Aug 29, 2014

[Movies] Contact (1997)

In my latter elementary school years, I started to go through that classic cycle of seeing movies adapted from books that I had read and seeing the differences between the original and cinematic versions. I first went through this with Jurassic Park. This movie marks my second foray into the world of adaptations.

Contact received rather mixed reviews at the box office, but I have to admit that I really liked the movie. Sure, it wasn't a perfect translation of the original story found in the book, but it was still a pretty interesting cinematic experience. And it's one that made me think a lot and my appreciation for the movie became helpful for a reaction paper in high school or something along those lines.

This movie taught me not to be ashamed to like something even if some other folks don't. It also taught me that just because a movie ends up being different from the original book in a few ways, it doesn't make it a bad movie experience. If anything, it just stresses that film is a different medium from books and one cannot expect each to tackle the same subject in exactly the same way. And the differences in treatment can make all the difference.

Synopsis: Contact is a 1997 science fiction drama movie adapted from the Carl Sagan novel of the same name. It was directed by Robert Zemeckis with a screenplay by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg. The movie also won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation among other awards.

We first meet Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway (Jena Malone / Jodie Foster) as a young child being encouraged by her father explore the world and satisfy her curiosity. She grows up to be one of the scientists working at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico as part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). She and her team listen to radio transmissions from space in the hopes of finding patterns possible generated by other lifeforms out there. However the Science Advisor to the President, David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) manages to get their funding pulled in favor of "more important" research.

However, the elusive industrialist S.R. Hadden (John Hurt) offers to support her research given his interest in her career thus far. Years later, we find Ellie now working at the Very Large Array (VLA) in Socorro County, New Mexico. Arroway stumbles on a signal that appears to be repeating the various prime numbers in order as coming from the star of Vega. Further study of the signal reveals a shocking image - that of Adolf Hitler's welcoming address to the 1936 Summer Olympics. And this is just the beginning of the secrets of the signal from Vega and the many, many challenges Dr. Ellie Arroway is going to face because of this discovery.

The  movie largely follows the flow of the book, although admittedly my imagined look for a lot of this story didn't quite match how the movie actually came out. That's neither here nor there - our impressions of a story create a particular image in our minds based on our experiences. The movie just gave it a different face, one that stemmed from the mind of Robert Zemeckis and his team for the most part.

Jodie Foster was a great choice for the role at Ellie Arroway. Sure, at times she comes off as rather aloof and sometimes stoic to a fault. But that's sort of what the role needed given her character's view of the world that was both pragmatic and hopeful. Sure, she's one of those pure science types who are declared atheists and all that. But her entire search for alien life has an implicit tone of hope woven into it since it's not like there's direct evidence on hand for her to build on.

One of the more interesting parts of this story was Ellie's relationship with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a famous Christian philosopher in the movie's setting. The two initially hook up and years later find themselves in a position where the status of Joss could be quite important to Ellie's scientific future. Given their roles, you just know that they're designed to provide a venue for various ideas to be discussed and contrary views about religion and the role of faith to be brought forth. And to be fair, the interplay between Foster and McConaughey was pretty good and provided a good speaker box for some of these ideas to come forward.

But John Hurt as Hammond? Now that  was a brilliant casting choice. Her perfectly captured the sense of this eccentric billionaire who's willing to throw all this money of the search for aliens. Brilliant piece of casting right there.

The visual effects in the movie were pretty stunning. Even just conceiving how to present the message from Vega and the pages and pages of information was already impressive. But the final creation that stemmed from that message and the comparatively early CGI that went into animating things all came out rather swimmingly. The movie had its share of beauty moments.

Pacing as a whole felt a little slow, but it's hard to say that there's any real way to speed things up given the original novel. That was a pretty long book and I can totally respect any decisions that went into putting everything together. But slow pacing for one can be gradual development for another and in the end the build-up worked out nicely.

Contact is a rather thought-provoking film based on a even more brilliant book. It's not perfect by any means but I think it had a distinct message it wanted to send and it found a way to deliver that story experience pretty well. Thus I'm happy to rate this movie as 4 uses of math as a communication medium more than just a computational one out of a possible 5.


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