1997’s Contact remains one of the most intelligent studio blockbusters of the 1990s – and there’s a lot to enjoy with a revisit of the film.
Spoilers ahead for Contact…
There was a time during the 1990s that you couldn’t move for a close encounter. Alien abductions, invasions, sightings and conspiracies were everywhere in the skies. Contact, however, stood out among them.
Robert Zemeckis’ film bucked a trend that by the third quarter of the decade had become ingrained – that aliens were to be feared. Whether via the CGI boundary pushing explosions of Independence Day, the hip sass of Men in Black, or the cartoon villainy of Mars Attacks!, the 50s B-movie was back. Aliens were out to get us, or as pictures such as Roswell or The Arrival, and especially zeitgeist bothering TV series such as The X-Files, sinister human forces were conspiring to keep their existence a secret.
Contact gave us an entirely different approach to the question of alien life. It offered up questions, in fact, in a manner most movies dealing with extra-terrestrials avoided. Zemeckis’ film – based on the vast novel by Ann Druyan and celebrated scientist Carl Sagan, who sadly died during the film’s production – was all about the big questions. Is there life in the universe? How would they communicate with us? What could they teach us? And how would that knowledge change us as people? It grapples with these concept while never forgetting a sense of spectacle in the same breath.
The fact Contact served as an outlier in this regard makes me wonder – why did we become obsessed with alien invaders and conspirators in the 1990s?
It made sense in the febrile Cold War atmosphere of the 1950s, with alien beings the allegorical stand in for ‘Reds under the bed’, films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers tapping into innate American fears of the enemy within. By the 90s, however, the Cold War was over, the same fears extinguished. Perhaps there was no allegory employed anymore. Perhaps aliens were aliens and we simply had the breathing room and space to enjoy humanity’s extinction from afar. Perhaps not being afraid allowed the B-movie to rise again.
In any event, Contact emerges as the natural succeeding film for Zemeckis after the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump in 1994, arguably his greatest success story after Back To The Future and just as seminal a 90s picture as his time-travel romp was to the 1980s. Contact retains a similar level of wonder combined with grounded Americana, Zemeckis and his screenwriters James V. Hart & Michael Goldenberg imbuing their protagonist, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), with heart, awe and indeed sadness. Her childhood trauma and resulting passion for the titular ‘contact’ is what drives the picture, and provides the films’ thematic core.
Contact ultimately is more about the search within as it is without. Ellie loses her beloved father (a pastoral David Morse), a man who nurtured her interest in communication and the universe, at a deeply impressionable age. Zemeckis’ adaptation reduces Sagan’s novel in scale to connect with Ellie’s search for her father, albeit in emotional terms. She looks ‘out there’ because she can’t face looking inside, repelling close emotional connections (as she does with Matthew McConaughey’s charmingly horny religious theologian Palmer Joss – more on him later) as a barrier. Ellie’s discovery of the signal from Vega leads to the reconciliation of her own grief and it’s beautifully rendered across the picture.
Even taking The Silence Of The Lambs into account, I wonder if this might be Jodie Foster’s greatest screen performance. It has to be up there. She is a combination of deeply smart, radiantly beautiful and hauntingly vulnerable. She carries you through a story which the trailer entirely reveals – the discovery of an alien signal that results in a machine allowing Ellie to travel somewhere to make the titular ‘contact’. Without her emotional grounding, the film wouldn’t work. As the machine creates a wormhole, Foster is our own guide through a mass of conceptual ideas underpinning her very personal story.
This also feels, outside of her turn as Clarice Starling, the closest Foster ever comes to portraying Dana Scully on the big screen. Early in the success of The X-Files, the media speculated that she could take on the role beyond Gillian Anderson opposite David Duchovny A-list stand-in Richard Gere. This was never seriously considered, merely a sop to the image of Foster in the 90s that Chris Carter had emulated for his show, but there are definitely traces of Scully in Ellie. She is, for one thing, a capable, passionate woman very much in a man’s world, fighting the institutional reductive sexism of less impressive blowhards such as science advisor David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt, wonderfully mercurial) or the hawkish National Security Advisor Michael Kitz (James Woods, but we don’t talk about him anymore).
