After seeing Jodie Foster wasted in piffle such as Sommersby and Maverick, I worried that the gloriously intelligent actress of The Accused and Little Man Tate was gone for good. Happily, she made her triumphant return in a vehicle worthy of her extraordinary gifts: Robert Zemeckis’ Contact.
Based on Carl Sagan’s novel, the movie sports what was then the latest in cutting-edge special effects (including a visit from Pres. Bill Clinton, a la Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump). But it hardly matters, because as Ellie Arroway, Foster is the movie’s best special effect. Whether she’s in a love scene or on a trip to outer space, there’s not a moment where you don’t believe Foster is really living it.
Ellie has been sending radio signals into space since she was a kid — first on ham radios, then later on satellite dishes. She’s not sure where or why she’s sending them — she’s just driven to do it. But as an adult astronomer, she’s thwarted at every turn by David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), her former mentor. When Ellie’s work yields nothing, Drumlin shuts off her funding; when Ellie’s signals start getting replies, he hogs all of the credit.
We’ve read for years about smart females who know the answers in math class but, when they raise their hands, are overlooked in favor of the male students. Those males grow up to be David Drumlin. Drumlin is dashing, knows just enough to get by, and has all of the smart answers (just not the right ones). And for a while, the story appears to be a contest between the outspoken woman and Mr. All-American.
But Contact never gets that cliched — its twists are fresh and entirely plausible. It even takes on some philosophical issues, and happily, it does not cop out on any of them. Suffice to say, the outcome is a refreshing antidote to no-brainers such as Men in Black (which was released shortly before Contact), where anything alien exists only to be zapped.
And for once, Zemeckis’ ensemble work overshadows his effects stunts. Foster, Skerritt, McConaughey, James Woods, and Angela Bassett all shine. Among the movie’s many surprises, one of its nicest was the movie debut of young Jena Malone. As the young Ellie, she makes you see how the ache in this inquisitive child’s heart turns her into the ultimate stargazer.
Contact makes you believe in its miracles — or at least, in the miracle of Jodie Foster’s intuitive acting. Pragmatic Ellie comes to experience a revelation. And thanks to Foster, so do we.