Lowdown: First rate handling to Third Kind Encounters.
I have read Contact - the science fiction book by Carl Sagan - when it first came out. I was in school back then, and I didn't particularly like the book. More than 20 years have past now, and as this blog's reviews show I'm revisiting Sagan; I'm in the middle of a book of his at the moment, too. It was time to revisit Contact, this time the movie version (which I have only seen at the cinemas).
Contact - the film - stars Jodie Foster in the role of a scientist in a life long quest to find aliens. Countering her, sort of, is Matthew McConaughey, who plays a sexy priest on a crusade to get the positive out of science, claiming that with all that science has brought us we are less happier than we ever were. Anyway, while working on her array of radio telescopes Foster stumbles upon a signal coming from the Vega system, which, given its character - prime numbers - can only come from some sort of an intelligence. The signal is deciphered to include a broadcast of Hitler giving a speech during the 1938 olympic games - the first TV signal ever - as well as the design documentation for what seems to be a sophisticated transport device.
The world unites behind the USA in building this transport device, but a group of religious fanatics destroys it in a suicide bombing. However, a second alien transport device was built in Japan (to quote the film, "why buy one when you can buy two at double the price"), and Foster is chosen for the ride. She goes off with a bang, has an experience that would qualify in anyone's book as a religious experience, and comes back to a world in which no one believes her story of what has happened when she was away.
You can clearly see the Sagan roots in Contact. The concepts of discovering alien intelligent life through the use of radio telescopes, communicating alien intelligence through prime numbers, and creating a dialog between cultures through the language of science are very basic Sagan stuff - repeated in most of his books and on Cosmos too. It is clear that Foster represents Sagan's point of view - the skeptic who is open to anything but looks for proof before accepting it.
It is also clear that the main issue the film wants to touch is not aliens or their existence, but rather the conflict between religion - something taken on the basis of belief alone - and science, which is based or repeatable, peer reviewed and measurable experimentation. I have to say I was more than a bit troubled by the comparison the film was making between religion and science, simply because comparing the two puts religion at the same level as science when it is pretty clear - by definition - that the two differ; if religion was a repeatable, provable, affair it wouldn't have had to rely on faith; it would have been science. There are many specific points raised in the film whose treatment I didn't really approve of, and I would like to review a few of those here:
1. The film states that "the thing people are most hungry for, meaning, is the one thing science hasn't been able to give them". I would say this is very much wrong; since Darwin science has been very able to tell us what the meaning of our existence is. It's just that too many of us either don't understand it or don't like the answer.
2. The McConaughey priest character says: "Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology? We shop at home, we surf the web. At the same time, we feel emptier, lonelier and more cut off from each other than at any other time in human history." In my view, however, science is there to help us get to know the world around us; the way we implement science is entirely up to us, and we can do it for better or worse. So while I agree with religion that science will not necessarily make us happier, I will also not look for happiness in some delusional world; I would seek to improve the implementation. In the case of the particular issues raised here, I would say humanity's problem is more to do with the culture of consumerism and capitalism than with science being evil.
3. Foster goes for a ride on the alien transport machine, has herself a revelation, and then comes back to a world where no one believes her. Surely, it's exactly the same as the religious experience - as in, aren't Judaism, Christianity and Islam based on revelations of a similar nature? How come, then, can we - as in the scientifically minded people - accept that what has happened to Foster is possible, within the terms and conditions of the film, yet we dismiss the stories of Jesus and Co as bullshit? Well, there is a catch there. Foster's experience might have been a revelation, but it was a repeatable revelation - if the people in the film wanted to, they could have repeated the experiment as many times as they felt like; they could have diagnosed the alien's machine to understand how it works; they could have improved on the experiment. However, the truly religious revelations are nothing like that; the idea of asking for god to resupply us with evidence for Jesus' true nature is considered blasphemy by the believers.
4. Foster is having an argument with McConaughey, saying that we have no proof to justify us believing in a god. McConaughey answers "Did you love your father?... Prove it!"; and the scene is cut, as if McConaughey has just said QED or something similar. Well, I would again disagree and say that our inability to prove we love our parents in our heads is equivalent to our inability to prove god's existence: Eventually, we will have the technology to read what is going on in our brains, and we will be able to point to the exact source of chemical/electric stimulation that governs our love for our parents in the same way as we are now able to explain how the sun generates its energy whereas less than 100 years ago we couldn't. We can even prove our love for our parents in indirect ways, such as through the listings of actions that we have performed in honor of our parents. However, the same methodologies cannot be used with religion; we have no idea what technological leaps will be required for us to come up with something to prove the existence of a god, and in fact so far what science has been pretty good at doing was to remove god from taking part in more and more activities where he was deemed mandatory before - things like pushing the planets in their orbit around the sun or making flowers blossom. And again, most religions would consider it blasphemy to even try and prove god exists, probably because if enough people tried and failed there would be no one left to actually believe anymore.
I can go on and on with these arguments, because the film provides many such points for argument. It is obvious that the filmmakers, as well as Sagan, wanted this discussion to take place and this provocation to make people think of their stand in this battle between science and religion. Again, I will repeat my view that comparing the two is like comparing elephants with tomatoes, and that the actual comparison is an insult to science; however, it is obvious there are enough people out there who have a vested interest in creating such a discussion in order to promote their religions, and it is also obvious that such a discussion is one hell of a coffee table discussion material. You can therefore rightly claim that the film has served its purpose.
Other than that, is Contact a good film? I mean, as a film, do you enjoy watching it? Well... it is definitely well done, but it feels contrived - as if the film was made according to a formula. You watch one scene and you sort of know what the next scene is going to be; if we saw the good guy (Foster) saying something in favor of science, we know that in the next scene we will see the bad guy saying something in favor of religion. And so on.
Contact was directed by Robert Zemeckis of Forrest Gump fame. He does a good job here, but he goes a bit too far with the Gump special effects department, putting Bill Clinton as the American president in many scenes without any real contribution to the film as a result. Instead of focusing on the plot, the viewer is instead thinking "ooh, they got Clinton to work with them on the film!". And then there's the date stamping effect, which after too many years under George Dubya gives away the film's age too easily.
Best scene: The opening scene, showing us earth, then slowly zooming out to show the various parts of the solar system, then our area of the galaxy, then our galaxy, then our neighboring galaxies, then our cluster, and so on and so on is a classic Sagan theme. Most people, however, still don't get how tiny and insignificant we earthlings are in the grand scheme of things.
Picture quality: This is obviously an old analog picture transfer. I don't think they do them this way anymore, and for a good reason - there are analog artifacts aplenty.
Sound quality: As with Forrest Gump, most of the time the sound is too subtle for the film's own good, but when it makes an attempt to be good it shines (making me feel sorry that it didn't make a more prolonged attempt at being good).
Overall: It's provocative, it's entertaining, but it's not that good. 3.5 stars.