Looking back at Robert Zemeckis’ Contact

It took over a decade for Carl Sagan's Contact to become a film. It turned out to be one of the most intelligent blockbusters of the 90s...

One of the key achievements of Ronald D Moore’s Battlestar Galactica TV reboot, not withstanding the fact that it came in for something of a bumpy landing in its final season, was its willingness to not swerve big issues. At its peak, it was mixing in religion, politics and science, and trying to do so intelligently, with a lot of success. The balance arguably overtipped by the end in favour of the former, but Battlestar Galactica always had courage engrained throughout it.

As does Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact. Contact arrived in the summer of 1997, otherwise known as a blockbuster graveyard smeared with some of cinema’s most notorious failures and disappointments. Batman And Robin and Speed 2: Cruise Control led the way, but it was hard not to feel a little shortchanged by Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World (that last ten minutes still hurts) as well.


There were highlights of the summer of 97, though. Con Air remains all but peerless. Air Force One has its moments (and a very deranged Gary Oldman). Disney’s Hercules deserves more love. Some people like Men In Black more than me.

Yet one of the most interesting, intelligent blockbusters of the past two decades is also nesting in there. Contact is the kind of film that you’d need a Christopher Nolan to get through the system at the moment, it seems. Fortunately, back in the 90s, Robert Zemeckis had the clout to get some $90m out of the Warner Bros coffers, back when that kind of amount was far more than it might sound now (even though he was far from first choice to direct).

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It brought to an end a lengthy development for the project, which had previously seen Roland Joffe and George Miller attached (the latter of whom unsuccessfully sued Warner Bros for breach of contract after he was fired from the film, and who was also responsible for casting Jodie Foster). Sagan himself originally tried to develop Contact as a movie, before eventually writing the novel it would ultimately be based on. That novel was published in 1985. Interestingly, Robert Zemeckis was offered the film in the early 1990s, but declined, favouring a thus-far unmade film about Harry Houdini instead. When George Miller was sacked, Zemeckis finally stepped in. Sagan, meanwhile, died at the age of 62, eight months before the film was released.

It’s hard to think he would be displeased with the end result, though. For my money, it remains one of the most outright intelligent and ambitious summer movies of its time.

The Opening

The opening shot alone is – cliche time – worth the money alone. I say that having missed it at the cinema, having had to run back to my house when I realised I’d left the oven on (genuinely. Sigh). By the time I got back, David Morse had turned up in his brief, ultimately pivotal role as Ellie Arroway’s father. I casually asked my wife if I’d missed anything important, and the smug look she gave me in return confirmed I had.

Since I missed it in the cinema though, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve watched Robert Zemeckis’ audacious opening shot, which pulls back from the far reaches of space, to the digitally-altered eyes of Jena Malone, playing the young Ellie (as with Zemeckis’ previous film, Forrest Gump, Contact is full of subtle visuals effects, including ones that affect the look and performance of his actors). The opening remains incredible. It’s a quiet, impactful, statement of intent for the movie, that mixes in history and silence to some effect.

Malone’s eyes were altered in post-production to match the colour of Jodie Foster’s.

The basis of the story is centred around the hunt for life elsewhere in the universe, and it’s framed through the eyes of Jodie Foster’s haunted Ellie. With the aid of William Fichtner’s not-massively-convincing blind man act, her search for life mixes in the high-tech of fields of satellite dishes, and the low-tech of sitting with headphones on, just listening. Ellie uses the science of computers, but doesn’t necessarily trust the machines. By the time the film ends, her initial insistence on science over faith will have been heavily challenged.

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The first half of the film sets up the tragedy that underpins Ellie’s life, and her battles to get the requisite funding to continue her search. Naturally, everyone thinks she’s nuts, and naturally again, the money all starts to run out. It gets to the point where you think the only way she’ll ever get the cash to get to the second half of the film is if John Hurt turns up, doing a crazy eccentric dying man act, with decreasing levels of hair. Fortunately, Hurt obliges (and, it’s hinted, his character has been observing Ellie for much of her life, a mysterious father figure of sorts she never knew she had. The film doesn’t have the room to explore this further, though).

The Sound

Zemeckis keeps us waiting some time before Ellie hits paydirt in her search, and effectively puts across how hopeless her quest seems to be. This being a big Hollywood movie though, we know that the discovery moment is coming. Fortunately, when it does, it feels genuinely exciting and important.

For a man who’s known for his technical wizardry when it comes to visuals (although, unlike many who’ve been tempted by the computer, Zemeckis is one of the very best at using effects to add to, rather than detract from, his films), I’ve always felt too that Robert Zemeckis is a fabulous director of sound.

