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Based on a novel by Carl Sagan, this was an unusual depiction of possible alien contact. The main character is Ellie (Jodie Foster), a young scientist who has chosen the SETI project as the main impetus for her life (not just her job). In fact, she seems almost obsessed with finding a signal from an alien intelligence from outer space. Her interest in this area was first fostered by her father (David Morse) who, unfortunately, passed away when she was a little girl. Her father figure in her adult life is Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), a more pragmatic government scientist who believes Ellie is wasting her time and on a career-killing path.
Drumlin shuts down the SETI program in Puerto Rico, where Ellie is working. However, about a year later, Ellie gets new funding from mysterious billionaire/scientist (and yet another father figure) Hadden (John Hurt), who sets her up with a new team and large telescope array in New Mexico. 4 years later, Ellie finally hits the jackpot - she hears a signal. Before, Ellie was like the lone voice crying in the wilderness; now, everyone becomes involved - though mostly it's the U.S. government. The message from space is revealed to have loads of hidden information, eventually deciphered as blueprints for a special machine.
The National Security Advisor (James Woods) has concerns about the possible hostile intentions of the aliens. The White House Chief of Staff (Angela Bassett) coordinates what info is released to the public. President Bill Clinton holds a televised press conference. And Drumlin, who had been skeptical of this whole enterprise, takes center stage and the public spotlight, spearheading it, to Ellie's annoyance. The focus becomes on completing this vast structure (half-a-trillion dollars worth) and possible transport mechanism, while also selecting the proper representative of humanity to take the space trip. To Ellie's further consternation, Drumlin becomes the front runner for the trip.
The dramatic impact of the story involves Ellie's struggle with faith - she doesn't believe in God, putting her at odds with the majority (mostly represented by friendly figure Matthew McConaughey and a small role by an unfriendly Rob Lowe) - and the more visceral elements of the whacko fringe, one of whom is a fanatic (Jake Busey) who may pose a real danger. There's also the standard government interference, bureaucracy and suspicion (Woods, as usual, gives an entertaining performance).
]There's too much emphasis on the religious aspect; it becomes all about how a believer must be the passenger, not actual qualifications, and Ellie becomes the victim of politics and political correctness, but there's also some rare reality to these scenes - Drumlin does not become a caricature but rather the most realistic human character. That's the drama and suspense, but what actually dominates this film are the themes of wonder and scientific knowledge. The first scene in the film is a pull out from Earth that tries to capture the entire known universe in a couple of minutes screen time. It points out the vastness of it all and, at the same time, the smallness of Earth.
Since we watch this film mostly from the perspective of Ellie, her obsessions and ambitions are what informs most scenes: the need to know, the pursuit of hidden knowledge, the possibilities of what is out there, the mysteries of deep space and, most obviously, the suggested existence of some alien races and technology. Ellie, in a sense, represents all of us and how we seek answers to almost mystical questions, but where most of us put this trippy stuff on the back burner for most of our lives, she makes it the central focus of her life. The conclusion is kept somewhat vague and this may have alienated (no pun intended) many of the audience, but the trip there is more than interesting. BoG's Score: 7.5 out of 10
NOTE: real footage of Clinton was used for his scenes (director Zemeckis was fond of this technique, used a lot in his previous Forrest Gump). Though it came across as clever at first, it also points out the vacuousness of most political speeches; Clinton was obviously speaking about some other real world event, but his words fit the story here just as well.
Alien Contact Trivia: a similar premise was used way back in the British TV series A For Andromeda in 1961 - the concept of aliens sending us information rather than just appearing themselves. This was also a story point in the Species (1995) film series, with more hostile intentions.
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