Robert Zemeckis’s Contact Is the Proto-Interstellar

mcconaugheyf_20010629_33781.jpg Photo: Getty Images

Moviegoers can watch a film about intergalactic exploration, full of journeys through wormholes, visits to otherwordly shores, and questions about man’s place in the universe and his relationship to God. It’s the story of an intrepid person of science driven by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a resolute, deterministic belief that, as a species, we must push ever forward in order to understand ourselves, our world, and the infinite space that surrounds us. Concerned with courage and sacrifice, it’s rooted, emotionally, in the bond shared between a father and daughter, and the way that love speaks to issues of reason, faith, and progress.

No, not Christopher Nolan’s heavily hyped latest. Rather, I’m referring to its undeniable spiritual predecessor: 1997’s Contact.

Robert Zemeckis’s odyssey is the proto-Interstellar, a saga that shares with Nolan’s movie not only subject matter and countless plot details, but also a star (Matthew McConaughey) and a producer (Lynda Obst), the last of whom was an initial collaborator with noted author and astrophysicist Carl Sagan on his original screenplay treatment in 1979. When that project failed to get off the ground, Sagan reformatted the idea into a 1985 novel that would, years later, form the basis for Zemeckis’s film. Before that came to fruition, however, Contact went through its fair share of production speed-bumps, not least of which were numerous rewrites of Sagan’s script and, more problematic still, the firing of George Miller (Mad Max, Babe) after the director had worked on the movie for two years. That dismissal eventually paved the way for Zemeckis (who had previously turned the post down) to helm the endeavor, and to employ Sagan as a consulting advisor up until his death, mid-production, in late 1996.

Sagan’s main contribution was injecting a sense of wondrous awe about the vast universe and its many mysteries into his story, whose basic outline concerns a scientist named Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodi Foster) who, while working with SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), receives a communication from deep in space. This discovery is met with excitement by scientists (such as Ellie) who view it as an opportunity for investigation and discovery. But it’s a cause for alarm from government bigwigs (e.g. James Woods’s National Security Advisor) who fear that the aliens are broadcasting plans for war — their first signal is a retransmission of Hitler’s 1936 Olympic Games commencement speech — as well as from religious kooks who think that scientists are incapable of properly communicating with higher powers. Straddling those lines is Palmer Joss (McConaughey), an anti-technology spiritual advisor to President Clinton, who falls for Ellie during an early encounter and, later, challenges her where’s-the-proof disbelief in the Almighty.

What ensues is a story about scientific ethics, potential fraud, risks taken for the greater good, and wormhole-facilitated voyages that might create enormous temporal shifts (i.e., Ellie is cautioned that a four-year trip to the distant star Vega, where the transmission originated, might actually span 50 years back on Earth). Consequently, it’s not hard to see why Contact’s producer Lynda Obst was drawn to Interstellar, which shares all of those characteristics, as well as a narrative that argues that the most transcendent force in the universe, the one that crosses all space-time boundaries (including death), is a daughter’s love for her father. Unlike in the bro-centric Interstellar, Contact addresses that element from the daughter’s POV, and first emerges during scenes of a juvenile Ellie bonding with her dad (David Morse). Widowed (like McConaughey in Interstellar), Morse’s father encourages Ellie’s love of astronomy and CB radio broadcasting, and it’s his absence that haunts her even after she grows into a fiercely determined professional who, at every turn, is pitted against a paternalistic boss (Tom Skerritt) intent on taking credit for her triumphs.

If those similarities mark Contact as Interstellar’s own figurative father figure, so, too, does the film’s celebration of mankind as a race unwilling to accept that it’s powerless over its fate. Upon her father’s death, Ellie rebuffs a priest’s comment that “Sometimes we have to accept it as God’s will,” and as an adult professional, she refuses to be cowed or trampled by her male adversaries. She’s a figure of staunch, defiant individualism. And even though Contact eventually has her experience something that she can’t empirically prove — thereby forcing her to admit that some implausible truths must simply be taken on faith — she remains throughout a voice of hopeful, boldly-going-where-no-one-has-gone-before reason. As such, she’s the optimistic contrast to the religious-zealot terrorists (Jake Busey) who would halt intergalactic travel and the narrow-minded government agents in league with conservative pious cretins (Rob Lowe) whose response to evidence of alien life is to wonder whether the beings even believe in God.

Contact tries to bridge the divide between faith and science by contending, finally, that both can — and, in many cases, must — coexist, a notion that also comes through in Interstellar’s gonzo third-act plummet down its own pseudo-spiritual wormhole. That McConaughey (as Palmer Joss) embodies Contact’s have-it-two-ways attitude is thus a further, fitting conduit between Zemeckis and Nolan’s films, which also both utilize cutting-edge aesthetics on a grand scale. Be it an opening three-minute reverse-zoom from the Earth to the cosmos — which, in 1997, was the longest all-CG scene in movie history — or a pair of beautiful mirroring shots following Ellie running through a house and a satellite station (respectively), Zemeckis’s artistry is at once imposing and subtle. Even without the IMAX proportions available to Nolan, Contact stands as a technologically breathtaking blockbuster that marries all manner of disparate imagery, from traditional compositions to computer-generated spectacles to TV-filtered action that includes cleverly reconfigured vérité footage of President Clinton commenting on the alien communiqué.

If Contact stumbles during its somewhat-infamous climax on an alien beach, which is undone by atypically shoddy effects and a surplus of cornball sentimentality, it nonetheless exudes the very type of ambition that Ellie shows throughout her own story. It’s a work of science fiction that stirringly synthesizes the intimate and the epic, casting space inquiry and exploration as a natural extension of our need to know, to evolve, and to attain some sort of kinship with our environment, and those who inhabit it, and a condemnation of those forces, be they scientific, military, or religious in nature, that would stymie such efforts. A complex and heady film about finding oneself by venturing to the far corners of the galaxy, it is, like Interstellar, ultimately an optimistic portrait, not only of life on other planets, but on this one as well.