Contact (1997)

Given the pedigree behind this big-budget studio adaptation of Carl Sagan’s source novel, you’d expect… well, I’m not sure exactly what went wrong but you’d expect something more than what ends up on the screen here. The first and most glaring problem the movie has is its main protagonist: As played by Jodie Foster, she’s imbued with a sturdy awareness and steely resolve that’s completely at odds with her character’s dialogue, behavior and goals. In one scene, she’s unreasonable and out-of-line, and five minutes later she’s weak and easily steamrolled over, with no reason or discernable motivation for the inconsistent gap between the two states. Additionally, the screenplay saddles her with a barely-developed romantic interest in the form of Matthew McConaughey, who only functions to show up once in a while to publicly undermine her then condescendingly explain to her that his repeated betrayals are in her best interest. After seeing that play out a number of times, it becomes downright impossible to have any respect for either of them… which isn’t really what you want from your main characters. It’s such a damn shame too, because the storyline and its implications are so fascinating, so thematically potent and rich, so full of potential that it’s impossible to not get frustrated with director Robert Zemeckis and his repeated insistence on focusing on extraneous plot points that either only exist to show off the special effects, or to add unnecessary (and largely unresolved) personal conflicts among its many petty characters. Also, allowing McConaughey to have the last word despite serving no organic narrative purpose ends the movie on a sour note that only highlights how many mistakes are made by focusing on anything other than what made the narrative interesting in the first place. The story , special effects and Foster’s own magnetic sincerity manage to rescue the movie from being a complete misfire and make it at least watchable, but it’s a really, really close call.

Rating: ★★★ (out of 5)

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