Look at his take on A Christmas Carol. Appreciating it’s not a universally loved film, the way he chooses and places his silences is brilliant. Right the way through his movies, from the tonal shifts of the Back To The Future trilogy through to the more recent Flight, he knows when to hit us with everything, and when to pull right back. It’s fitting, then, that the big discovery of Contact is delivered through audio, with the speakers delivering the impact, rather than the screen.

As such, we get to hear the alien broadcast for the first time, rather than see it. We don’t know for definite it’s an alien broadcast at first, but we do know that it’s the kind of noise that gets a movie star followed around with a handheld camera while she pegs it back to base. It’s a relentless, thumping sound, and Zemeckis throws in an obligatory moment of tension when he cuts to silence, as all concerned fear they’ve lost the signal (it’s a little bit like Zemeckis feeling he has to pull a trick like that, like the big jump moment in his What Lies Beneath, where Harrison Ford silently appears alongside Michelle Pfeiffer peering out of a window).

We do eventually get schematics, Hitler, and lots of animations though, as the hidden visuals are soon decoded, thanks to clever people noticing things that the political characters don’t. But it’s the sound that resonates.

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The Presentation

What Zemeckis takes us through then is the dissection of it, for this is still a relevant, contemporary tale, set in a corporate world. He’s really, really good at this too, as governments have to co-operate, and deals are done for key contracts. Politics is always bubbling away in the background of Contact.

Furthermore, it seems everyone important has an ahead-of-its-time version of Powerpoint at hand. Why deliver a message with stills, when there’s a crack team of editors willing to animate every key message that needs to be presented? Even madcap John Hurt has a time-consuming animation available, to put across the eureka moment that every other character in the film has missed.

Introducing John Hurt as The Mad Lord Of 90s Powerpoint

The next stage is where we get James Woods. It’s little secret that we love James Woods on this site, and here he gets to encapsulate the politicisation of the alien discovery. Few people do the don’t-fuck-with-me shades of grey political establishment figure as well as him, and in particular when it comes to the questioning of Ellie at the end, it’s clear his own ambitions are taking precedence over that of the issue in hand. It’s a small role, but one doing an important job. Woods, of course, is great.

If there’s something that doesn’t quite work, I never quite warmed to the romantic aspect of Matthew McConaughey’s character, Palmer Joss. He’s there to put across the religious argument, granted, which he does, and his character does as much of an ideological about-turn as Ellie’s by the end.

Palmer Joss has real moments of impact, too. When it comes to one of mankind’s biggest decisions of all time, he introduces the notion – and it’s a very political one – that if you don’t believe in God, you don’t get the job. Ask anyone who’s ever stood for President of the United States if that rings true or not (ask Bill Clinton’s administration how they felt about him being digitally inserted into Contact without express permission too, while you’re there).

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What doesn’t quite work though, for me at least, is his romantic relationship with Ellie. I’m not sure why this matters so much to the film. Zemeckis argues that the ‘contact’ he was looking for was the one where Ellie and Palmer hold hands at the end. That that’s the meeting point of religion and science, showing they co-exist. That I understand. Did they need to sleep together, split, and then come together again to best illustrate that? Did they have to be romantically linked for the illustration of ‘contact’ to come across? I wasn’t sure when I first saw the film, and I’m not sure now.


Zemeckis’ film squeezes in yet another aspect to the debate, too, through a brief cameo by Jake Busey. And again, this feels scarily contemporary.

Now that’s a shirt.

Notwithstanding the fact that there’s not a security checkpoint in the world that wouldn’t stop Jake Busey when he’s doing his wild-eyed zany look (and it’s not like they can ring his father for assurances, is it?), Contact poses the counter argument, about whether the discovery of life should be acted on, and the lengths people go to stop it.

It leads to a spectacular sequence where the first structure is destroyed, opening the way for Ellie to take the chair on the next one (that the US has managed to squirrel away without anyone noticing). Like many of the arguments within Contact, the film covers this area, without choosing to dig too deep. It’s basically presenting a variety of viewpoints and approaches, and for the most part allowing us to draw our own conclusions.

The Final Third

The most divisive part of the film remains its last third though, which I recall being loudly complained about at the time. This is, the argument runs, where the film swaps science for sentiment, where brains are swapped with emotion, and where spectacle takes precedence over logic. Each argument has validity (well, apart from the brains one), granted, but I’m not sure I buy any of them.

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In truth, to a point it was always on something of a hiding to nothing here. When Ellie does her journey to Vega, you sort of know, on first watching, that what she discovers has a lot to live up to. This is a big, expensive summer movie after all, one where we’ve seen arguments and debates continuously to get this far (including the cold moment where the brilliant Tom Skerritt initially gets the pod seat over Ellie).

