Perhaps it’s a sign of how truly apocalyptic 2016 has felt that the year ends with two science-fiction thrillers, turning the lens away from the real dilemmas to focus on something a little more otherworldly. Arrival and Passengers look to be big, bold, thinking-caps-on films, angling for the intelligence-entertainment axis, and they show it in their other big 2016 credential; their female leads. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence loom large in promotional material for the former and latter, reminding us that Women in STEM is, while still a fighting battle, at least one that seems to be making waves.
You’d be forgiven for imagining that between Ellen Ripley and the turn of the 21st century, sci-fi leads were all variations on Bruce Willis in Armageddon, Tom Hanks in Apollo 13, or Marty McFly. It doesn’t seem likely that the lingering decades which brought us Weird Science, a film in which two boys create a woman entirely for their own amusement, might also offer something substantial in the way of female-led science fiction.
Turn your satellite antenna towards Contact, and you’ll find yourself mistaken. If there were to be a prize for the most underrated science-fiction film of the 1990s, Contact would be the only viable candidate; perhaps even for the most underrated science-fiction film of the 20th century. Based on Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel of the same name and released in 1997, the film stars Jodie Foster as Dr Ellie Arroway, who leads SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) in listening for radio signals from intelligent life. On hearing a signal sent back from Vega, a star system some 26 lightyears away, Arroway becomes embroiled in the political, scientific and religious implications of her discovery.
Keeping with the tradition that sci-fi heroines are played by the best and brightest, Ellie Arroway is enlivened by Jodie Foster. Each fibre of her phenomenal being is turned towards Contact, with the sheer calibre of her performance offsetting the antagonism granted to female leads in male-dominated movie genres. While the film explores in subtext the silent undermining of women in science, Foster is so powerful that the film feels as though it would simply fold without her. As Arroway, her reach is as far-flung as the satellites she directs around the sky; scientific jargon falls naturally from her tongue, desperation and frustration is measured in the twist of a ring around her finger. The film’s final third – for Foster almost entirely blue-screen – still draws from her the kind of performance you might more usually expect from traditional Oscar-bait. The film’s conflicts – faith, science, peace, love, war, jealousy, morality – are concentrated in her expressive face, body language, physicality. Foster’s eyes become the window into Arroway’s soul, and they grow larger with each step into wonder.
Against a backdrop of phenomenal performing, it might be all that needs saying to point out Contact is a collaboration between Carl Sagan and director Robert Zemeckis. Off the monumental (and never-ending) success of Forrest Gump, Zemeckis leapt into Contact after first turning it down in 1993. Sagan, one of the most recognisable names in 20th century science fiction, had kicked the idea around since 1979, turning it into a novel when film development seemed a distant dream.
With such a crack team, it’s inevitable that Contact sings with superbness, drifting out of every frame. The devil is in Zemeckis’ detail. Dialogue thrums with SETI’s science, delivered by swift-educated actors at speed; Contact’s NASA advisor, Gerald D. Griffin, directed three Apollo missions and was vital in the touchdown of Apollo 13. Contact does not hold back for its lay audience, speaking in scientific tongues with the bare minimum of exposition and explanation, and showing little of the contempt that other blockbusters might have for the intelligence of its audience.
Zemeckis strives for a sense of rigour and authenticity. 25 contemporary CNN reporters appear, along with CNN shows Larry King and Crossfire. President Clinton could be mistaken for a willing participant for the way in which footage of his speeches is deployed to maximum effect. Cinematographer Don Burgess moves Contact between climates, diligently recording its physicalities; rain, dust, urban development. The synchronised turn of 27,200-ton satellites captures the ‘large’ in the Very Large Array, reminding us that wonder exists down here, too. The Earth is a constant grounding, whether it’s the Mars-like canyons of New Mexico or the rainforests of Puerto Rico, reminding Contact’s audience of the reality from which its unreality is about to unfold.
It might be ironic that much of that grounding work is achieved through the castles-in-the-air of visual effects. Four years before The Lord of the Rings turned VFX into an Oscar behemoth, Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital were trying to bring the stars to the silver screen. The expectation for ’90s films is that they will date badly, almost always in the danger zone of VFX. Yet Contact’s visual effects look as though they hit cinemas yesterday; it’s the 640×480 screen resolutions and clunky laptops which give the decade away. A three-minute, fully CGI opening sequence, dragging the audience backwards through the solar system and gradually ageing radio waves into deep space, spent seven years as the longest continuous VFX sequence in a live-action film; its detail and quality explains why nobody tried to best it any sooner.
There are metaphysics of a different kind at play here, too. Like any science fiction film that aspires to greater things, science walks only a little way ahead of faith. The conflict (and parity) between religious and scientific endeavour creates Contact’s backbone, personified in the push-pull fascination of scientist Arroway and man-of-religion Palmer Joss (a fairly early role for an on-form Matthew McConaughey). Zemeckis gets sex out of the way early, fulfilling the physical so that Foster and McConaughey might explore the emotional – nay, spiritual – in finer detail. In such on-the-nose personification the theme is less than subtle, but strong characterisation and performance do enough to make it work. The childhood loss of Arroway’s father forms a central question, asked by Joss to Arroway at mid-point when she questions the ability to believe in a higher power; “Did you love your father?” Joss asks, and when she says yes he tells her, “Prove it.”
With so much in its favour, Contact’s exclusion from the pantheon of great sci-fi films is as much of a mystery as whether there really is something else out there. Much like the three-armed Y-shape of the Very Large Array, the three arms of filmmaking – performance, direction, and story – combine within Contact to create an almost perfect vision of what an actual first contact might be like. As 21st-century scientific milestones loom, it seems more vital than ever to remind ourselves that, amongst all the noise we blast out into the universe – including those late-night broadcasts of Contact on some digital Freeview channel – we might not be the only ones who are watching.