What links French philosopher Voltaire, The Return Of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, an ancient king of Assyria, and Captain Picard’s tea? The link is one of my favourite films. That film hits its 25th anniversary this summer; that film is Contact. One other thing before I get going, there may well be spoilers. All I’ll say is if you haven’t already seen Contact, go away now and come back when you have!
I remember when it came out thinking, “Jodie Foster is always watchable. She hasn’t done anything since Nell, three years ago. Also, that young upstart Matthew McConaughey was very good in A Time To Kill.” It was, pretty much, a no brainer. I’m rather pleased to say that my first impressions have proven right and Contact is very firmly on my list of films to watch when I’m feeling too lazy to make a decision. As a result it does get played, at least, a couple of times a year.
In The Beginning…
I was hooked from the beginning. I’ve always been interested by those analogies regarding the size of the solar system. You know what I mean…if the Sun was the size of a grapefruit, Earth would be a grain of sugar over fifteen metres away and Neptune would be a grape 439.768 metres away. Contact starts with just a studio ident and the name. It goes straight into a shot of the Earth from, about, the distance of the ISS; you can see from Florida to part way up the East Coast. The sound is Third Eye Blind’s Semi-Charmed Life which was, I understand, what the hip young things were listening to around the time the film came out.
The camera then starts backing away as the soundtrack melts into the Spice Girl’s Wannabe. We go further back until we pass the Moon. As we go further away from Earth, so the sounds we hear also get older and older: A Taste of Honey’s Boogie Oogie Oogie from 1978 accompanies us passing Mars. Neil Armstrong’s first words from the surface of the Moon are heard as we reach Jupiter. We pass out through the Oort Cloud and things start to get more faint and distorted as we travel through interstellar space.
Space Is Big…Really Big
The last things you can hear are We’re In The Money from Gold Diggers Of 1933. Then Franklin D Roosevelt’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” speech, also from 1933. From then on we leave our galaxy and it is all silence as we travel further and further back through intergalactic space. Eventually, there is a hissing that resolves into the sound of a young girl on a radio set…and the multitude of galaxies resolve into a close-up of her eye.
Now I know that it is all nonsense. The Oort Cloud is thought to be only about three light years away so the sound and distance is way off. But that’s not the point. It gives a very good impression of both the distances involved and the sheer number of celestial bodies out there. It then introduces us to the film’s lead character Eleanor Ann “Ellie” Arroway (with Jena Malone as young Ellie). All of that in under five minutes. Not bad for an example of concise storytelling!
Then we are introduced to Ellie as an adult (Jodie Foster). She is shown to be a highly intelligent woman. However, she appears to be using that intelligence in a way that is not doing her any favours. She is interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, casually dismissed as the hunt for little green men or waiting for a phone call from ET. In short, no one takes her seriously. Her boss David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) actually takes steps to stop her from working, claiming that the field she is studying is akin to professional suicide.
He pulls her research funding so she has to leave the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Undeterred, Ellie goes off to find alternative, private funds so her team can continue their search by renting time on the Very Large Array at Socorro, New Mexico, USA. However, even here, Drumlin flexes his government connections. He manages to get notice served on her and she has to be out within three months. That is until she only goes and does it!
A whoomping noise starts which is reminiscent of the TARDIS starting up. Panic stations! The whole team check out this new signal. They rule out any chances that it may be weather balloons, defense systems, already discovered pulsars, etc, and find out that the noises are coming from near Vega. The regular whoomp, whoomp continues, and someone starts ticking them off on a piece of paper.
Then they discover that the noises are not just regular but they are in a definite pattern. The noises are coming in groups of one, two, three, five, seven, eleven…they are counting out all the prime numbers between one and one hundred and one.
This is a definite message, rather than just random noises.
From that point on Ellie’s work is not so pie in the sky! Everyone comes hurtling to New Mexico where the discovery was made. By everyone, I mean Drumlin, who is now telling anyone who’ll listen that it’s his project, and National Security Council leader Michael Kitz (James Woods). Kitz comes with a posse of heavily armed me. He assumes that the aliens are intending to take over by force.
There’s More Here…
Before long Ellie’s team start noticing that the signal is not just prime numbers being knocked out on an old rug with a carpet beater. There’s a lot of static and some sound and video information. There are all manner of red faces when the sound and video tends to be a recording of Hitler opening the 1936 Berlin Olympics! Kitz assumes this backs up his argument. All the science people point out that it’s just the first TV signal with any strength that the Vegans have picked up and sent back.
Patterns In The Chaos
At this point I’d like to point something out. When I watch films with the intent to write about them, I tend to watch them with the subtitles on. This way I can pick up any muffled or fluffed lines and make sure I’ve heard them properly. One thing that struck me was that the residents of the Vega System were called Vegans. Now, I know that the practice of not eating anything that exploited animals was known about last century. But vegans weren’t as prominent as they are today. Just so you know; Vegans = people from Vega, vegans = people who don’t eat or use animal products.
