My Favourite Films #5 of ? – Contact (1997)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by James V Hart & Michael Goldenberg from Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan
Starring Jodie Foster, Tom Skerritt, Matthew McConaughey, David Morse, Jena Malone, William Fichtner, James Woods, John Hurt, Angela Bassett, Jake Busey, Rob Lowe
Dr. Ellie Arroway, after years of searching, finds conclusive radio proof of intelligent aliens, who send plans for a mysterious machine.

I have Robert Zemeckis to thank for knowing what Occam’s Razor actually is. I had an inkling beforehand, but in 1997, I came across one of the best things that life can provide. Proof positive that I was not alone and other people were actually writing stuff down that I had been thinking all along. When you find that moment, and it is rare, it is a beautiful thing. The confirmation that there are indeed other like-minded people not only asking the same questions that you have been wrestling with all of your life, but they are also standing up and shouting about it.

 “Carl’s and my dream was to write something that would be a fictional representation of what contact would actually be like, that would convey something of the true grandeur of the universe.”
                                                                                                              – Ann Druyan 
The simple quote above from Druyan and the philosophy behind it is what brought people in droves to the cinema to watch the film. Whilst there has always been a marketplace for outlandish science-fiction fantasy, there was little available for fans of science-fiction that nodded sagely toward a possible reality. Contact, the concept, would never have seen the light of day with teleporting and photon torpedoes. It just wouldn’t have felt right.
“They should have sent a poet.”
For a child of science like myself, brought up to believe that science can provide the answers to everything, whereas possibly religion cannot, Contact seemed like it had been written entirely for me. As an avid philosophy reader, the themes approached of religion and human understanding were very appealing, not to mention how Sagan and Druyan managed to marry up the two disparate views so tightly in one coherent and very challenging narrative.
After being pitched, going into development, failing to get out of development, attaching a director, losing that director and then getting a new one, Robert Zemeckis was eventually installed as the man that would finally directed what would be the finished product of Sagan’s and Druyan original one-hundred page treatment, but not before turning it down once to make Harry Houdini instead. The character played by Jodie Foster, Dr Ellie Arroway was actually based on head of SETI’s Project Phoenix, Jill Tarter, and as part of the preparation for the job, Foster interviewed Tarter for a background into her role and the plight of female American scientists between the fifties and seventies. Tarter herself ended up becoming an advisor for the project.
Ellie’s character nearly ended up quite different, in fact, despite the studio liking the treatment delivered, the studio conjured with the ideas of Ellie having a baby at the end of the film and also already having a son as the character was introduced. Before Zemeckis finally agreed to direct, George Miller had been hired in 1993 to direct and it was he who cast Foster in the role of Arroway and also approached Ralph Fiennes to play the role of Palmer Joss (which was eventually taken by Matthew McConaughey).
When Zemeckis took over, he was give to total artistic control over the project. Miller had already been fired under a cloud about re-writes of the script requiring five more weeks and already being woefully behind schedule. Contact, as promised, should have been released in 1996, but clearly that was never going to happen. Zemeckis hired McConaughey (who in turn dropped out of the lead role in The Jackal to take the role of Palmer Joss).

  “The point of the movie is for there always to be a certain amount of doubt 
[as to whether the aliens were real].”
                                                         – Robert Zemeckis

An argument purporting to suggest that religion was nothing more than myth and science was the answer to everything was postulated in the film but never entirely argued convincingly. This was layered purposefully around the notion that Arroway was not religious, yet required belief from others about the story of her ‘journey’ to meet the aliens that had apparently sent blueprints for a machine that would send one person through space (and quite possibly time) to visit them. Essentially, what Arroway required from others by the end of the story was the very thing that was unable to grasp herself; that being ‘faith’. This, as much as anything, was the one thing audiences could take away and actually be challenged by. Too few films have questioned the viewer to such an extent, and fewer still conjure as much heated debate about a productions stance.

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