The work of genius that is Contact

Once in a while you get an epiphany so intense, that you either immediately seek someone to talk to about it, or to somehow record it – writing it down, perhaps – just so the moment is captured, is forever remembered, and is shared. Today I have had such a revelation, and I must write it down or I will simply burst into tiny fragments more numerous than all the stars in the galaxy (which, I’ve learned from Stephen Hawking, is pretty damn a lot).
Here, I’m not talking about the time I finally figured out how to work the sensor taps they have installed in all the mall toilets nowadays (which I do). Nor am I talking about finally understanding the importance of including Moral Studies in our universities as a prerequisite module for a degree of any kind (which I don’t).
I’m talking about something most of us deem so trivial and so mundane, that most of you will probably snicker at this curious thing that has made me so eloquent. The epiphany I have is about the a motion picture you may have even seen – Contact.
A little background: Contact is a scifi book written by Carl Sagan, and was adapted for film sometime ago, directed by Robert Zemeckis and stars Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey. The story is about how Dr Eleonor Harroway, a preeminent researcher and astronomist discovers signals emanating from deep space, presumably from intelligent lifeforms seeking to make contact. The signals are deciphered, and what follows is a journey of discovery, of mankind’s hopes and fears, and ultimately, perhaps surprisingly, about faith. The whole film is about faith – about holding on to your beliefs, and discovering just how people from polar opposites in philosophy can come together to understand a universal truth about faith.
I remembered that I loved the movie the first time I saw it, and took away memorable things from it such as Foster’s performance, and the strong story. Watching it the second time, however, allowed me to see it with different eyes – a little more maturity, some background on the celestial bodies thanks to a recent reading of Stephen Hawking’s book A Briefer History of Time, and a more jaded sense of movie appreciation in general.
I take for granted that the movie didn’t butcher the story from the book too much, as Hollywood is wont to do. I’ve not read the book, but I’ve now seen the movie twice, the second viewing just ended as I started writing this. What I got from the movie this time around is simply fantastic. We see Eleanor grapple with early tragedy that fuels her current motivation, her stance as a scientist and her need for proof and her distrust of the concept of faith. The interplay between that principle with the other central character in the film which happens to be the ‘spiritual advisor to the White House’ (hah! A concept of a moral compass! I’m reminded of the phrase ‘Who died and made you the arbiter of truth?’). As Eleanor finally faces the issue of faith heads on, you begin to feel things you’d never feel while watching Star Trek.
The movie also explores the concept of an alien civilization, and how they ways may be completely out of our sphere of comprehension. It forces us to think of the possibility that despite our best efforts, we may not be able to truly understand the intentions and messages that an advanced civilization will tell us. Of course, Sagan uses this as a plot device and turns on its head the direction back to its central theme. The contact sequence really made me think. Suppose we discover that ants have gained sentient consciousness, but they are unaware of the universe of humans. They are sentient enough that they start sending out messages (by way of bread crumbs arranged in gigantic letters on the kitchen floor) seeking confirmation of an existence of a lifeform possibly larger than itself. What would we do as the human race to communicate back to the ants? Reply? Clean up the bloody mess? Will the ants understand?
And Jodie Foster. Aaah, Jodie, Jodie. There are pretty faces, there are talented actresses, there are celluloid thespians par excellence, and there is Jodie Foster. And to think I’ve not seen her in Silence of the Lambs. She is, without a doubt, the best actress of her generation, certainly one of the best actresses alive today. I can’t think of anyone being able to pull off what she has done with her character in Contact. If you’ve seen Contact a long time ago, and pooh-ed and paah-ed my statement – I challenge you to watch it again all the while studying the range of emotions she brings about in the film.
There were so many moments. Some of them: When she made her pitch for funding to restart her project – passion. When she makes her case to the selection committee – vulnerability. When she’s forced to explain herself – helplessness and railing against her disbelief in asking her audience for faith – the very thing that she didn’t believe in. Magic.
Contact is definitely the best science fiction film that I have ever watched – bar none. Yes, against every fiber of my being, I have to admit – it’s better than Star Wars. I put forth the movie’s merits based on the story, the themes, the message, the wonder it evokes, the emotion it brings, and the joy of appreciating a top talent at the peak of her craft. As a story, if this is standard Sagan fare, he’s just got himself a big fan. As a movie, this is masterful direction and a tour de force of entertainment. Zemeckis has made some of the best movies I’ve seen, and today’s viewing simply cements that perspective.
If I’m not wrong, Contact garnered no awards that I’m aware of, and certainly no recognition of the incredible, *incredible* performance Foster put into her character. It simply proves the sort of general bias typically shown towards genre movies. To those who shun this movie on the basis of it being a science fiction story, well, I only have this to say: you probably watch movies for their ability to engage you, to make you think, and to entertain you. This movie does that. What keeps you away? Aliens?
I cry out against the unfairness of it all that this movie isn’t as well known as it deserves to be.
Wait, wait. Any review or reasonable evaluation, epiphany or not, has to have a measure of fair highlights of the subject in question’s shortcomings. To lend an air of respectable balance, you understand. To this I say I wished that they didn’t cast Matthew McConaughey just so he wouldn’t be totally blown away by Foster’s performance. The contrast was almost embarrassing. Okay, okay – there was this part at the end which I thought spoilt the film’s overall theme on faith, and I felt the movie would improve if the 15 second scene was actually out of the story.
Now it’s way past my bedtime, and I know I will pay for it tomorrow. Plus I’m coherent enough to know that this isn’t the way I’d like my objective reviews to be – this is simply too lopsided, maniacal, subtle-less, even fanboy-ish to be taken seriously. But it’s also the way I’m feeling about the movie right now, and I have to capture this moment, have to store it for posterity. You know, just like an epiphany.
Man, what a moment.
p.s. After writing this, I did a little fact checking and found out that the movie did indeed win some awards, so I’m happy to say that my crying out has been assuaged… somewhat.


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