Contact also, much like The X-Files, provides a conversation about science vs faith in relation to the possibility of alien life. Foster’s Ellie as the scientist conflicts with McConaughey’s Palmer as the man of faith, who believes her searching coincides with a growing lack of faith in a higher power, as he suggests: “Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology? We shop at home, we surf the Web… at the same time, we feel emptier, lonelier and more cut off from each other than at any other time in human history.” He approaches Ellie’s search from the epistemological perspective. He doesn’t understand why she would potentially sacrifice her life in search of extra-terrestrials.
Palmer’s point here interests me. Not to sound cliche, but his sentiment feels somewhat ahead of the curve in terms of our intersection with technology. This was 1997. Tablets, smartphones and the Metaverse all might as well have come from Star Trek at that point. He is describing the nascent form of the internet, before it’s seizure by conglomerates and tech billionaires, before the harvesting of our data, before social media platforms and harmful, reductive discourse, and the polarisation that came from it. If we worried we were losing our connections, our ability to communicate, even back then, it had nothing on now. Contact in that regard was prescient. Palmer’s theological panic about the impact of technology has, in no small degree, come to pass.
The X-Files goes further than Contact ever does, deliberately drawing a line between alien life and the concept of God, but Contact seeks to interrogate whether we can believe in both to the same degree. Ellie never gains ‘The Truth’, in The X-Files sense (though neither does Fox Mulder really), and the sceptics concerned that billions have been spent without any visible output try to cast doubt on her entire experience in the machine. But Ellie knows she met with aliens. She knows she saw her father. Yet much like Palmer can’t prove the existence of his deity, Ellie can’t prove her experience happened. It becomes a question of faith.
Foster’s performance, riven with both joy, frustration and sadness as she attempts to convey this to Congress, is outstanding:
I… had an experience… I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever… A vision… of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater then ourselves, that we are *not*, that none of us are alone! I wish… I… could share that… I wish, that everyone, if only for one… moment, could feel… that awe, and humility, and hope. But… That continues to be my wish.
This seems to ground Contact in the 1990s for me. It aligns with much of the hope and optimism we saw in science-fiction storytelling during that decade, when it wasn’t dabbling in escapism or conspiracy. Star Trek certainly believed that we could aspire for better during that period. Contact, via Ellie’s quasi-religious experience, hopes for the same, and against many odds. Be they religious terrorists who consider such contact an abomination (exemplified by Jake Busey’s lunatic, rather cliche domestic God-fearing bomber), or a United States government – even a Democrat one, given we see Bill Clinton inserted in, Forrest Gump-style from real-life footage – who consider the Vegan signal a threat. Zemeckis’ film believes in Ellie’s faith and hope.
What fascinated me was how Ellie’s knight in shining armour throughout Contact is a dry-run for Jeff Bezos! John Hurt provides a small but delightfully raspy turn as S. R. Hadden, a mysterious billionaire conglomerate owner who routinely serves as a deux ex machina (appropriately) to help Ellie combat several of the above forces and remain in, what he describes, as “the game of the millennium”. His motives remain opaque. Is he a philanthropist or does he just seek legacy? Either way, Hadden’s lurking behind the scenes of anxious, doom-mongering governments providing resources foretells the rise of the Elon Musk’s of this world. I suspect he would be less charitably portrayed were Contact made in 2023.
Contact holds up remarkably well over 25 years later. Ellie’s agency is sometimes muted. Palmer would be written and portrayed differently now. Nor is it nearly as cynical as we might approach these issues today. But it often looks fantastic. Zemeckis allows the drama to build, allows characterisation to take time, gives the film space to wrestle with some of our biggest fundamental questions as a species, and provides CGI come the climax which remain thrilling and moving today. The 90s gave us a myriad number of entertaining films about alien life but none hit me deep in the feels as Contact did, or still does.
We’re better off for it. To paraphrase Ellie’s father, the 90s without Contact would be “an awful waste of space.”
For more on Contact, check out my podcast, At the Movies in the 90s, in which we discuss the film. You can find it here.
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