From then on there is a three way fight; the scientists, the military, and the religious people. One particularly nice line is when Ellie is arguing with a Presidential committee about whether or not this is a scientific or a religious message. She says, “If it had been religious in nature, it should have taken on the form of a burning bush or a big booming voice from the sky” to which the President’s spiritual advisor, Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) says, “But a voice from the sky is exactly what you found, Dr Arroway!”
Hydrogen Times Pi!
Oh, I suppose I need to point out where I stand in all this. I am an atheist. My father was an agnostic but I just put that down to a lack of faith. As a result, I do feel that some of the religious arguments are fatuous at best and just plain ludicrous and illogical at worst. “The person we’re sending on a possible suicide mission to meet with a proven scientifically literate alien species has to believe in at least one of the thousands of gods that have been worshipped at some time in the past on this planet.”
But, anyway…things develop, things change, stuff blows up both literally and metaphorically, and the good guys, the not-so-good guys, and the downright bad guys (Jake Busey is amazing!) all get their turn in the spotlight and do what they have to do to contribute to the smooth running of a quite intriguing story. Let’s face it though, it wasn’t going to be a clunker with Robert Zemeckis at the helm. He’d already made Romancing The Stone, Death Becomes Her, the Back To The Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump so it was bound to have something going for it.
More Stars Than There Are In Heaven
Also, there were others in the cast that I hadn’t really seen before but would come to be firm favourites of mine over the years. David Morse as Ellie’s Father and William Fichtner as blind astronomer Kent Clarke are ones that particularly spring to mind as, over the years, I’ve seen them in many various roles.
There is also the appearance of John Hurt as the mega-rich industrialist with fingers in many pies: SR Hadden. He has been following Ellie’s career and progress since she was a child. Also, he has pulled strings to help her right up to his death.
Is it perfect? No. When President Clinton makes his speech he is supposed to be inside the White House press room. However, the lighting shows that the clip was taken from the actual press conference on the White House South Lawn. Having said that, it was the early days of computer assisted picture editing. If it was made today I’m sure that it would appear seamless. It was more important that there was existing footage of an actual sitting (at the time) president and he was saying lines that could have been scripted for the film.
We Will Continue To Listen Closely
One thing that irritates me is the pronunciation of a simple word…primer. I’m guessing that the rules that govern the sound a vowel makes must be different over in the USA. Over here adding an ‘e’ to a word that ends in a vowel and consonant changes how the vowel is sounded; fat/fate, bit/bite, and prim/prime. It’s called a “Magic E” in primary school and is much different to what a “Magic E” was in college. As a result over here “primer” is pronounced “pry-mer” but they insist on pronouncing it “primmer”. Obviously, that could just be me overthinking things.
Having said that, the computer imaging that they did do was very good, I’ve already spoken about the opening sequence and how much I enjoyed that but there is another shot that makes you go “what?” The long shot of young Ellie running up the stairs to get her father’s medicine was filmed as a normal shot would have been, then flipped and placed in the mirror which, at the time of shooting, was a blue screen placement in the cabinet. You’ll know the shot I mean if you’ve seen it. There are much more detailed explanations of how it was done, but that’s the TL:DR version.
A First Time For Everything
There were some firsts for Jodie Foster during filming. Jodie was so keen to get the technical jargon right, she asked for cue cards for the first time in her career. As well as that, this was the first time she had ever worked with blue screen technology. Afterwards she said, “It was a blue room, blue walls, blue roof. It was just blue, blue, blue, it was really tough.”
Things were initially imagined in a slightly different format. Producer and director Robert Zemeckis had initially approached Sidney Poitier to play the President, but he turned the role down in favour of The Jackal (1997). Meanwhile, Matthew McConaughey had dropped out of the lead role in The Jackal in order to be in Contact. Swings and roundabouts! Also, Gillian Anderson and Uma Thurman were considered for the role of Ellie Arroway, and Ralph Fiennes was considered for the part of Palmer Joss.
An Interesting Species
Sadly, author and producer Carl Sagan died during production. He was reportedly taking great care to ensure that the science was accurately depicted in this film. He was all set to cameo as a member of the committee selecting an occupant for the machine. Sadly, he died before that scene was filmed. Contact is dedicated “For Carl” at the end.
So, to finish I’ll look back at my opening question…what links French philosopher Voltaire, The Return Of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, an ancient king of Assyria, and Captain Picard’s tea?
1, According to co-writer Ann Druyan, the name of Arroway is a reference to French philosopher Voltaire. His real name was François-Marie Arouet and Arroway and Arouet are pronounced the same way.
2, During the reception, Ellie tells Palmer about a scientific principle called “Occam’s Razor”. Palmer says “Occam’s Razor? Sounds like some slasher movie”. Matthew McConaughey starred in The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1994.
3, SR Hadden’s name is taken from Esarhaddon, one of the ancient Kings of Assyria.
4, Ellie likes Earl Grey tea without milk or sugar, as does Captain Picard.
Oh, and so do I if anyone’s making a brew!
Movie Grade: A++
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Former teacher, lecturer, homelessness administrator, pharmacy dispenser now happily retired, happily married, and a very happy granddad. I live next to the Mersey but on the side Daniel Craig and Taron Egerton come from rather than the side the Beatles came from!