Contact (1997)

Twenty years ago this film was frequently given much praise by the pretentious film critics of the day, and mocked by people who knew better. In many ways, Robert Zemeckis’ Contact was and still remains an example of everything that is pompous and awful about Hollywood since the 1990’s. Bloated production budgets (this was made for $90 million), ludicrous, half-baked plots that are stretched out beyond reason, palliative moralising, and a mushy style of writing that oozes Oscar bait, and that’s basically what Contact was.

The story, longwinded as it was, revolves around Dr. Ellie Arroway, a woman who has been fascinated by science and communication since childhood, and now works for the SETI program at an observatory in Puerto Rico, listening to radio emissions hoping to find signs of intelligent life in outer space. She eventually gains funding from a secretive billionaire to continue her work in New Mexico, but her work falls under tight scrutiny from the government, and the world at large her discovery is broadcast around the world.

You would think this was a decent enough subject, but the film itself is boring. The pace is intolerably slow as the film wades through one snooze-fest of a scene after another, and the ending isn’t even worth it. We all know the raw deal we got from the film. A lot of hype is built up over the protagonist finding an alien, you wait for two and a half hours and then you find out that the “alien” is just her father, or rather some mysterious being taking her father’s form. It’s clearly supposed to be a schmaltzy sort of ending, and it’s just awful.

Another theme you’ll notice throughout the film is the writers’ attempts to shoehorn a debate between science and faith. The director of the film once claimed that the film was intended to deliver the message that science and religion can co-exist, but that’s not the message I got. In fact, if the film was trying to have a debate, it seems as if they’ve rigged it in favour of the science side of the debate. In the world of this film, all scientists are noble and righteous fellows, and there are few openly Christian characters who aren’t ignorant science-deniers, which is unsurprising considering that by 1997 it had become fashionable to demonise religious people. In that sense, the film isn’t so much a celebration of science, as much as it is a glorification of scientism.

The acting is all well and good, but the characters are terrible. I find it impossible to relate to any of the characters, especially not the film’s right-on “IFL Science” protagonist Ellie Arroway. Her whole story centred around how she “has” to get her way because it’s important to her, and anyone who doesn’t give her what she wants doesn’t care about science. At least this is what I get from her general tone. The other characters aren’t too bad, and I should at least give some praise to the late John Hurt’s character, the billionaire S.R. Hadden, whose performance was befitting of his enigmatic character.

I suppose the film’s main strength was in its special effects, which would explain the $90 million budget. But I think that’s one of the film’s fundamental problems, that’s mainly special effects and virtually little substance. The film as a whole was a bad attempt at “philosophical” sci-fi, and it was barely entertaining. What’s really sad is that the people who worked on the film are capable of better. I find it baffling how Robert Zemeckis went from Back to the Future to a film with all the hallmarks of a lazy, Spielbergian snooze-fest, and yet here it is. A film that mainly got respect from the snooty establishment film critics for being a half-assed progressive think piece disguised as a movie, but I bet it ended up being a film that most people only watched once, which I’d understand because the film isn’t even that good. Twenty years on, it’s time we accepted the reality that Contact was never a good film.

  • Score: 44%
  • Grade: E
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