#1 in my ranking of Robert Zemeckis films.
This is one of those movies where I know from the opening shot that I’m watching something incredibly special. The opening is so unique, confident, clear, and effective that I know I’m in the exact right hands to tell this story. Robert Zemeckis took over the pre-production efforts after the studio fired George Miller, was granted full artistic control including final cut, and built off of what Miller had established to tell the filmed version of Carl Sagan’s novel about alien contact. I’d love to see what Miller would have done, but it’s hard to imagine a better combination of director and material than Zemeckis and Contact. Zemeckis is inventive technically on par with Spielberg, has the same kind of gentle humanism throughout his work, but he also is firmer in his commitments to where stories should go.
Since I made so much of how this movie starts so well, let me talk about that for a moment. It’s an extravagant special effects shot that tracks back from earth, picking up speed and going further and further into deep space, passing out of our planetary system, our galaxy, and even further until we get a sense of how small our world is in the scope of the universe. This is matched by the sound of radio waves, dominated close to earth by contemporary radio and television signals, and going backwards in time until we can hear the first television signal powerful enough to be sent into space some ways away for a half second (that becomes important later). After that, it’s silence as we get a stronger sense of just how much space is out there. It’s a perfect start to this film.
Ellie Arroway is a scientist who works for SETI, using time on large radio telescopes to search the stars for signs of alien life. She’s brilliant and eagerly directing her career down a dead end according to David Drumlin, the president’s science advisor who has control over funding and satellite time. Eventually fired, Ellie and a small team of like-minded scientists find funding from a large corporation’s funding arm, Hadden Industries. Using this money, they listen to the stars until the stars start speaking.
There are a couple of personal stories going on at the same time as the plot. The first deals with Ellie’s father who died when she was nine. Using flashbacks, we see how her widow father lovingly guided her first steps into searching for answers in the stars with a telescope and a HAM radio. He dies of a heart attack one night when they’re supposed to stargaze, and she rejects the local priest’s explanation of God’s will, but she still misses her father. She still needs answers, so she runs to her radio and calls out to her dad. The other personal story deals with Palmer Joss, a man who left the seminary because he couldn’t give up the sins of the flesh, who is writing a book about the lack of meaning in a world dominated by science. He looks and sounds like Matthew McConaughey, so her immediate sensual desire seems to be understandable, but she can’t commit. Ellie looks to the stars for meaning, not to the Earth. Science is her God, to put it another way, and she feels like she needs nothing else.
Now, to talk about a Robert Zemeckis movie without highlighting at least one great individual sequence feels empty, so I shall tackle that now. The first appearance of the signal from space is great, just so great. It comes as a series of pulses announcing the signal’s presence to the world that’s listening. Ellie’s efforts to speed into the command center from an isolated spot among the 27 radio telescopes, shouting commands over her radio while her fellow scientists try to catch up with her orders, the building music around it, and the frantic early steps and simply trying to capture and verify what they’re hearing is an amazing combination of visually effective storytelling, editing, and sound design that stands as one of Zemeckis’ finest single sequences. And this movie is only about a third done. There’s a lot more greatness to come.
The signal from space, that demonstrated intelligence through the use of prime numbers, recalls the attentions of the world, and the US government suddenly descends on Ellie’s quiet little stargazing spot. Drumlin arrives alongside the National Security Advisor Michael Kitz. From the moment Drumlin shows up, he’s wresting control and the credit away from Ellie, and Ellie barely seems to realize how bad it is. She can see it, but she doesn’t realize how hard she needs to fight it. It doesn’t help when the first signal has its visual aspects revealed to show Hitler’s introduction to the 1936 Olympic Games.
Now, one thing this movie does with surprising intelligence is how it handles a variety of reactions from the world to the news. The cults that rise up both in support and in rejection outside the radio telescope farm feel like the sort of mix of crazy humanity would cook up, but they’re mostly a sideshow. The central reaction is Ellie’s, and she’s counterbalanced by Joss. Ellie looks out at these people with a mix of pity, confusion, and a little bit of fear. The irony is that both she and the sideshow carnival are looking towards Vega, the source of the message, as a source of meaning and truth, the exact sort of thing that Joss was saying was absent in our modern science-driven world. Ellie’s journey ends up being one of humility and faith as she realizes the limits of her own experience. It ends up recalling Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
So, the message has plans for a giant machine hidden inside it. S.R. Hadden, the reclusive billionaire who resembles Howard Hughes (and would be modeled after Elon Musk if made today) figures out the primer to decode the language, and the world is off to spend almost half a trillion dollars to build it. The machine has a capsule that carries one person, and Ellie and Drumlin are both up for the seat. Drumlin, once again, steps on Ellie’s toes and she takes it. That’s not really a criticism of her character, mind you. Ellie is a professional working in a tough bureaucratic setting. She acts like a professional when she gets outmaneuvered by Drumlin, eventually losing the prized seat to him. It would be out of character for her to, while still working on the project, to break down into tears and recriminations against him. She can do that when her funding gets pulled near the beginning of the film, but not when she’s spent time learning to be a team player with a desire to see the project through to the end.
When a religious extremist sneaks into the completed site and blows it and Drumlin up, the world thinks it has wasted a gob of money on a project that went nowhere until Hadden shows up with another machine built in Japan. Two machines for the price of two. Ellie ends up the pilot and gets sent through.
Now, the movie as a whole gets a lot of praise, but that tends to end when Ellie reaches her destination. The trip out is tense and beautiful in equal measure. The sequence that sends the pod through the machine is another great suspense sequence, but it’s when Ellie gets to that beach built off of her memory of a drawing she made of Pensacola as a child and the alien visiting her in the form of her father that people lose faith with the film. They wanted to see an alien, and they see a great alien design, not just David Morse. However, I think that Zemeckis leaned towards the lesson that Kubrick learned while making 2001: A Space Odyssey. No alien will ever life up to the audience’s imagination. The design will always be too terrestrial in nature. So, instead of going to spectacle, which he gave in the trip there to the beach, Zemeckis relies heavily on Ellie’s emotional journey, and I think it works. Ellie started her love of space mixed with the tragedy of her father’s death. Some part of her had mixed the idea of science and the soul into an idea that if she could hear far enough, she could see her dad again, and suddenly there, millions and millions of light years away from Earth, she sees him again. There’s an emotional release from her as she fulfills what she had dreamed of as a girl, something relatable to the audience. At the same time, she sees her journey from a cosmic point of view as the first step out of many (there are echoes of Clarke’s assertion that we are a child race here).
When Ellie comes back, she has no proof over her journey, just her lived experience. She cannot prove that what she saw was real, but she must still try and convince the world that they did not waste their time and money on the project. Her desire to be believed becomes an echo of Joss’s earlier arguments in favor of faith in God, a fascinating parallel. She can prove that this machine really did as much as she asserts as well as Joss can prove the existence of God. I imagine it costs a fortune to simply run the machine a single time, so I can understand why people wouldn’t be jumping at the prospect of funding another trip just to see if what she said was right.
It’s a wonderfully intelligent film that embraces complexity in several forms. Acting is really good across the board, especially from Jodie Foster as Ellie. It reaches for a real sense of awe and nearly accomplishes it, which is a hard thing to do in general, all while telling its story well. This is a great film, and it may be the best Zemeckis ever made.