Contact has such a fine pedigree, that it was pretty much inevitable it would win this award. Based on a novel written by the great scientist/writer/first-contact-enthusiast Carl Sagan, the film was directed by Spielberg-protégé and Back to the Future co-creator Robert Zemeckis. It’s a first contact story, but one that focuses on science and (by Hollywood standards) plausibility.
Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) developed a love of astronomy and a curiosity about the existence of extra-terrestrial life from her caring father, who died while she was still a young girl. As an adult, she sacrifices her career to this obsession and spends much of time listening to the noise from radio-telescopes at the Very Large Array in New Mexico. She’s generally derided, though New Agey Christian guru Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey, at the point in his film career when we were still supposed to take him somewhat seriosuly) has a thing for her. On the verge of losing her funding, she hears a signal from the star Vega. The signal is full of information, including the plans to build a mysterious machine. James Woods, as Evil Government Man, and Tom Skerritt, as Evil Competitive Sell-Out Former-Teacher Man, try to co-opt the project to forward their own careers, but Ellie manages to hang on, thanks in part to the most ridiculous part of the film, the patronage of an extremely mysterious super-rich super-genius named Hadden. Jake Busey plays a Busey, i.e. a madman who screams incoherent nonsense. Ellie eventually gets to use the machine, and….maybe….communicate with the aliens.
It’s a very well-made and well-acted film, and despite some Hollywood-style melodrama, it manages to feel more grounded and relevant than most sf films. The second act drags a bit, but it’s pretty compelling nonetheless. Most importantly, Sagan, Zemeckis et al manage to make this a film about science, and they convey the stimulations, challenges, and overall excitement of scientific discovery. I’m a strong believer in the idea that the world needs more positive depictions of science as a method and as an occupation.
The real theme of the film is science versus faith, and I think the movie manages to pull it off while still doing justice to each side. The theme plays out through a debate between Ellie and Palmer, and both characters manage to present their case and see the other’s point of view without really compromising their firmly held beliefs. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but this movie manages to navigate it nonetheless.
Solid script, solid acting, solid directing, clear themes...throw in some good special effects, and you have a film that really is Hugo-worthy….though 1997 was a great year for sf films. I obviously liked this better than Men in Black. Starship Troopers is a truly stupid movie that many people enjoy; I didn’t like it at the time, but maybe I need to rewatch it to see if there really is some great satire that I missed. The Fifth Element is as different from Contact as you can get, but I think it’s fun and interesting. Gattaca is the real under-appreciated gem of this year; it would have gotten my vote over Contact. I can’t complain though.
2011 Hugo nomination announcements this weekend (finally).
My guesses are here.