Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part XI: HITLER LIVES ON VEGA


Contact is perhaps not the best film it could possibly be, but that doesn't stop it from being the best film to tell its kind of story since 2001 itself.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by James V. Hard and Michael Goldenberg (based on the novel by Dr. Carl Sagan, as well as the original screenplay by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan)
With Jodie Foster/Jena Malone (Dr. Ellie Arroway), Matthew McConaughey (Palmer Joss), William Fichtner (Kent), John Hurt (S.R. Hadden), Tom Skerritt (David Drumlin), Angela Bassett (Rachel Constantine), James Woods (Michael Kitz), Rob Lowe (Richard Rank), Jake Busey (Joseph), and Ted Arroway (David Morse)

Spoiler alert: severe

If Forrest Gump meant a half-turn toward seriousness for old Robert Zemeckis, Contact uniquely represents its full-fledged embrace, with the director's legendary zaniness tamped down just about as far as he could get it, all in order to treat his adaptation of Carl Sagan's cerebral novel with the esteem in which he quite clearly held it.  Zemeckis, in fact, had already once refused to direct a script for Contact that had deviated from Sagan's wait-and-see ending; it was only Gump's blockbuster success that gave him the opportunity to film a version that was faithful to Sagan's wishes, something that I suspect became all the more important to him when Sagan died on the final leg of the film's long journey through development hell.

But the outcome (as I'm sure you already know) was a movie that pleased very few indeed—and although it tended to please those very few very much, one doubts that Warner spent $90 million in 1997 dollars in order to produce a cult hit praised mainly for its willingness to bore and annoy its intended mass audience.  Thus Contact became best-known as an easy punchline.  The most famous must be South Park's contention—"I sat through the whole movie to see the alien and it was her Goddamn father!"—though The Venture Bros., owing to its vast superiority both as a cartoon and as a comedy, clearly got the best dig in, when Dr. Venture happens to confront an alien traveler who's taken his dad's form, and Venture shrieks, "What kind of fucked up planet are you from, where you think showing up as my dead fucking father is supposed to make me feel any better?"

And love Contact or not, you've got to admit the man's got a point.

Contact is not a film for everyone.  It's Zemeckis at his least populist, and, despite Contact's very occasional intrusion of whimsy—principally taking the form of John Hurt's jolly Bondian supervillain and plot device—it's also his least intentionally crowd-pleasing.  Still, I can't imagine how anyone who was actually in the market for a sober-minded alien encounter procedural could have possibly come out of this sober-minded alien encounter procedural disappointed, since it is probably the most sober-minded alien encounter procedural ever made, even if—just like most alien encounter procedurals—it does ultimately wind up making its aliens yet another metaphor for God.

Outside of that, the film is more concerned with a careful study of humanity, as witnessed through the lens of one Dr. Eleanor Anne Arroway.  However, despite Ellie's militant secularism, we actually meet our science hero in the film's first gesture toward transcendence—for Contact begins with the longest zoom out imaginable, from Earth and through our solar system and out through our galaxy entirely, until we reach the edge of the universe itself, right before we discover the whole cosmos was always behind a small child's eyes.  It's a supremely effective gambit, this opening—and especially on a rewatch.  First, it lets us know exactly whose perspective we'll be sharing for the duration of this motion picture, and (just like Gump before it) point-of-view in Contact is seriously constrained, with the number of shots that take us out of Ellie's perceptions probably amounting to less than a dozen in aggregate (whereas nearly all of them can actually be found in just one scene, in the film's first coda, which not coincidentally is also the film's most noticeable misstep).  Second, this prologue underlines all of the fundamental themes of the film for us in that single juxtaposition: the universe can be perceived only through our senses, and we do the best we can with what we've got; meanwhile, the ineffable is slippery, but can be grasped by human reason; every last one of us is alone, ontologically speaking, each trapped within our own individual worlds of perception, yet we'll always yearn for companionship and understanding, whether we can get it or not; and, last but clearly not least, outer space is fuckin' radical, man.

