To Coldly Go

Contact is more like a close encounter of the turgid kind

What would any of us really do if we were contacted by extraterrestrials? It's a large question. Contact brings it back down to Earth with a thud by undercutting the awe with blather from government agency types such as National Security Advisor Michael Kitz (James Woods) and especially from Palmer, who still looks like he's on the make for Ellie. Their God-Exists-Does-Not-Does-Too byplay begins to resemble a weird mating dance between a hunky fundamentalist and a tight-ass libertarian. McConaughey, understandably, doesn't have a clue how to play Palmer, but he sure plays him atrociously.

Just about everybody in the cast comes across badly. As Ellie's mentor David Drumlin, Tom Skerritt is saddled playing a standard villain part; all he's missing is a silky mustache to twirl. Drumlin takes credit for Ellie's coups and even vies with her to be the first person sent into space to meet the aliens. (Those sonic squawks are encrypted blueprints for building a spaceship to their source, the planet Vega.) As a White House advisor, Angela Bassett looks poleaxed as the concept of prime numbers is explained to her; she carries herself with the rigidity of a grade-B player in a grade-Z sci-fi thriller. James Woods, especially when he's grilling Ellie in a Capitol Hill hearing, seems to be modeling himself on Senator Joseph McCarthy. He doesn't have his heart in the theatrics, though -- he's frivolously feral. John Hurt turns up as a reclusive, bald-pated weirdo billionaire who funds Ellie's liftoff to Vega. He's like a cross between Dr. No and Howard Hughes. (He's also one of the few sympathetic characters in the movie. Leave it to Hollywood to deify a venture capitalist every time.)

And then there's Jodie Foster. You can see why she was cast as Ellie: Very few actresses can project intelligence as pointedly as she can. Foster is trying to get inside Ellie's rage for discovery without softening her for us. The problem is, Ellie could use a little softening. With her lips clamped and her jaw set, she is like a walking migraine. If her face were pulled any tighter, she'd be a skull. Foster's abrasive, unyielding performance confronts the current notion that women can score with audiences only if they play nice. Julia Roberts's career may have spooked a lot of actresses -- smile and the world is yours, scowl and you lose it all. Foster has never played that game. She goes her own way, the way Bette Davis did, and, as in The Accused or The Silence of the Lambs, she can be powerful when she's playing a character fighting through her anguish with her smarts.

But Ellie -- anguished, smart -- also needs to be a romantic, and Foster fights that with every inch of her being. That's partly because she doesn't want to stoop to easy pleasures, but I think it's also because, as an actress, Foster lacks the expansiveness of soul that would make this woman come alive for us. She's much better at holding in than letting go.

The movie audience for independent and foreign films -- what used to be called the art house audience when there were still art houses -- has often been taken in by the appearance of seriousness. (Ingmar Bergman played the science versus faith game when Zemeckis was still in diapers.) Contact represents the mass-audience version of gulling the audience with high importance. It appears to be saying a lot -- but what? When Palmer, who, unlike Ellie, never wavers in his beliefs, says to her, "Our goal is the same -- the pursuit of the truth," he's just offering a sop to the audience. (We wouldn't want to alienate any truth-seeking ticket buyers, would we?) And when Ellie tells some schoolkid scientists at the end to "keep searching for your own answers," it's more sop. After all, we've just been through two and a half hours of derring-do during which all manner of scurvy scientists and politicians have indeed been searching for their own answers. Has it improved their souls? Contact, for all its high-mindedness, isn't really about mind at all. It's about being pure in heart enough to be mushy-brained.

Isn't this the same formula that worked for Zemeckis in Forrest Gump? Forrest was the simpleton whose purity of essence trumped the worldly malcontents in his midst. Ellie is as smart as Forrest was stunted, but they are equal in the end in being sweet-souled. In Contact, as in Forrest Gump, there's something suspect about braininess. Intelligence, it's implied, keeps you from truly feeling.

This is an odd implication coming from a movie about scientists, but it fits right in with the popular mood. For Hale-Bopped audiences feeling crunched by the technology that was supposed to make them happier, Contact is here to tell you it's going to be all right. The aliens beckoning us turn out to be as sweet as Forrest Gump and as wise as Yoda. Just keep searching for your own answers, and don't sweat the millennium.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis. With Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt and Angela Bassett.

Rated PG.
151 minutes.

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