Contact Movie

Retro Review: Contact

Here are some updated thoughts (2015):  Contact turned out to be one of my shorter reviews, much to the satisfaction of readers.  Not that I write long movie reviews, but sometimes I go off on tangents that can be unrelated to the film.

If I were to make a list of my Top 10 Science Fiction movies, Contact could very well make that list.  If not it would be just outside the Top 10.  I enjoy it that much.  No, it’s not perfect, and it’s often overlooked by many science fiction fans, but it’s still one of my favorite scifi movie even 16 years later.  One of the things the movie made me aware of was the S.E.T.I. Institute.  Since I saw Contact I’ve dedicated numerous computing resources to their distributed computing effort (SETI@Home) to listen for the sounds of distant alien voices in the background noise of the universe.  So far S.E.T.I., and myself, have detected nothing.  But it’s a BIG galaxy and an even BIGGER universe . . . small steps.

Very few films have come along that I truly enjoy watching.  Sure, a movie may be technically and/or thematically adept, but those same movies can also turn out to be unenjoyable to watch.  Finding that right mix of execution coupled with enjoyment is tough.  I really admire films that make me think, make me consider my potential place in the universe, and make me realize how small and insignificant we truly are in the greater vastness of the universe.  Contact delivers all of these aspects in spades, and in the process makes many science fiction movies look like bubblegum sci-fi.  I love the opening sequence of the camera leaving the Earth and shooting far out into space.  I feel so tiny and insignificant at the end of that sequence.  It sends chills down my spine as I realize how much there is out there, all of it undiscovered and unknown to us, as we sit on this pale blue dot and squabble over the pettiest of things, while hypocritically backstabbing one another to get to the top of a meaningless hill. (Edit:  See, there’s one of those tangents . . .)

Nearly all the situations presented in Contact are plausible, and there’s a reason behind this.  The movie is based on the novel penned by the late Carl Sagan.  The situations are so plausible, that I like to think of Contact as a pseudo “science fact” movie.  If the laws of physics hold as we know them today, then this is probably the method by which aliens may contact us.  As a child of the 70s I grew up with Carl Sagan.  I remember as a kid watching the entire Cosmos series on PBS, listening to Sagan drone on about “billions and billions” of stars, watching his Ship of the Imagination explore the universe and open my mind to science its extrapolation into science fiction.  I was mesmerized.  With Contact he basically took the size and scope of Cosmos, and weaved into a dramatic human tale.

Contact PosterThe exciting adventure of the day we make contact with life beyond Earth comes to the screen with a profound sense of wonder and a dazzling visual sweep that extends to the outer reaches of space and the imagination.

Ellie Arroway is a woman of science.  Palmer Joss is a religious scholar.  They’re opposite ends of the spectrum — and sudden players on the world stage as the countdown to humanity’s greatest journey begins.

Director:  Robert Zemeckis
Starring:  Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerrit
Genre:  Science Fiction
Media:  Film, 153 minutes
Rating: PG
Budget: $90 million
Box Office: $171 million, worldwide
Year: June 11, 1997
4 out of 5 stars

The story follows the astronomy career of Ellie Arroway from childhood to her journey to humanity’s first contact with aliens.  All of this is painted on a backdrop of billionaires, politicians, astronomers, and religious zealots and philosophers, who would, of course, come out of the woodwork like the bloodsucking slime that they are to leverage a first contact scenario for their own gains (except astronomer perhaps).  The movie does deviate quite a bit from the book, but the overall premise is preserved and the screenplay has a charm all its own.  Sagan’s wife had a hand in the making of the film, so I’m sure Carl would have approved of this final product.  Unfortunately, he passed away before this film was completed, thus the dedication “To Carl” at the end.

Jodie Foster puts in a solid performance as the older Ellie Arroway, and Tom Skerrit plays the conniving Dr. Drumlin who ridicules Dr. Arroway for working on S.E.T.I. (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), then backstabs her later to get the first seat in the machine.  As you can guess Ellie is the first alternate and she ends up going on the trip.  I’ll let you figure out how and why by watching Contact for yourself.  The special effects are excellent for their time and are not overused.  Much of the visuals leave a lot to your imagination.  You never see any aliens or their civilizations, and that’s the way I like it sometimes . . . let me interpret the story instead of shoving it down my throat.  Contact works this way . . . many movies don’t.

Contact is a convincing first contact film about the moral struggle that would happen during such an event.  In my opinion, it’s one of the most underrated science fiction movies in recent memory, not because it’s not considered a “good” movie, but because many don’t consider it a science fiction movie, which is utterly ludicrous.  Contact embodies the spirit of everything that’s good about science fiction.

Words © 1999-2021, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
Images/videos cited © to their respective owner(s).


  1. The contrast with the book is pretty striking. In the novel, Ellie didn’t make the trip alone. She was with a group. And there was a subtext about the downside of the onset of technology. It involved the invention of context recognition software to edit out commercials. I suppose that has been realized in the form of pop up blockers. The dark political agenda, a Hollywood staple, was not present. I regarded myself as fortunate to have read the book so far ahead of the movie.

      1. Joseph Campbell used to distribute a reading list for his students. One student, a woman, reacted angrily to the length of the list, saying, “I have other classes you know. I can’t keep up” The professor laughed and said, “I’m surprised that you tried. You have the rest of your life to do the reading.”

        Knowing something about your wife, you’re going to need an extra life time just to make a dent in that library.

        1. I also have Joseph Campbell, and I’m actually am reading it right now (shocking)…albeit, slowly. I also have many more books in my library than Amy does in hers. Mine are just a different kind of nerdy.

        2. Which Campbell are you reading? I realize that this is a side track, but his work ‘Hero With a Thousand Faces’ provided the structure for Star Wars. He spent time at SkyWalker ranch as a consultant. So there is some science fiction relevance. I hope you’ll post your review.

        3. Yes, Hero With a Thousand Faces. It’s a good treatise on his monomyth and hero’s journey, which I’m familiar with from being leveraged by many storytellers, but have never dug into in detail.

        4. His and hers libraries. Impressive. Most people don’t even have his and hers towel sets.

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