Contact (1997)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

A radio astronomer receives the first extraterrestrial radio signal ever picked up on Earth. As the world powers scramble to decipher the message and decide upon a course of action, she must make some difficult decisions between her beliefs, the truth, and reality.

It's incredibly easy to poke fun at, but this is undeniably top-shelf Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking… for all that entails. And despite its unconventional nature, this is also a movie that could only have been made in the 1990s, and not merely due to its unduly earnest New Age—cum—Forrest Gump tone and its unstated assumpted of the United States' dominance of the world stage as something in equal parts perpetual, unalterable and not even worth examining. Rather, the religious politics post-9/11 and the New Atheists and so on would mean that Contact's Clintonian unsatisfying triangulation between the so-called Big Questions of 'science' and 'faith' just wouldn't have flown in that new environment.

There are just so many observations I could make about this film from the vantage point of 2024. First, the film completely (and somewhat depressingly) nails exactly how network and cable TV would have covered a 'first contact' event, and it's scary to think that very little might have changed since then. Second, it's indicative of changing social attitudes how Jodie Foster's character was interpreted as an "astro-nun" back in 1997, whilst today she would be simply read as being neurodivergent — there are at least two scenes of her exhibiting stimming behaviours whilst on hotel beds that seem to explain a lot about her motivations and affect throughout the rest of the firm. Third, with its similar lack of aliens and its cringing insistence on its principles being authenticated 'by real scientists', Contact was essentially the model for Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (2014)... albeit the latter being portentous remake aimed squarely at guys who are Very Smart. (It's probably a coincidence that Nolan's latest, Oppenheimer, like Contact, also ends with a congressional hearing.) Fourthly, the US-centricity is often breathtaking. I mean, of course the only form of religion in the world of Contact is American-inflected Christian monotheism, and it was thus also entirely natural that the image transmitted back by the aliens pertains to the only preoccupation greater than God in the American mind: making everything everything about WW2. (Oh, and all the radio wave jetsam in the opening scene relates entirely to American popular culture and the whole sequence ends by zooming in on a white, blond girl.) Fifthly, the joke is surely on Clinton that his smirks and platitudinal blather (now standard for all politicians in the Anglosphere) can be transplanted into such an otherworldly conceit, and it fits perfectly.

ps. I actually love the idea that it was all a prank by S. R. Hadden.
pps. It's wild to think that this went up against The Fifth Element (1997) at the box office.


There are plenty of captivating moments. The array of huge radio telescopes is sometimes photographed to resemble modern versions of the Easter Island statues; the visual enhancement of a grainy image into a shot of Hitler is creepily unexpected; the sight of Arroway in her armor-like space suit marching toward her bizarre craft summons up unearthly echoes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, while her “trip” represents a distinctly modern, and technically advanced, version of the heady stargate sequence in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Todd McCarthy (Variety)


After almost two-and-a-half hours of tantalizing buildup, the closing scenes' meager payoff of banal, Jack Handeyish hoo-haw creates a frustrating sense of intellectual coitus interruptus. Granted, the same might be said of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Kubrick craftily finessed his ending with enigmatic images which left final interpretation to the viewer's imagination. All of which suggests that, when art addresses life's unanswerable questions, the wisest strategy may be simply to respect the mystery. It's a distinction that can make the difference between a hit — which Contact will be — and a classic.

Russell Smith (Austin Chronicle)


Highest praise to production designer Ed Verreaux and the visual effects team for the brainy look [of the alien device], an inspired mix of Leonardo Da Vinci and Niels Bohr.

Duane Bryge (Hollywood Reporter)


McConaughey is more of a fashion spokes-minister than a man of the cloth. He carries the Holy Writ as if it were an accessory. You fully expect to see "Bible by Givenchy" in the credits. Foster, who's as tense as Joan of Arc at a weenie roast, comes off as the more devout of the pair. Unconcerned about her appearance, obsessed with Vega, her character is an astro-nun.

Rita Kempley (Washington Post)