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From Under A Rock: Contact

January 13, 2018 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
Contact Jodie Foster Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
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From Under A Rock: Contact  

I (Michael) like space movies. It’s arguably my favorite genre. In an effort to watch more of them, I checked out this week’s pick a couple years ago and really liked it, so I wanted to share it with Aaron.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Aaron chose Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This week Michael takes Aaron out from under the proverbial rock to show him Contact.

Released: July 11th, 1997
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: James V. Hart & Michael Goldenberg
Based on: Contact by Carl Sagan
Jodie Foster as Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Ann Arroway
Matthew McConaughey as Palmer Joss
James Woods as Michael Kitz
John Hurt as S.R. Hadden
Tom Skerritt as David Drumlin

Michael Ornelas: I liked this one a lot when I first saw it, but my second viewing felt like it was through a different lens and I’m not certain where it sits with me now. Aaron?
Aaron Hubbard: So my first impression was that this has a really good cast. Jodie Foster is a hell of a talent, but the movie is filled with strong character actors. But what did I think of the movie? Well… I’m not really sure yet.
Michael: I’m a sucker for the visual portrayal of complex scientific ideas in film. I loved Interstellar, despite its divisive nature for a similar reason. I even like Event Horizon, which was trashed when it came out but has been treated a bit more kindly in recent years as our understanding of science has evolved (despite it essentially being horror). Contact took the idea of communication from alien life, and laid it out in an incredibly practical way. I appreciated that all of the “next steps” they took scientifically seemed like they went through a proper order of operations and helped me invest in the story.
Aaron: I really appreciated this aspect of the movie. I’m a sucker for well done procedure in science fiction; even if something isn’t quite possible yet, if you can make it seem plausible, then you’ve done a good job. This film has a sense of reality to it. I love that the transmissions are severely delayed, I love how math is used to crack the alien language. When it finally gets around to that big wormhole sequence, it feels like it earned its right to set off some fireworks. And credit to Jodie Foster for being convincing even with so much blue screen.
Michael: Everything involving the wormhole was awesome. The way it was visually represented was cool, and the planet she ended up on felt alien, yet familiar. So many artistic choices that simply worked for me. Props to whoever made those decisions.
Science and Faith
Aaron: Most of this movie is about the various reactions people have to the news of extraterrestrial contact. We have an appropriate amount of skepticism and a surprising amount of excitement from different groups. What I really appreciate here is that it wasn’t an all or nothing generalization; some scientists are willing to do anything to follow up on the discovery, while others treat it with fear bordering on paranoia. One extreme religious sect nearly derails the big mission to preserve their cause, but McConaughey’s character has his faith affirmed by the events of the film. It’s a broad range of reactions that feels informed and genuine, and the film should be applauded for that.
Michael: Yeah, both sides of the “religion vs. science” camps had polarized opinions amongst themselves which not only was refreshing, but was realistic. Lil’ Busey’s character was a bit much, but he’s a Busey, so that’s kind of to be expected. I didn’t mind the themes presented with Faith within Science and Religion…but it had the subtlety of a unicycling naked bassoonist in a public library. The climax during Foster’s deposition by James Woods struck me as very on the nose in a way that kind of turned me off of the movie’s biggest moments.
Aaron: I was rolling my eyes at that bit. I’m sure someone would find profundity in how a scientific discovery is being made analogous to spiritual belief, but it’s a false equivalency. I also thought the movie undercut its own point by showing there was physical evidence of the journey. If they wanted the finish to affirm both faith and science, I think they should have left that ambiguous and let the audience make their own conclusions.
Michael: This movie is two and a half hours, which isn’t a problem, but there’s definitely a lot that could have been cut. The old millionaire dude who was dying from cancer was literally only in the movie to say “We built a second alien contraption thing in secret!” when it seemed all was lost. The script could have been tighter, cleaner, and the movie would have benefitted from it. That isn’t to say that stuff was badly executed, but between that and some very hamfisted shoehorning of the “science and religion both require faith” theme, this movie comes across a lot less expertly-crafted than I recalled.
Aaron: Any movie of that length better have a good reason for doing so, and I don’t know if Contact does. Aside from being pretty faithful to the source material anyway. But movies flow differently than books, and I think this movie can be really tedious at points. None of it is actively bad, aside from that aforementioned on the nose callback at the very end. But honestly, I think this could have been a better movie with a more ruthless editor. Maybe not as nuanced, but probably less of a drag.
Michael: This would have been a really great two-hour movie (but still would’ve had a tacky climax). As a two and a half hour film, it’s still really good, but falls short of top marks from me.

Aaron: I still honestly can’t decide how I feel about this. I think what bothers me is that the actual filmmaking is professional, but also unremarkable, impressive climax aside. Instead, I’m left digesting all the movie’s thematic elements. While I think it handles the science vs. religion element better than most… I’m so over that conversation. I can’t see myself slogging through that to get to the parts I like.


Michael: My rating unfortunately dropped a little bit upon my second viewing of the film, but I still loved the visuals and scientific premises presented. It was a very complicated movie thematically, and I don’t think they hit the home run they were swinging for. Still a fun flick full of good performances (most notably Foster, who carried the film on her back with her character’s passion).


Aaron: I think that nagging feeling of “this could have been just that much better” is probably why I have a hard time deciding how to feel about it.
Michael: Meanwhile I was just thinking “this could have been just that much shorter”. I like my sleep. It’s what I do at all other times.

What’s your favorite Robert Zemeckis flick?

Next week:
Aaron: So remember way back when you had me watch all the good Alien movies? Well, I’ve got a trilogy of my own to share with you.
Before Sunset
Michael: This isn’t news to me. Loved the first one though so I’m excited to move into the second part!
Aaron: This is probably my favorite of the three, though all of them are outstanding testaments to the creative team and the actors.

What’s the most overlooked and underrated movie trilogy?

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Aaron Has Another Column!
This week I tackled a pretty unusual film for me, but one I ended up loving: Dirty Dancing.

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The final score: review Good
The 411
Contact has good qualities; an interesting premise, a strong cast led by the excellent Jodie Foster, and a focus you don't usually see in movies about speaking to aliens. The movie is more concerned about how humans would react to the discovery that we aren't alone, and covers a wide range of possible feelings. But it can also be hamfisted and on the nose, and definitely feels every bit as long as it is. This gets two thumbs up... but just one from each of us.