Still, because this is Zemeckis we're talking about, and the man does not tend to waste his gestures unless they communicate something you can use right now, this CGI journey to the edge of the universe also kicks off the plot, because what our ears tell us we're doing here is following all the radio waves that we've been blithely beaming into space for the past sixty years—and, as we find out a little later, someone has been listening.

Carl Sagan is aware of your technical objections.  So let's carry on.

For the moment, Ellie's still a little girl, enamored with radios and astronomy, and though we get the distinct impression from the very pleasantness of her childhood idyll with her father that some tragedy must be waiting for them in the future, we leap to the present the instant we've established Ellie's credentials as a nerd.  When we catch up with adult Ellie, we find her squandering her elite education on the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence—much to the condescension of her bureaucratic nemesis, Drumlin, who kicks her out of Puerto Rico and sends her and her team begging for corporate charity.  She gets her funding when she manages to impress the as-yet faceless S.R. Hadden, eccentric billionaire; but four years later, Ellie's at the Very Large Array in New Mexico, and once again she's right on the cusp of being evicted by Drumlin, who doesn't want her using any of America's awesome radio telescopes for her frivolities whether the government is paying for it or not.  But, as fate would have it, on one of Ellie's last nights at the VLA, she picks up a signal from the vicinity of the star Vega that will change the world.

The project is quickly co-opted by the U.S. government, but since Ellie's already shared her discovery with scientists across the globe, it necessarily becomes an international effort—and even moreso once it's realized, through Hadden's mysterious intercession, that the signal contains (along with those retransmissions of our TV broadcasts of Adolf Hitler) the blueprints for an astonishingly complicated device.  To be specific, it looks like a transport.  The nations begin construction upon the machine, but the political wrangling has just begun: Ellie wants to go, but she has a lot of competition, from experienced astronauts as well as from Drumlin himself.  And so Ellie must navigate the hostile bureaucracy before her, not to mention a tricky relationship with one particular member of the selection committee, Palmer Joss, the young priest we saw Ellie pump and dump on Puerto Rico, four years earlier—but who reenters the story now in order to discuss (at perilous length) the seemingly endless duel between our faith in science and our faith in faith.

In the end, it's Drumlin who gets the mission—but nothing ends like that in the pictures, so when a religious fanatic much crazier than Palmer blows the transport and Drumlin to smithereens, and it turns out that Hadden's built a second transport, Ellie's the next in line to go through and see exactly what's waiting on the other side.  It turns out everything—and, as far as the rest of humanity's concerned, nothing, because when Ellie comes back, she's been gone only a fraction of a second, and has no proof at all that what she experienced was actually real.  Now a prophet in her own time, she takes Palmer's hand, and reconsiders the nature of belief.

Contact is at its most successful when it's committed to the situation at hand—first when it's dealing with the scientific mystery itself, and next when it's following Ellie through the political labyrinth that's sprung up around her and her discovery, of which the human tendency toward a belief in a god or gods is only a part, albeit a very important part.  Although I think we can all recognize that Ellie has approximately zero rightful expectation to be the single human chosen to go on this all-important mission—how her arbitrary discovery of the signal even suggests this to her is never made entirely clear—her desire to go to Vega and beyond the infinite is natural indeed, and it's easy to root for her.  Thus the uncovering of the aliens' message is thrilling, the bureaucratic tangles Ellie finds herself in are frustrating, and we share her emotions all the way through her travails—especially the frustration, as she gets pushed around and pushed out, thanks to being an atheist and, maybe worse, a woman.  (If Contact obviously belongs to Jodie Foster, you still have to give Tom Skerritt second place: his performance as Drumlin, devoted largely to cutting Foster off in the middle of her line reads and of generating critical levels of smarm, is so upsettingly insidious that when he spouts his transparent, self-serving bullshit, you almost believe that he believes it.)

