On July 11, 1997, Robert Zemeckis unveiled his sci-fi adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Contact, starring Jodie Foster. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
If you build it, they will come. This time we’re not talking about ballparks and baseball players, but rather satellite dishes and intelligent extraterrestrial life, as an unconventional astronomer obsesses to connect with other life in the universe.
A distillation of the late Carl Sagan’s best-seller Contact, this filmic adaptation is also constructed with generic sci-fi components and characters and draws on blueprints from such filmic predecessors as Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But despite its lineage and some impressive special effects, Contact is a disappointingly earthbound production, weighed down by the ballast of talking-heads dramaturgy and bloated storytelling.
At the box office, Warner Bros. has a “tweener” on its hands, a vessel that falls between certain audiences: High schoolers and special-effects buffs will find its thermo-dramatics insufficiently charged, lacking in action and outer-space razzle dazzle, while intelligent life forms will find its philosophizing a quantum level below expectations, unless one is hoping for an Oprah-ish discussion on the science-vs.-religion debate. Look for a big launch based on Jodie Foster’s star appeal in the lead role and Sagan’s following, but word-of-mouth will soon put this Robert Zemeckis-directed film into a disappointing tailspin, burning out far below box office outer space.
In this ambitious undertaking, Foster stars as Ellie Arroway, a brilliant astronomer who has alienated her mentors by her choice to dedicate her career to making contact with other intelligent life forms in the universe. After all, as her late father told her, “If we’re the only ones here, what a waste of space.”
While gutty little crackpot yarns are always appealing as the renegade thinker takes on the establishment and ultimately wins the day, this scenario is so ponderous and transparently schematic that one only half-heartedly roots for the scrappy scientist to prove her point by connecting with extraterrestrial life and toppling the dunderheaded establishment, herein consisting of not only the scientific industrial complex but the citadels of organized religion as well.
While one can appreciate the vexing tribulations with cross-wiring Sagan’s downbeat novel to popular filmic dimension, screenwriters James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg have programmed a bugged-up format of story viruses and black hole-sized logical voids.
Consisting of dialogue so gratingly expositional that one would have to consult a VCR manual to duplicate its utilitarian dullness, and philosophical debates so turgidly pompous that one would have to fetch a Los Angeles Times Op/Ed page for comparable drivel, the story is woefully dependent on talking-heads newscasters delivering the plot.
Admittedly we possess a certain perverse admiration for an opus that relies on the likes of The Larry King Show for delving into the big issues. Still, even an enthusiastic numbers cruncher would be taxed by tabulating the truly amazing number of times this serioso mind-candy relies on TV talking heads to propel its narrative. So leaden is its dramatic thrust that not even director Zemeckis, whose productions usually travel at the speed of light, can get this one moving faster than a mule train.
The data is not all bad on the writing, however. On the plus side, the science-vs.-religion debates are mercifully short, interrupted, for instance, by a beeper-page from President Bill Clinton. Indeed, Clinton appears in a number of press conference-ish vignettes, delivering wishy-washy blather on the big happenings. In this regard, the screenwriters are to be commended for their deft duplication of Clintonesque platitudinery.
Despite being short-circuited by the dialogue, Foster is commanding as the strong-minded astronomer. Alternately shrill, contentious and self-absorbed, the character is nicely rounded and made sympathetic by Foster’s smartly textured portrayal. As the voice of science, she is paired with and against Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a touchy-feely religious type. Unfortunately, this dichotomy is crammed up with an unlikely romance, so bipolar that it defies even the laws-of-opposites attraction.
Under Zemeckis‘ surprisingly small screen-ish visualization, the technical contributions are a mixed bag. Highest praise to production designer Ed Verreaux and the visual effects team for the brainy look, an inspired mix of Leonardo Da Vinci and Niels Bohr. Most impressively, there’s some dazzling sorcery in the opening, big-space sequence — it’s thrilling and humbling, all at once. Along with 2001 and Star Wars, it’s among the best eye-openers for a space-directed movie. — Duane Byrge, originally published on July 7, 1997