It was a good week for Carl Sagan, wherever he is. A space station on Mars, the first one built by Earthlings, was named after the late astronomer. And a surprisingly intelligent and affecting movie, based on Sagan's novel *Contact*, afforded a quiet and thoughtful respite from the sound and the fury of the summer movie season.
*Contact* is a beautifully quiet film -- at times it is almost meditatively silent -- although it is a film about sound and listening to voices, both the voice within, and the voices *out there*. A rumination on science and religion, it explores the limits and possibilities of both, landing at the point at which fact and faith intersect.
*Contact* opens with a view of the universe, not as a silent, dark vacuum, but a place buzzing with signals, littered with radio and TV broadcasts, the aural detritus of Earth civilization zooming through space and time as an unofficial ambassador to worlds beyond. It is an unsettling image of Earth as a planetary despoiler of the universe, a place where the noise of modern life obscures the messages we send and the ones we might, potentially, receive. (As horrible as Don Imus is today, imagine his words travelling thousands of lights years for eons to come, to wash ashore on some distant, unsuspecting planet -- there's an argument for public radio if ever there was one.)
Back on Earth, Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), radio astronomer, listens for signs of extraterrestrial life. For Ellie, orphaned and alone since childhood, it is a search for scientific truth, for proof that we are not, in fact, alone. Her work is controversial, viewed by many, including her self-aggrandizing, intellectual thief of a boss Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), as a waste of time and resources. He cuts her funding, and she is forced to go begging, until she finds a benefactor in a mysterious, wealthy recluse.
When Ellie finally hears her extraterrestrial beacon, it sets in motion a whirlwind of earthly controversy and bureaucracy, as governments and groupies, foes and fanatics all flock, satellite dishes in hand, to listen in on the mysterious celestial signal. The message from the heavens contains a blueprint for a transport vehicle, designed to take a single passenger to a destination unknown.
Complicating Ellie's life is her on-again off-again affair with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), former seminarian turned popular author and skeptic. Joss is a deeply religious man who questions the values and virtues of science, who questions, foremost, unquestioning faith in science. As the spiritual advisor to the president (our president, Bill Clinton, that is), he is in a position to influence decisions about Ellie and her discovery .
McConaughey makes Joss both Christ-like and hunky, a prophet as sexiest man alive, but it is not his status as incidental love interest that makes Joss interesting. Rather it is his philosophical viewpoint -- he believes most of all in things that cannot be proved empirically, while Ellie believes only what she can see and hear and touch. The real conflict in *Contact*, the real mystery, does not involve little green men and signals from the stars, but the very nature of truth. The unstated implication that science is also a religion leads to fascinating philosophical complications for Ellie, whose the search for scientific truth requires more than one leap of faith.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis (*Forrest Gump*), *Contact* is quietly engrossing, with a lot more science in it than science fiction. Zemeckis isn't really much of a stylist, and he unnecessarily updates Sagan's novel by *Gump*ing in footage of Clinton (making his speech about the microbe-filled Mars rock), the Heaven's Gate cult suicides and such. Aside from those gimmicky touches, however, Zemeckis allows *Contact* its unconventional plot and characters, finding real intrigue and danger in worldly political machinations, and conflict in big abstractions like god, science, and humankind's place in the universe.
The screenplay by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg does a nice job of honing in on scientific theories and concepts, like special relativity and Occam's Razor -- it's the rare movie that would even make the attempt, but *Contact* is unusually intelligent, dealing with complex ideas in a way that is neither pedantic nor oversimplified. Even more rare these days is the movie character who thinks big thoughts -- Ellie and Joss do, and believably so, with dialogue that easily mixes the scientific, the spiritual and the commonplace to create conversations and complications that ring true.
Without much in the way of special effects, *Contact* looks and feels real, unhindered by distractions (with the exception of the Clinton inserts). Yet *Contact* has moments that are genuinely thrilling in much the same way that seeing pictures from Mars are thrilling and engrossing. Ellie's discovery of the message from space gave me goosebumps, in part because it was cinematically rendered so simply: a haunting, rhythmic noise accompanied by the visual image of the spiking lines of a soundwave graph. The thrills and chills of *Contact* don't come from death-defying stunts, but from the big stakes involved, from the sense of big questions being answered by characters that are real and developed.
*Contact* deftly juggles ideas that are as slippery as quicksilver, respecting mysteries, savoring the elusive. In a medium whose mantra is overstatement, *Contact* is nicely understated, letting visual images express unspoken ideas, and allowing silence to speak. There is little in the way of physical peril in *Contact*, and none of the monstrous aliens that are sci-fi staples, and that is perhaps the most unusual and enticing thing about this movie -- that it is the life of ideas, the thoughts and beliefs of characters, and not their corporeal beings, that are challenged and imperiled. The immaterial *is* the material of *Contact*.