Buried Treasures: Contact (1997)

on Friday, August 24, 2012
Buried Treasures is a column dedicated to things we feel have gone underappreciated, often both critically and commercially. // Words: Saam Das

Robert Zemeckis is one of the most lauded directors of his generation, helming classics such as 'Back To The Future', 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?' and 'Forrest Gump'. Carl Sagan was one of the world's foremost science communicators. When their powers combined, 1997 God-pondering science fiction film 'Contact' came to life with a relatively muted reaction.

'Contact' had begun life in 1979 as a screenplay (written by Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan) but as with many Hollywood films, it found itself in development hell. It would become a 1985 bestselling novel before the film project was revived in the early 90s, eventually directed by Zemeckis, following aborted attempts by Roland Joffé and George Miller.

The film starred Jodie Foster as Dr Eleanor Arroway, an astronomer who finds the first confirmed evidence of extra-terrestrial life through her work with radio telescopes. The communications reveal a blueprint for a machine designed for a single human occupant, thought to be a mode of transport. Dr Arroway is one of the candidates to travel in the machine but her selection hinges on her religious beliefs.

Instead, 'Contact' focusses on the tension between science and religion, positions of scepticism and faith. But the film questions whether this tension is a necessity - an argument most eloquently put forward when Matthew McConaughey's religious philosopher asks Foster's Dr Arroway to provide proof of her love for her dead father, which she cannot provide.

The film's finale sees the equation inverted as Dr Arroway implores her sceptics to take a leap of faith. Her impassioned and emotional response goes against typical scientific tenets, as well as having to contend an overwhelming lack of evidence for her beliefs. Strangely though, one piece of evidence is withheld but presented to the audience at the very end of the film, arguably undermining subsequent debate.

A much more sour note to come from the film was Francis Ford Coppola's decision to sue the estate of Carl Sagan just six days after he died, and twenty years on from a supposed breach of contract. Coppola's lawsuit claiming that he was partly responsible for the development of the film was thrown out but a bitter taste remains with his horrendously poor behaviour. Shame on you, Mr Coppola.

The film's big ideas and huge scope are contrasted magnificently by Alain Silvestri's introspective score, while the special effects still hold up to this day. Zemeckis is well known for showcasing excellent visual effects, pioneering and popularising motion capture with films such as 'The Polar Express' and 'Beowulf'. 'Contact' used a total of eight digital effects companies, from George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic to Peter Jackson's WETA Digital.

Fifteen years on from 'Contact', the world has become more secular. Yet 'Contact' remains as powerful as it ever was. Along with the likes of 'Gattaca' and 'Sunshine', 'Contact' is a rare sci-fi drama that provokes thought and debate, while still entertaining. A powerhouse performance from Jodie Foster and Zemeckis' stylish direction drive 'Contact' but it is the film's philosophies that keep it firmly lodged in our memories, despite its lack of awards attention. "For Carl."

'Contact' is available to purchase on Blu-ray and DVD at amazon.co.uk.

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