I said earlier that Contact is committed to Ellie's perspective.  This had to have been a difficult limitation to overcome, given how much information has to be conveyed for the plot to function.  But that's where Zemeckis the genius storyteller comes in, and he takes full advantage of the technological milieu of Ellie's existence, coming up with a visual structure that mimicks splitscreen, except in-camera, with all the copious screens of Ellie's environs telling us what we need to know, while the camera itself stays fixed resolutely upon Foster, projecting the living hell out of all of Ellie's difficult feelings.  It works on a purely aesthetic level, too—Contact is just an enormously handsome film.  (But for a prime example, check out the way the action is broken up into discrete panels during the destruction of the first transport.  Each stage of the bombing is mapped out for us, until Ellie turns her gaze to the actual explosion itself.  It's just peerless filmmaking.)

And as for that famous mirror shot, hell if I can find a sound narrative reason for that, but it surely justifies itself upon the basis that Zemeckis is ridiculously devoted to technology.  (And mirrors.)

But while Contact is necessarily talky, it's only when it gets preachy that it loses track a little bit, not least due to the well-played but undercooked romance that tries to serve double duty as both the film's emotional anchor and its philosophical core, and winds up achieving neither goal completely.  (Palmer is, in fact, kind of a dick, merely mellowed out within Matthew McConaughey's humane, drawl-based performance.)  In the end, it's not even entirely clear exactly what Sagan and Zemeckis and the screenwriters are really trying to get at, other than the feel-good, New Democrat notion that Science and Religion (by which Contact means "a nondenominationally-liberal strain of Christianity") can still get along—especially when the part of Religion isn't being played instead by an unhinged Jake Busey or a slimy Rob Lowe.

The denouement is where Contact stumbles hardest: transparently an attempt to push its least-baked theme and to supply some kind of immediate drama to a story that ends, quite deliberately, with an anticlimax, I could live without everything that occurs after Ellie gets back from her cosmic odyssey, which is riddled with a huge number of quibbly story-logic problems, as well as all of the screenplay's trite attempts at closing the film's thematic circle.  But then, the (anti)climax has its problems too, when the aliens use the transport to get a taste of what human beings are like and giving nothing in return to our species as a whole, only to Ellie personally.  The aliens are, at least, reasonably coherent in their patronizing obscurantism; and yet it's such a terribly odd twist to a movie that might always have been about looking at the world through Ellie's eyes, but had nonetheless maintained a fittingly macrocosmic scope.  Contact would be far better if it played fairer with its premise, and left its God metaphors to fill up the space in the background along with its horny theologian.

But when Contact reaches for the ineffable, it even gets ahold of it—the voyage through the wormhole is as superb a riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey as we've gotten since Ken Russell reimagined it as an actual drug-fueled frenzy in Altered States (but, you know, I rather love Rick Carter's production design for Contact, particularly the detail of how the transport vehicle resembles a giant metal eyeball).  Likewise, Ellie's meeting with her alien-father-deity is both sweet and meaningful.  The thing is, mysticism simply hasn't been this film's operating mode—that has been diamond-hard speculative fiction.

I don't begrudge Contact any of this, really.  Its attempt to split the difference between the cold inscrutability of 2001 and the nonsensical warm fuzzies of Close Encounters is absolutely credited, for it is largely a success—and, indeed, Contact is trivially superior to Spielberg's movie.  ("Take that, Steve!" Zemeckis no doubt roared, at least until the numbers rolled in).  Yet, at the risk of belaboring my point, something just feels off about that ending: it is deliberately obtuse, when obtuseness has been something the film has scrupulously avoided in its feature-length celebration of human intellect.  Throw in the screenplay's lame sop to the audience—the "18 hours of static" Ellie somehow managed to record under the nose of an easily-bamboozled higher power—and you have a truly nettlesome ending, which can't even commit to its own damned ambiguity.

But I'd be a liar if I didn't admit that those problems don't amount to much within the context of the vastnesses that Contact explores—from the outer reaches of space, to the inner reaches of human need.  It's a wonderful film, and if a slightly better version of it could have been made, that's not much of a knock on the one that Zemeckis actually did.

Score:  9/10

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