Dir. Robert Zemeckis
(1997, PG, 149 min)
★ ★ ★ ★

I don’t think a film like Contact would get made today, just thirteen years after its original release. Or if it did get made it would be cast with Angelina Jolie instead of Jodie Foster and conclude in a CGI-driven action climax. That’s how current science fiction sometimes gets away with having ideas. Excellent films like District 9 and Inception cloak their provocative themes in explosive action sequences — very good and satisfying action sequences, it must be said, but action scenes nevertheless, which big-budget blockbuster films must have as a prerequisite in today’s post-Michael Bay marketplace.

Contact has some superb visual effects scenes, but they’re not intended for adrenaline thrills. One is a suicide bombing intended to show a fanatical religious fear of scientific discovery. Another is a trip through a galactic wormhole that shows us a different world, one that perhaps doesn’t exist at all. What really drives the film are scenes about God and science, those two most traveled avenues in pursuit of the truth of human existence, and in a bold feat the story, based on Carl Sagan’s novel, manages to collapse the barrier between empiricism and faith.

Director Robert Zemeckis directed this next after winning the Oscar for Forrest Gump, and he gives scenes time to unfold, gives his main characters room to express thoughts and feelings and to explore complex ideas. He develops great suspense without relying on action; consider one of my favorite scenes, in which astronomer Ellie (Foster) first hears an extraterrestrial signal and races back to the research station, announcing satellite coordinates over walkie-talkie. The dialogue is all jargon, but the dramatic urgency is exhilarating.

The film makes two significant errors. (1) Matthew McConaughey, coming off as a shallow pretty boy with overly coifed hair, is out of his depth as Palmer Joss; I don’t believe him as a renowned theologian any more than I believed Denise Richards as a physicist in The World is Not Enough. (2) A few supporting characters are flattened where depth is needed, in particular James Woods’s national security advisor, who is extremely overwrought in the climactic committee investigation scene, rising from his chair in furor and I swear thisclose to bellowing “You can’t handle the truth!” But listening to Ellie’s response, which in a single moment of impassioned conviction finds reconciliation between science and religion, makes the film’s flaws seem less flawed than its accomplishments are accomplished.