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'Contact': Weak Connection

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 11, 1997

Two images in "Contact" encapsulate the movie at its finest and most foolish. In the first instance, we see a metallic forest of satellite dishes rising out of the New Mexico desert, the dishes’ enormous bowls cupped toward the yawning unknown. The deafening silence around them is broken only by the desert wind, and the creaking of these towering structures, as the radars probe for a signal -- the slightest, tiniest sound -- from the heavens.

This moment is wordless, it’s awe-inspiring; and it taps into our vulnerable desire to know what’s beyond the celestial horizon.

But the second, infinitely more recurrent image brings us mundanely back to Earth: Jodie Foster in sanctified close-up. There she is -- as astronomer Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway -- staring enraptured at a glittering night sky, while her sort-of-date for the evening, Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), sits Byronically alongside, and music swells reverently in the background.

"There are 400 billion stars out there -- just in our galaxy alone," she breathes, as if narrating a Discovery Channel special.

There’s Our Ellie again, dressed in shiny, almost dominatrix, astronaut gear, as she prepares to launch into the void; and later, delivering impassioned testimony before a panel of congressional inquisitors like a doe-eyed Joan of Arc. As her features fill the screen in a facial constellation of wonder, we realize what extraterrestrial life she’s really reaching out to: the Oscar judges.

In "Contact," based on Carl Sagan’s book of the same name, Ellie grows up obsessed with finding life in outer space. Becoming a fully fledged astronomer, she manages to finagle a few hours of satellite time every week to catch any extraterrestrial signals. One day in the desert, sitting at the foot of those satellite dishes, she picks up a promising sound. But this discovery leads, inevitably, to political maneuvering among NASA, the White House, the military and the media. It’s all she can do to keep focused on her goal: reaching the aliens.

The movie, directed by Robert Zemeckis, evokes the mystery of the out-there. But the best moments occur when -- as in reality -- we’re still in the dark. As soon as the movie gets to its version of a punch line, it turns into another Hollywood vehicle spinning aimlessly in space.

There’s another, much more glaring problem: the depiction of earthlings. Ellie’s childhood infatuation with stars, planets and ham radio ("Is there anyone out there?" chirps the wee one), and a traumatic incident at home, are thrown at us like a cheap meteoric shower. Ellie isn’t a person, she’s a mediocre composite of heroic and haunted impulses.

Human life becomes even less believable when the adult Ellie battles for space-eavesdropping rights with her former mentor (Tom Skerritt, playing the usual joke-of-a-villain); tangles with a lemon-sucking national security adviser (played by a citric James Woods) and a dour presidential adviser (Angela Bassett); has clandestine meetings with a mysterious benefactor (John Hurt); and dabbles romantically with Palmer, a good-looking, lapsed priest who becomes President Clinton’s spiritual adviser. With his empty, moonbeam statements, we’re never entirely sure whether Palmer is supposed to be a figure of romance and spirituality, or a New Age buffoon.

"We feel emptier," he drawls on the Larry King show. "More cut off from each other than any time in human history."

No wonder the aliens aren’t keeping in touch.

Obviously, the details of whether Ellie makes contact are for those intrepid moviegoers willing to part with the $40 launching fee (two people, popcorn, soda, babysitter, etc.). But let’s just say that if this movie had a slogan, it might be something like, "If you build it, y’all can come."

If there’s no life out there, say both Ellie’s father (David Morse) and Palmer, then the cosmos "seems like an awful waste of space." While the movie doesn’t qualify as an awful waste of space by any means, it has so many creative black holes, you’ll have to weigh the entertainment odds before making this journey.

CONTACT (PG) — Contains minor sexual situations.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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