I can distinctly remember seeing the TV spot for Contact back when I was in grade school and thinking to myself how magical it looked. Having just become more than slightly obsessed with astronomy, telescopes and the idea of alien intelligence out there somewhere in the cosmos (what 12 year old dork wasn't?) I was more than prepared to see a pitch perfect telling of a story from one of the great cosmic minds of all time (Carl Sagan that is) carried out by one of the most fantastical filmmakers of all time (Robert Zemeckis of course). I don't need to tell you I got my wish as the following weekend my father took me to see what was and has remained truly one of my favorite movies of all time. The visuals, the pulsing sound of "the signal", great performances all around and the epic scope of the story itself all make for a fantastically entertaining and revealing account of what happens when science fiction meets science fact.
I love Robert Zemeckis. He is responsible for some of the most cinematically memorable moments of the last 30 years. Everything from Forrest Gump and his innumerable set pieces (most famously the "Run, Forrest, run!" scene perhaps) to Marty McFly and his time traveling Dolorean ("anyone home, McFly?") was an oft spoke line in my house growing up) to dare I say Roger Rabbit. He is that rare artist who can seamlessly blend fact and fiction, reality and fantasy in order to create a unified truth. I find this revealing and poignant as his characters often find themselves doing the same thing. Realizing through the dichotomy of life, the ying and the yang, that what really anchors us to this world is that which makes us nobly human: personal growth, the pursuit of knowledge, heroism and love. That no matter what you believe, none of us are alone. I would continue on but the "no man is an island unto himself" quote seems too perfect a caption for Zemeckis' Castaway and so I think you get the idea.
In Contact, Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) is a SETI research scientist scoffed for her convictions that there may be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. After years and years of setbacks vindication comes in the form of an apparent message from deep space. What ensues is a political and social melee in which everyone attempts to position themselves for the biggest chess game of all time. As it becomes clearer that the message is in fact building instructions for a transport of some kind, the issue becomes who gets to go. As the selection process ensues, Elle battles with the question of staying true to her ideals as she deals with both the question of her future but also the death of her father (David Morse) many years in the past. Along the way she is aided and hindered by many cohorts including David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), the opportunistic science advisor to the president; Kent Clark (William Fichtner), a sort of father proxy to Elle and mentor of sorts; and Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) as a "special" advisor to the president who plays well as both Elle's love interest and philosophical complement to her is an atheist and Palmer sometimes dons the title "father," having dropped out of seminary years earlier.
Rather than erring on the side of fantsatical, as Zemeckis often does- for instantce all of the major historical moments Forrest Gump finds himself rotoscoped into- here Zemeckis stays as close to the facts as possible. No doubt this is in part due to the source material and close guidance of Carl Sagan during production, so creates a more "real" story than he usually does. This is best showcased perhaps by the several moments where president Clinton makes a cameo appearance (this film was in fact the last time the White House would release actual footage for use in a fictional movie). What this all does is it creates a sense of historical trueness to what you see on the screen. This in addition to Bob's famously long shots which make for a film that is as engrossing as it is hypnotizing. The constantly moving camera and Alan Silvestri's silky score (quite reminiscent of Forrest Gump of course) create a film with as much pace, control and tone as any in Zemeckis' library. But what really impresses me about Contact is it's ability to remain sparse, succinct and universal while never sacrificing the details. So many times sci-fi movies get sidelined by either the complexity of what's going on or the lack thereof. Contact walks that line of being incredibly detailed and scientifically dense (but never overwhelming or even at the forefront really) while at the same time remaining universally focused on the bigger picture: that of the human experience and the journey we each take from one side of our universe to the other.
Another must on a film like this- one heavy on story and character but also latent with visual effects shots -is a solid group of actors who understand the intimacy and the grand scope of the film at the same time and you certainly can't go wrong with Jodie Foster, Tom Skerritt and John Hurt. Jodie Foster is on her A-game here, perfectly embodying the introverted, self tortured scientist whose passion lies with her work- gazing upwards to the stars. Her micro gestures and subtle facial ticks are like choreographed dance moves, charting her character's growth from insecurity and loneliness to zest, courage and contentment. Particularly effective is her ability to use physical stances to tell her character's story. For example keep an eye on how she sits on the ground before her journey to Vega and how she is perched at the end of the film.
