Matthew McConaughey's Other Space Movie: Looking Back on 1997's 'Contact'

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Matthew McConaughey and Jodie Foster in Contact

There is a film, a science-fiction epic, about an attempt to use wormholes to travel to distant galaxies. A film that deals with issues of science and faith, that’s unapologetic in the way that it supports mankind’s quest to explore the universe. A film that has as its emotional backbone the relationship between a father and a daughter. A film made by one of the most successful directors in the world and costarring Matthew McConaughey. The name of the film? Contact

In the run up to the release of his new movie Interstellar last week, Christopher Nolan has mentioned films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Right Stuff as inspirations for his own giant space adventure. But 1997’s Contact, which tells the story of a young scientist who discovers a message that appears to be first contact with an alien race, shares almost as much DNA with Interstellar as those movies, whether consciously or not. With Nolan’s film now in theaters, we looked back to see how its thoughtful, star-studded sci-fi precursor holds up today. 

Jodie Foster in Contact

The film version of Contact was almost twenty years in the making. Legendary astrophysicist, astronomer, and Cosmos host Carl Sagan began writing a screenplay with wife Ann Druyan in 1979, in the post-Star Wars mania for science-fiction. (Lynda Obst, now a producer on Interstellar, helped them develop it.) The script became a novel, published in 1985, then a script again, with first The Killing Fields’ Roland Joffe, then Mad Max director George Miller, developing the project. The latter fell out with the studio, and Robert Zemeckis, then hot off the Oscar-winning mega-hit Forrest Gump, stepped in. The resulting film was released in July 1997, where it proved a modest box-office success (Sagan, sadly, had passed away six months earlier, so never saw the finished film).

Like Interstellar, the movie divided critics: Roger Ebert called it “the smartest and most absorbing story about extraterrestrial intelligence since Close Encounters,” but Rita Kempley of the Washington Post said that the film “gradually falls into a lull and finally succumbs to entropy.” If a consensus formed, it was that the film was laudably ambitious in its attempt to grapple with big concepts, but despite its visual imagination, didn’t really succeed in its quest: As Peter Travers put it in Rolling Stone, it was “a film of ideas, but serves too many of them half-baked.” 

The film’s ambitions are clear from the first shot, even if, bizarrely, among first things you hear is the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” (not a gambit that Christopher Nolan is ever likely to try). It’s the kick-off to a bravura opening that pulls out through the cosmos, away from the Earth, out through the Milky Way and a thousand galaxies like it, before revealing that we’ve been in the eyes of science mad kid Ellie Arroway (played by a young Jena Malone), stargazing with her dad. Later the pair will be the focus of another famous, and seemingly impossible show-stopper of a shot that still dazzles film geeks, as an invisible camera tracks Ellie while she runs towards a bathroom mirror to fetch her dying father’s medication.

Ellie grows up to be played by Jodie Foster, as a driven and somewhat antisocial scientist working for the SETI (Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program in Puerto Rico. While there, she has a one-night stand with charismatic Christian philosopher Palmer Joss (McConaughey, on a very different side of the science/faith divide to Interstellar). One of the film’s most interesting elements come in its gender politics: With his dreamy surfer-dude hair and disappointed puppy look when he’s left alone in bed, McConaughey is essentially playing “the girlfriend” role, there mainly to look pretty while Foster does all the work. It’d be a refreshing twist in a movie in 2014, let alone in one seventeen years old.

The rest of the film — once Ellie is relocated to the Very Large Array in New Mexico and discovers a mysterious signal from the star Vega that seems to be instructions on how to build a galaxy-traveling craft — isn’t quite as boundary-pushing. At its best, the movie realistically examines how the world would react if first contact were actually made, from government heavies like James Woods’ National Security Advisor pulling rank, to the gathering of freaks and weirdos that turn up for the Cape Canaveral launch.

The movie is less effective when it comes to its more spiritual side: Ellie’s relationship with McConaughey’s Palmer fails to ever really dig properly into the science vs. faith argument, and her character’s quest being driven by her science-fan father ends up feeling rote rather than revelatory. Actual contact with the alien — the moment the film’s been building towards — should be something transcendent, but Ellie’s encounter with the extraterrestrial, taking the form of her father on a patently blue-screened beach, feels misjudged and treacly.

There’s still much to love in Zemeckis’ film, from the cunning design of the spacecraft, to Foster’s admirably sincere lead performance and some finely judged supporting performances (including William Fichtner’s best-in-show as Ellie’s blind scientist pal). Like Interstellar, its reach might sometimes exceed its grasp, but as with that film, the idea that a big blockbuster could grapple with huge questions makes it easy to forgive some flaws. If Nolan’s new movie left you looking to the stars this weekend, you could do a lot worse than making a return voyage to Contact

Watch a trailer for the movie:

Photo credits: Everett