Robin Dougherty reviews the movie 'Contact,' directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, based on the novel by Carl Sagan.

Published August 11, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the phantasmagoric opening shots in "Contact" -- in which the camera slowly pulls back from the Earth to take in the infinity of the solar system, the Milky Way and finally the whole bottomless universe -- set up the intellectual mystery that steers the movie. A series of blinking lights, muted color fields spiked by neon shades, humongous far-away clouds that look like -- oh, a girl and her dog -- it could all be the microscopic mappings of a human cell. Or the light show that goes with the "Back to the Future" ride at Universal Studios.

At any rate, as the screen unfolds, so does our movie-viewing mind, trying desperately to make sense of what's in front of us. The human eye always wants to recognize what it sees. At the same time, we want to believe that there are experiences that defy easy explanation. That's the driving idea behind "Contact," Robert Zemeckis' intrepid movie version of Carl Sagan's 1985 bestseller, which itself grew out of an idea that Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan, once had for a movie. Faithful to Sagan's brand of popularized science, the film never reaches beyond Hollywood spectacle and sentimentality.

And yet -- as is the Sagan way -- it lets science hold its own against religion without reducing either to mush. That hasn't stopped Michael Medved, self-appointed Hollywood spokesman for family values, from declaring, on CNN's "Crossfire," that "Contact" is anti-religious. Did Rob Lowe's depiction of a crackpot, Ralph Reed-esque Christian right leader hit a little close to home? (To get a look at what may be a growing backlash against the movie, check out the newsgroup rec.arts.movies.current-films.)

A great deal of the power of "Contact" comes through Jodie Foster. In her first role in three years (since 1994's embarrassing "Nell"), she brings to the screen what's possibly the most complete portrait of a scientist the movies have ever given us. A born skeptic, Ellie Arroway lost what little spiritual faith she might have once possessed as a result of losing her parents in childhood. She's alone in the universe and she knows it, yet since the years when her father taught her to plumb the night skies with her ham radio, she's wanted to believe there's someone else out there.

She grows up and goes to work for SETI, the institute that studies radio waves from outer space, hoping to get a signal from little green men. Or -- in Sagan's conception -- extraterrestrial mathematicians who transmit bleeps in groups of prime numbers. One day a sound pattern comes in that Ellie's fellow astronomers agree is "not local." Encrypted in the message -- it comes via a television signal transmitting images of Hitler, the last broadcast the senders got from us -- is a set of blueprints for some kind of transport vehicle. Ellie recognizes it as an invitation. Before long the White House is involved, along with the entire world, in sending a representative human to shake hands with an alien species.

Ellie is paired with Palmer Joss, a hunky seminarian-turned-presidential advisor played by Matthew McConaughey. With his golden halo of hair, he looks more like a young Christ than someone who attends White House briefings. He's the perfect foil for Ellie: He believes in God. More important, he's comfortable having experiences that his intellect can't manage. He's also taken with this woman. "How can I reach you?" he asks Ellie as he gives her his phone number, but it's obvious to her that a phone call isn't exactly what he means.

As romantic couplings go, McConaughey and Foster have a magnificent synergy. With their patrician good looks, they belong in a Victorian drawing room rather than a modern-day press briefing. And you don't really root for them to go to bed so much as to orbit, magnificently, around each other. They're mouthpieces for opposing ideas about the universe, yet they don't eclipse each other. In fact, they seem like two parts of a wondrous whole, each lit by the same nourishing sun, driven by a burning curiosity -- the real passion for knowledge that fuels both science and religion.

Thrown into the mix are James Woods as an arrogant national security advisor, Tom Skerritt as Ellie's former mentor and John Hurt as S.R. Haddon, the sort of eccentric industrialist now requisite for movies involving expensive scientific endeavors. Thanks to Zemeckis' Gump-like fondness for cultural montage, images of President Clinton have been manipulated so that he appears in press conferences on Ellie's discovery. (It's distracting, sure, but it works as a comic footnote on how most movies go out of their way not to specify a particular American president.)

As it labors through several false climaxes (the movie's too long by a good half hour), "Contact" dishes out a large portion of feel-good sentiment. It's one thing to stand up for faith -- according to "Contact," 95 percent of the world's population believe in a higher being. What's remarkable is the film's respect for the scientific process. You can walk away from "Contact" thinking Ellie is an agent of heavenly wisdom and scientific miracles. Or you can take comfort in the fact that nothing she experiences ever contradicts our human ability to remain open-minded and thoughtful in the face of the unknowable.

By Robin Dougherty

Robin Dougherty is a frequent contributor to Salon. She is a freelance writer who lives in Miami Beach.

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