Movie Review: Contact

© 1997 Dan Heller

Contact from Space
This was one of the the best movies I've seen in such a long time, and would encourage everyone to run, not walk, to the closest theater possible and see it immediately. But, I also say this knowing that not everyone will "get it" (and therefore not agree with me).

This was not a sci-fi movie with the sole purpose of entertaining us with dazzling special effects and roller-coaster plot twists and lightspeed action sequences. Instead, it was a movie that explored one basic human condition: that we think about things. Big things. Concepts like the "meaning of life" is only one of those things. That we think about what's it all about...that we think about where we come from... that we think about whether there is life on other planets, or that we think about the small, personal issues of our own lives. That we think about things is important, and it's meaningful in and of itself.

Warning: if you try to think of this movie as anything other than that, you are missing out on the best part of this movie!

A side effect of this "thinking" is that we explore possible answers to our questions, whatever they may be, and that we will act on those thoughts. In doing so, we like to think that we're right, and that we want others to think as we do. In the end, we have no choice but to consider all answers and pick those that are "appropriate for us as individuals". That was the basis for the real message of the movie and the philosophies of Carl Sagan, the author of the book upon which the movie was based. There is no "ultimate truth" about the universe other than what we choose to have faith in. Whether that's "God" or science, or the arbitrary goal of satisfying mass public opinion and world peace (clips of president clinton), or in world domination (clips of adolf hitler).

The movie doesn't try to answer the question of God or "meaning of life", and it doesn't lean in one direction or another to the best way to approach these questions, but it does encourage us to think about these things. The movie, as a vehicle for expressing this, gives us a glimpse of the life of Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jody Foster), an Astronomer who has a propensity for listening for signals from outer space that might show signs of intelligent life. And of course, she finds such a signal. But, she's not just a whacky person, but a "real person", perhaps one we can identify with. To do this effectively, we are shown her history, which requires us to get to know her as a person (thus, the "length" of the movie). But, that's all I need to say about the movie itself, the plot, the details, or any of the other actors, because they are played well, the plot is good, engaging, and you have fun being wrapped up in her (and everyone else's) dilemma.

I don't advocate any one thought, concept or philosophy about life, its meaning, or even the concept of God. But I do encourage thoughtfulness about the exercize on the subject, and that's what I think this movie is trying to do. If you do this, you get the movie; if you don't, then you don't get the movie.

This movie is as balanced on the subject of God and philosophy as the film Dead Man Walking was to the issue of Capital Punishment: there are different sides to the issue, and all sides have legitimate foundations. It's a philosophical (and therefore, unsolvable) and human dilemma, and there are extremists (fundamentalists) who obfuscate themes and messages to sway people to their own way of thinking. But, neither movie attempts to persuade you to one way of thinking unless you are already of an uncompromising way of thinking and feel the movie is supporting you, or that the movie is criticizing you. Neither is taking place, and is the very delicate quality of both films that make them very powerful.

The true goal of Contact so overwhelms the small details of the "events" that take place, that criticising those details makes me feel similar to how Jody Foster's character felt when she got frustrated at government bureaucrats: you're not getting it. (But, with that said, don't think I'm off and sold in giving billions of dollars to SETI reserarch either.) Granted technical details are oversimplified in the movie, but a combination of creative license and the delicate balance of plot, message and general public appeal allow me to forgive that aspect as a necessary evil.

In summary, the point of the movie is to consider the big picture of who we are and our place in the universe. If you didn't get that, take a few minutes and think about those basic philosophical thoughts. If you don't want to do that, this isn't the movie for you and I can both appreciate that and also understand why this movie didn't work for you. (That's not a criticism, just an observation.) But, I think about these things all the time -- almost to a fault -- and the movie hit the nail right on the head for expressing the truly awsome and unanswerable questions about the nature of the universe and its true, ultimate "meaning."

My two favoriate quotes from the movie:

1) "we are small and insignficant in the realm of the universe, but we are also rare and precious."

2) "If we're alone in the universe, that's an awful lot of wasted space."

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