Zemeckis, bravely, goes small, rather than large when the eventual alien meeting happens. It’s something that might not work on first viewing, but every time I’ve seen Contact since, I’ve warmed to it immensely.

Because, against the background of a digitally altered beach (and Zemeckis’ use of effects, both subtle and overt, was cutting edge at the time, and holds up well today), the film narrows in on a reunion between Ellie and her father. It’s something so small in the middle of a story that’s been quite the opposite. The alien life, we learn, is in a form Ellie will recognise. And the speech about this being the first step in a process that could take billions of years is a logical one. Contact has no desire to spoil its slow, diligent build-up work with a cop-out, and it doesn’t. I think it’s all the braver for that.

Real Or Not Real?

But then the question has to be asked: is it all real? Or is it in Ellie’s mind?

When Ellie lands on the alien planet, the shot that Zemeckis uses is one that goes into her eye again at first. The implication therefore is that this is imagined, or in her head, or at least not as real as it may first appear.

We see Ellie out of her chair (and the chair was something that wasn’t in the original alien design, interestingly, which in itself provokes a few theories) falling to the surface. There, she goes through the sequence where she meets the alien in the form of her father. But is she seeing who she wanted to see?

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Furthermore, there’s no shortage of compelling evidence that what Ellie goes through is her dream or hallucination of sorts. Take the moment when she feasts her eyes on a scene which looks a little like the drawing that young Ellie had at the start of the movie, just before she’s reunited with David Morse. The wonky trees of a childlike drawing have become realised…

Plus, when she’s going through the wormhole itself, as Jodie Foster reveals on the DVD commentary, the directional changes are all controlled by how Ellie moves her head, not by the pod itself.

But then, what’s the spaceship she sees halfway through her journey? Is that there to inject doubt in our minds, and lend her credence? If you missed it, here it is…

So is that real? Did she imagine that? It’s not like, unlike the book, she brought any notable physical evidence back with her?

And the film acknowledges that. I love that Contact spends a good ten minutes questioning whether Ellie was believing this had happened, or whether it actually had. What’s more, for a film that keeps returning to the balance of faith and science, it would have been a fascinating, brilliant ending, had that been left in the air, and kept things quite vague and open to interpretation.

To a degree, it still does, but there is one thing about Contact though that’s always bothered me. It’s one line spoken by Angela Bassett at the end of the film, that removes some of would have been wonderful ambiguity from the final act. It’s where she reveals to Woods’ senate-wannabe that there were 18 hours of static on Ellie’s recorder. For me, at that stage, the ambiguity has gone. Because how else could it get there if Ellie’s story wasn’t at least partly true? We see from multiple angles the pod dropping through the machine in an instant. Where does 18 hours of static come from in that time?

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Some argue that the 18 hours line doesn’t resolve things anywhere as much as it I feel it does. But it feels just a little too definite and spoon-fed for me. Appreciating the book is far more conclusive and less vague about Ellie’s journey, it still feels like the film would be better without this moment. It feels like, in the argument between science and faith, so wonderfully balanced throughout the film, that Contact ultimately picks its winner.

Final Thoughts

Robert Zemeckis is often routinely labelled as a man heavily interested in the technical side of cinema, mainly because he is. But that overlooks his ability to draw excellent performances from his cast, and his skill at putting human beings at the heart of his stories. The Back To The Future trilogy is an obvious example of that, but you can find examples as far back as Romancing The Stone, and as recently as Flight. Few directors, in live action at least, balance the human and the technical quite so well.

Furthermore, as he reveals in the director’s commentary on the Contact disc release, and as mentioned earlier, the ‘contact’ that Zemeckis was looking for wasn’t the search for life in the universe. It was signified in the moment where Palmer and Ellie join hands at the end. It’s an interesting moment just before that, too, because Ellie – the scientist throughout – has become a symbol of faith to many in the crowd outside where the film’s hearing scene had been taking place. As is also pointed out on the disc, religions have been built with less than you see in the film.

Contact is a film, in blockbuster clothes, that allows many interpretations, plenty of debate, and delves into lots of ideas. It also deals with very big subjects, that big movies more often than not tend to avoid. It remains as interesting a piece of cinema as it was on release, if not more so. And it’s to the credit of all concerned that it blends its intelligence and ideas with a compelling, entertaining Saturday night movie. It may struggle for attention sometimes in the crowded back catalogue of Robert Zemeckis, but for me – and I don’t say this lightly – it’s one of his very best films. 

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