Just about every piece of sci-fi has its mite of "meaning." In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a sci-fi movie -- even Attack of the Crab Monsters -- that doesn't work the Is God Out There? angle. Contact is being applauded because it presumes to rise above its origins, when, in fact, its origins are all of a piece with its pretensions.
And Contact sure is pretentious. It doesn't deliver on the deepthink, and it lacks the charge of good, honest pulp. It's schlock without the schlock.
The 1985 Carl Sagan novel upon which the film is loosely based started out as a movie treatment. But unlike most such treatments-turned-bestsellers -- Erich Segal's Love Story is the classic example -- you can't really spot an impending movie in the book. It's too chunky with data, and it barely registers a romance.
With his principled skepticism and his genius for popularizing science, Sagan certainly was a force for good in the world, but -- bless his heart -- he wasn't much of a pulpster or sentimentalist. In creating his heroine, Dr. Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway, he attempted to sanction his own high-flying fantasies within the comfy camouflage of fiction. But Sagan didn't have the novelist's skills or breadth of insight to bring Ellie and the book's many other characters to rousing, full-blooded life. What excited him was the science -- the arguments about its purpose -- and his characters were mouthpieces in the maelstrom.
Clunky as it is, what still comes through in the book is the spiritedness of the scientist's quest -- though in writing Contact, Sagan may not have recognized that his imaginative reach was far greater in his nonfiction books and television specials. Still, in whatever form it took, we can still respond to Sagan's ecstatic commingling with the universe.
That's the kind of ardor you might expect to find in the movie version of Contact, which until his death drew on the participation of Sagan and his wife and collaborator, Ann Druyan. But the Contact filmmakers -- Zemeckis and his screenwriters James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg -- are gassy with uplift. They provide the sob-sister sentimentalities and sermonettes that Sagan was too smart, or too clueless, to include. The filmmakers don't build on the intelligence in the book; they tenderize it. Contact is a movie about intelligence that doesn't credit the audience with having much of it.
The film opens with a creaky prologue in which little Ellie, whose mother died in childbirth, loses her indulgent beloved father. We're primed to recognize that this orphaned girl-scientist, whose father taught her to use a CB radio, is reaching out to the stars as a way to reach out to her parents. It's the kind of soggy psychologizing that condescends to us, as if without this bit of "heart" we couldn't appreciate Ellie's intellectual quest. Her resilient skepticism -- her unbelief in God -- clearly exists to be overturned in the same way that, say, pacifists in war movies end up fighting for the cause. What we are meant to think is: Ellie doesn't want to believe in God, because she can't comprehend why He would take away her parents. We know she'll come around, at least partway. Contact is bound to get kudos for being "daring" enough to feature an up-front unbeliever as its hero, but the dare is never really taken up.
Ellie's counterpart, in one of the weirdest roles in recent movies, is the religious scholar and White House spiritual advisor Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), whom she first meets while listening for extraterrestrial messages in Puerto Rico. He shows up looking shaggy and hip -- less Billy Graham than Bruce Springsteen -- and you think maybe he's a carny con artist. But, no, he's an angel of mercy. He does manage to score on the first date, but that's okay, because, you see, he's in love with Ellie and she with him, except that she can't bear the closeness and sprints from his bed and his life before things get too sweaty. (If the filmmakers had any sense of fun, they would have had Ellie the Unbeliever cry out, "Oh, God!" in the throes of passion.)
Years later Palmer reappears, groomed and telegenic, hawking on the talk shows his book Losing Faith: A Search for Meaning in Modern Life -- and danged if we still aren't supposed to take this guy seriously. By this time, Ellie is en route to her biggest coup: She will turn the world on its head by verifying that the rhythmic sonic squawks picked up by vast radio telescopes in New Mexico are in fact extraterrestrial messages. (They sound rather like a synthesized Rite of Spring.)