by Jerry Herron
"I want to be alone," Greta Garbo famously proclaimed and then got what she asked for, only to end up feeling betrayed in her opulent isolation: "But I never said I wanted to be left alone."
Americans are like that. We wanted to be alone, which is why we invented a New World in the first place. And here we are, alone: in our cars, in our houses, fronted by our self-watering lawns, with the windows closed, the air conditioners going, sitting on the couch with our remote controls, as far from each other and the old, shared forms of life as our money can get us, which is pretty far. And now we're afraid we'll be left alone.
That's where Contact director Robert Zemeckis comes in -- along with other practitioners of summer-movie, blockbusting therapeutics. They've put two and two together, these purveyors of alien-nation, the two in this case being the two elements of Americans' conflicted profession of belief, with better than 90 percent of us saying we believe in God (variously defined) and at the same time three-quarters professing belief in extraterrestrials. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, although the urge for ETs implies that just between us and God, most of us are feeling left alone.
So the summertime movie season turns into an off-world block party, with filmmakers offering a vast array of "hailing" options (in which humans get hailed by ETs the way you would hail a cab), from benevolent to evil, each proposing fictions of alien contact that will (producers hope) revitalize the myths we say we want to go on believing.
Within this genre, Contact is a brilliant film of its kind, its kind being big: big budget, big effects, big script (based on a Carl Sagan novel), big Hollywood (director Zemeckis also directed Forrest Gump). And also big in the questions it raises. Are we alone? Are people who believe in God just fooling themselves? Is science the enemy of belief? Is there room in a big movie for individual life?
Starting with the last question, the answer is a definitive yes, thanks to a performance by Jodie Foster that can only be called luminous. Which is definitely a big-film word, although Foster manages to downsize the space she inhabits to believable, and poignant, human scale. Her performance animates the crucial question posed by the film and by our predicament generally. Can real human feelings exist, and be shared, in a world grown so relentlessly and expensively and impersonally Big? She makes a positive answer seem downright believable.
Not that Foster's alone in her endeavor. The supporting cast is fine, with Tom Skerritt as a double-dealing big scientist, Angela Bassett in for big politics, John Hurt as a big-time Silicon Valley eccentric and Rob Lowe (in a wonderful cameo) as a big-slime religious demagogue. Only Matthew McConaughey is a big disappointment as a new-age theologian and Foster's putative love interest.
Which returns things to the big questions about God and science and extraterrestrials.
The film confronts these straight on and with intelligence, Foster's character -- an idealistic young astronomer -- managing, through personal integrity, to get the better of the big forces arrayed against her. She's the one who understands the radio-telescope message from beyond and she's the one who ends up making contact with the ETs, in a pod built to their specs. (The rendering of the ensuing contact is brilliant.) And then she has to reconcile, as our proxy, the big questions about belief in science versus belief in God.
"I've been given a vision that confirms," Foster's character explains to a congressional panel, "that we are not, that none of us are alone." It's a hail of a proposition.
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