a hunky fundamentalist and a tight-ass libertarian. McConaughey, understandably, doesn't have a clue how to play Palmer, but he sure plays him atrociously.

Just about everybody in the cast comes across badly. As Ellie's mentor David Drumlin, Tom Skerritt is saddled with playing a standard villain part; all he's missing is a silky mustache to twirl. Drumlin takes credit for Ellie's coups and even vies with her to be the first person sent into space to meet the aliens. (Those sonic squawks are encrypted blueprints for building a spaceship to their source, a planet near the star Vega.) As a White House adviser, Angela Bassett looks poleaxed as the concept of prime numbers is explained to her; she carries herself with the rigidity of a grade-B player in a grade-Z sci-fi thriller. James Woods, especially when he's grilling Ellie in a Capitol Hill hearing, seems to be modeling himself on Senator Joseph McCarthy. He doesn't have his heart in the theatrics, though--he's frivolously feral. John Hurt turns up as a reclusive, baldpated weirdo billionaire who funds Ellie's liftoff toward Vega. He's like a cross between Dr. No and Howard Hughes. (He's also one of the few sympathetic characters in the movie--leave it to Hollywood to deify a venture capitalist every time.)

And then there's Jodie Foster. You can see why she was cast as Ellie: Very few actresses can project intelligence as pointedly as she can. Foster is trying to get inside Ellie's rage for discovery without softening her for us. The problem is, Ellie could use a little softening. With her lips clamped and her jaw set, she is like a walking migraine. If her face were pulled any tighter, she'd be a skull. Foster's abrasive, unyielding performance confronts the current notion that women can score with audiences only if they play nice. Julia Roberts' career may have spooked a lot of actresses--smile and the world is yours, scowl and you lose it all. Foster has never played that game. She goes her own way, the way Bette Davis did, and, as in The Accused or The Silence of the Lambs, she can be powerful when she's playing a character fighting through her anguish with her smarts.

But Ellie--anguished, smart--also needs to be a romantic, and Foster fights that with every inch of her being. That's partly because she doesn't want to stoop to easy pleasures, but I think it's also because, as an actress, Foster lacks the expansiveness of soul that would make this woman come alive for us. She's much better at holding in than letting go.

The movie audience for independent and foreign films--what used to be called the art-house audience when there still were art houses--has often been taken in by the appearance of seriousness. (Ingmar Bergman played the science-versus-faith game when Zemeckis was still in diapers.) Contact represents the mass-audience version of gulling the audience with high importance. It appears to be saying a lot--but what? When Palmer, who, unlike Ellie, never wavers in his beliefs, says to her, "Our goal is the same--the pursuit of the truth," he's just offering a sop to the audience. (We wouldn't want to alienate any truth-seeking ticket buyers, would we?) And when Ellie tells some schoolkid scientists at the end to "keep searching for your own answers," it's more sop. After all, we've just been through two and a half hours of derring-do during which all manner of scurvy scientists and politicians have indeed been searching for their own answers. Has it improved their souls? Contact, for all its high-mindedness, isn't really about mind at all. It's about being pure-in-heart enough to be mushy-brained.

Isn't this the same formula that worked for Zemeckis in Forrest Gump? Forrest was the simpleton whose purity of essence trumped the worldly malcontents in his midst. Ellie is as smart as Forrest was stunted, but they are equal, in the end, in being sweet-souled. In Contact, as in Forrest Gump, there's something suspect about braininess. Intelligence, it's implied, keeps you from truly feeling.

This is an odd implication coming from a movie about scientists, but it fits right in with the popular mood. For Hale-Bopped audiences feeling crunched by the technology that was supposed to make them happier, Contact is here to tell you it's going to be all right. The aliens beckoning us turn out to be as sweet as Forrest Gump and as wise as Yoda. Just keep searching for your own answers, and don't sweat the millennium.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; with Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, James Woods, Angela Bassett and John Hurt. Rated


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