by Eric D. Snider
Released: July 11, 1997
It is unusual for a summer blockbuster to inspire much actual debate.
Oh sure, you'll have people comparing the latest sequels to their predecessors, and you'll have psychologists saying that letting your kids see a dozen people getting eaten by dinosaurs can be disturbing to them -- but that's about as far as it goes.
Summer movies are usually "popcorn" movies, designed to be watched, enjoyed and soon forgotten.
This year's "Contact" was a rare exception.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis and based on a book by noted astronomer Carl Sagan, "Contact" deals with issues like the balance between science and religion, life after death, and extra-terrestrial beings. It's science-fiction oriented and spacey like a summer film, but high-minded and intelligent like a fall film.
And yet, the film has some serious problems, even beside its emotionally manipulative film-making techniques. (Didja like the slow-motion at the beginning where the little girl was running to save her dying dad? How about the maudlin scene where she tries to contact her dead father on the radio?)
No, the main problem with "Contact" is its overall message -- or, more precisely, the way that message is presented.
The theme of the movie is that it takes no more faith to believe in science than it does to believe in religion. In the end Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) is left with very little hard evidence to prove she met with aliens. All she knows is that SHE knows it happened, and she cannot deny it. For anyone to believe her, they simply have to have faith in her story. It's an ironic and interesting statement, and one that seems, on its face, remarkably pro-religion (or at least not anti-religion).
One problem, though. For 120 minutes before this, the movie relentlessly criticizes religion. Every religious character is shown to be either old-fashioned and naive (the guy who says, "We don't even know if these aliens are moral" is clearly not well-respected by the movie's other characters), or out-and-out insane (the religious zealot who blows stuff up, who of course is from Utah, stereotypical home of religious nuts).
The only religious character portrayed as being a normal, non-crazy person, is Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) -- and he sleeps with Arroway on their first date! I'd rather be one of the "zealots" they make fun of than an immoral pseudo-spiritual backslider like Joss.
Furthermore, Arroway, while speaking to Joss, gives two possibilities: Either God exists and refuses to make his presence known, or -- clearly the more "reasonable" possibility -- there is no God, and science is the answer to life's questions. A third scenario, the one that happens to be true, is not even mentioned as being possible: That God exists and gives abundant evidence of that fact to those who are willing to see it.
When people raise concerns about sending an atheist like Arroway as a representative of Earth, when an overwhelming majority of Earthlings believe in God, we are supposed to be on Arroway's side. But I agreed with everyone else! Arroway shouldn't have been sent! But that's not how the movie wants us to feel. We're supposed to roll our eyes at how silly it is that the issue of belief in God should even be brought up in a situation that clearly has nothing to do with it. "Look at how obsessive these religious people are!" is what the movie is saying, and we're supposed to agree with it.
So the movie goes along in this vein for two hours -- belittling religion, showing religious people to be pitiable, misguided souls -- and then suddenly changes. In the final ten minutes, we get this twist: That believing in science requires the same sort of blind faith that has been mocked by everyone for 120 minutes! Ho-ho, imagine the wackiness!
If it had been better executed, this would have been a marvelous ending, giving scientific credence, or at least respectability, to belief in God. As it is, though, it is too little too late. It's hard to accept that the ideas presented so vividly and one-sidedly for two hours weren't what the filmmakers were really intending to say -- that it was merely a set-up for a grand, ironic finale. Again, the idea of it is great. But Zemeckis' technique winds up celebrating the anti-religious sentiment, rather than making a skeptical audience reconsider it.
Rated PG, some intense action, mild language and a scene of sensuality
Copyright © Eric D. Snider.
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