Getting Back in 'Contact'

I was 12 and at camp when I saw Contact the summer it was released, so perhaps it's not surprising that I have strong but indistinct memories of it. For some reason, though, it lodged in my mind, and 13 summers later, and with a deeply lazy holiday weekend planned, I decided to revisit it to see if meets the standard of my childish affection.

Certainly the first thing that struck me the second time around was how wildly self-indulgent the movie is. It's 150 minutes long. And while that 150 minutes spans quite a bit of time, the movie doesn't exactly document every event in that period in meticulous detail. Take the opening shot:

It's more than three minutes long, and it takes all of that time to move back through an establishing image that conveys the size of the universe and that turns out to be reflected in a little girl's pupil. It takes a lot longer than that for us to get to the actual core narrative of the movie. Ellie Arroway (played first, in a nice bit of career foreshadowing, by Jena Malone, of whom I think very highly, and then Jodie Foster) gets posted to two research stations before she finds the signal that precipitates the rest of the movie's events. The whole damn thing clearly could have been speeded up.

But that time establishing Ellie's character isn't wasted. And I'm pretty sure she's why I have such fond memories of Contact. In contrast to the nerdy girls of dozens of subsequent comedies, Ellie is a genuine geek, not just a hot chick wearing glasses. She wears awful, unflattering clothes. She has very few social skills. She's unsaavy, undiplomatic, and deeply unstrategic for a research scientist (most of whom are not saved by reclusive multibillionaires who appreciate passionate boardroom outbursts). She does get a makeover at one point in the movie, but just for one night, so she can knock a sexy preacher's socks off at a Washington reception. But once she's made the impression that she wants, Ellie puts the dress away, ties her hair back again, and gets back to work. Like Hermione Granger post-Yule Ball years later, Ellie knows who she is, and what's trappings, and what's important.

But despite her flaws and her awkwardness, Ellie's also admirable and refreshing in a lot of ways. She refuses to lie about her lack of faith in front of a Congressional committee, and when one of her superiors does, she shows up afterwards to work in support of him anyway. She has a one-night stand with said sexy preacher (initiated by relatively high-level discussions of science and faith) at her first research station and in a nice little reversal of stereotype, leaves him in bed anxious that she won't call, and then leaves his number behind when she departs for the Very Large Array.


Warner Bros. Pictures

She's deeply committed to science, and obviously extremely talented and intelligent. She works well with a group of male peers who (with one notable exception, whose backstabbing is rewarded with, um, suicide bombing) are respectful and cool. Unlike a lot of female movie characters these days, Ellie seems like someone not only that I'd like to spend some time with, but whose friendship and trust would be worth winning.

But—and this is where the movie gets me—it's pretty annoying that the movie insists on a Very Touching reconciliation between faith and science. Such a reconciliation might have been more convincing if her preacherman had been required to bow more to science, or if Ellie didn't have to get all weepy in defense of her experience in front of a second Congressional committee and get protected by her dude on the way out. Something about seeing Jodie Foster warble "No words...poetry" in front of some intensely dated celestial CGI to communicate her conversion to the divine beauty of the universe hasn't held up well, but it might have worked better if they'd given her some steel and serenity once she's back on Earth.

That said, Jodie Foster's face is one of the great expressive instruments of modern acting. She's just astonishingly open. And she anchors a movie that, even if the details and the world leaders change, I think basically gets right what would happen if we found definitive evidence of alien life. If only we got genuinely original, thoughtful sci-fi movies like this, and like last summer's District 9, more often. If science is the collection of methods by which we search for truth, science-fiction can be more than just action-adventure stories.