Matthew McConaughey, often lauded as a has-been, all but exiled to bad rom-coms, turns in one of his better performances as Father Palmer Joss, a "man of the cloth without the cloth" sent to be a compass of sorts to Elle throughout her years long journey from a mere ham radio enthusiast to the intergalactic traveler she was destined to become. He gets a few poignant speeches with great religious/scientific hyperbole and he delivers them with flying colors. Also of note for me is the always great supporting work of William Fichtner, here playing Elle's blind mentor of sorts, Kent Clark (superman backwards?). Fichtner, one of those guys you recongnize from a hundred different movies, really helps to add a warmness to Jodie's somewhat closed off Elle by way of a father proxy (Elle's father, the always solid David Morse of course, died when she was very young).
Now I recognize that Contact has a special place in my heart for personal reasons but I also fervently believe that if it had been a lesser movie than I had hoped for that this would not have been the case. That being said however I am the first to admit that while I personally have no problem with the pacing of the film I could understand some people not quite sitting well with the structure. It's one of those movies that halfway ends 90 minutes into the movie only to restart 10 minutes later with a final act that by the very nature of the content feels almost like a separate movie altogether. Some may call that disjointed but I call it appropriate. Besides, many of the greatest films share this same basic structural makeup, each for their own reasons: Goodfellas, Amadeus, Titanic. That's why they're called epics- and while Contact doesn't quite qualify as an epic per-se, except maybe on a personal level, it hits enough of the hallmarks to be judged as such. So what I see is not an overly long, disjointed movie but a perfectly split, somewhat shortened epic of cosmic proportions told through the eyes of one individual person.
Contact comes to us on a BD-50 Dual-Layer disc loaded with a 1080p/VC-1 transfer at a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Flesh tones look great and edge details are sharp. Detail is nice and crisp in the backgrounds (important in a movie with a lot of moving shots and changing backgrounds). No one blends effects shots with actual footage like Zemeckis and with Contact he is at his best with photo-realism being the norm for practically every shot. I was surprised while listening to the commentary about how things where digitally altered or added because it all looks so photorealistic. Textures look great and colors are actually somewhat muted rather than more on the slightly saturated side (something Zemeckis can sometimes do) but this I see as more of a production choice, again to keep it more in reality and less in fantasy. Computer monitors (most of them practical and NOT green screened later) look great with no syncing issues within the film. The massive effects sequences, such as Cape Canaveral and the worm hole, are stunningly sharp and lifelike with no grain or artifacts in sight (which composited shots can sometimes contain). Blacks are solid (very important for a movie about space) and the twinkle and sparkle of stars are just as brilliant and pristine as the iris of Jodie Foster's eyes in her close-ups. A great transfer but overall it's not a mind blowing transfer.
Contact is an odd movie soundwise in that it is so dialogue heavy for such long chunks but then will be incredibly sound FX and VFX heavy for large set pieces as well. The Dolby 5.1 TrueHD Surround track showcased on this Blu-Ray does a great job at balancing the two. Dialogue is clear and aptly forward in the front channel and the surround does a good job of maintaining ambience but remaining tame for most of the film so that when the real fireworks get going there's a shocking enough contrast. Markedly impressive is the opening 3 1/2 minute montage in which we travel from planet earth to the far reaches of the universe. The first 2 minutes is a sonic landscape of every sound that's left the planet in the last century until it fizzles out to nothing but silence (an impressive sound in itself). Then of course there's the roller coaster wormhole ride that will certainly wake you up with some real solid low frequencies in play if you happened to have dozed off somewhere around the 2 hour mark of the film (but you shouldn't!) All in all a great sounding blu-ray with not a single obvious complaint.
We get quite a few special features here on the Contact Blu-ray and they are certainly worth a watch and a listen even though I always get the feeling that most of the participants are somewhat bored or else halfway boring. There are also large gaps of air in all the commentaries and special feature narrations.
All in all Contact is a solid film from one of the most fantastical filmmakers out there and considering the mo-cap road Zemeckis has gone down since (Polar Express, Beowolf, A Christmas Carol) this might be the last great film from him for a while. The extras, while certainly plentiful enough, lack the flavor and spice of more current Blu-ray features produced with the double disc special edition frenzy that has become standard with all major releases on DVD and Blu-ray in mind. The transfer is still great and the story compelling enough to make this a must own for lovers of the film or lovers of Zemeckis in general.