Admittedly, a big part of the appeal of "Shelf Life" (as a film writer, anyway) is having a legitimate excuse to go back and watch a lot of movies we remember loving, partially for the hell of it, and partially because we wonder if our feelings have changed significantly over time. Interestingly, this has thus far not begat a lot of pure reassurance, nor transformed initial or even evolved/ devolved reactions; rather, it's given us a window into – and more specifically, a stronger argument for – some of the appetites and interests we've developed as our sensibilities as moviegoers (much less critics) has evolved.
This week's case in point is Contact, Robert Zemeckis' 1997 film about humankind's first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. Released during the summer after my college graduation, when I was at the height of my pretentiousness as a cinephile, it nevertheless knocked my socks off when I saw it, combining a sense of wonder with technical proficiency and an emotional sophistication that wouldn't register with yours truly until much later. If it still has – which is precisely why it's this week's "Shelf Life" subject. (Well, that and the fact it's just been released on Blu-ray by Warner Home Video.)
The Facts: Released in July 1997, Zemeckis' adaptation of the Carl Sagan novel of the same name went on to earn more than $100 million domestically at the box office against its estimated $90 million budget, and ultimately generated some $50 million in additional revenues on home video. Although it was nominated for only one Academy Award – for Best Sound – it netted recognition from a number of different groups around the country, and continues to enjoy a 66 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: Jodie Foster gives a powerful performance as Ellie Arroway, a born scientist who devotes her life to finding other creatures in the galaxy as a way of reconnecting and communicating with her dead parents. If I make it sound a little hokey, it isn't, mostly because Foster gives her underlying motivations a gravitas that make them authentic. Meanwhile, the media-reading of the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence is right on the money – albeit perhaps more strongly religious than we might expect were those events to happen today – and deconstructs the frenzy of analysis, speculation and hype that could – and probably would – overwhelm the true value and meaning of such an event.
Finally, the special effects are really, really terrific; excepting a couple of less convincing composite shots of live-action footage and computer-generated imagery, the conception and design of the alien transport/ communication device is breathtaking to behold, and Zemeckis synthesizes his obsession with effects-based storytelling most effectively in this film with, well, a story worth telling.
What Doesn't Work: If anything, the romance between Foster's and Matthew McConaughey's characters. While their blossoming relationship serves a value purpose as physical manifestation of the strange and sometimes uncomfortable thematic bedfellows of science and religion, McConaughey is slightly too practiced, and Foster too driven to really find one another all that interesting. Or, perhaps as a result of the film's two-hour-and-33-minute running time, some of the development of their relationship got chopped out; the two actors share a modest amount of chemistry, but her attraction to him seems almost purely physical, leaving her motivations for deeper connection underdeveloped as the film progresses.
What's The Verdict: Contact is by far one of the best hard-science films released in American cinema, perhaps and perhaps the best (except for Close Encounters, if that counts) since Stanley Kubrick's 2001. Building upon Sagan's fertile source material, Zemeckis constructs a compelling human drama that has larger-than-life dimensions, pays off as a visceral ride and intellectual exercise, and tackles virtually every aspect of its premise. Ellie's journey not only confronts her with her greatest fears but challenges her strongest thoughts, rewards her and transforms her at the same time, and still manages to offer a strong foundation against which audiences can discuss the scientific and theological implications of an event like the one that happens in the film.