Big on plot and small in the CG-stuffed, city-levelling, alien department, Contact is a science-fiction film with a difference. It deals with an incredible, fascinating, spiritual adventure, not an action-packed war waged by ETs stealing our women/bodies/water for their dying planet. It questions whether mankind's thirst for knowledge and a 2,000 year-old biblical faith can co-exist in a world turned upside down by the prospect of alien contact.
Unlike the majority of Hollywood's guns-'n'-bugs SF output (Independence Day, Mars Attacks!, etc), Contact focuses on the psychological consequences of the impending alien meeting, rather than the actual meeting itself. It does have spectacular moments - explosions, computer-generated graphics and alien planets - but Contact is two engrossing hours of preparation, all media clips and political soundbites, bureaucratic press conferences and collective soul-searching. And all this takes place because Jodie Foster discovers a noise that sounds like a washing machine 26 light years away.
If the purpose of Contact is tomake you feel very small, then it succeeds. In a fantastic opening sequence, the camera zooms away from our fragile blue/green Earth, back through the cacophony of TV and radio signals, then past the Solar System, and across the star-studded Milky Way until all traces of mankind are lost in unbounded, muted vacuum. Then complete, deafening silence. The galaxy rotates slowly - a computer-generated lightshow, immeasurable and unexplored. Zemeckis gives you all the wonder of Close Encounters in one single shot.
On the ground, Contact is buoyed by a first-rate script (adapted from Carl Sagan's unwieldly novel) and an excellent cast. And although it clocks in at a daunting two-and-a-half hours, the film zips by like 90 minutes, so involving is the story and so rounded, well-realised and believable are the characters. Jodie Foster, in her first film for three years, hogs the screen with a powerful performance, her faith an unshakeable, almost fanatical belief in science. McConaughey flits in and out as funky priest Palmer Joss ("I've been called a man of the cloth without the cloth"), while Tom Skerritt plays the sceptical scientist, prepared to step over Foster's crusading stargazer in the pursuit of self-advancement. Bill Clinton, Jay Leno, Larry King and a host of US news anchors have been meshed into the story with computer wizardry, enhancing the realism.
Of course, there are moments when Contact strays into unavoidable Gump territory, the odd ten minutes weighed down by sentimental father-daughter flashbacks and OTT philosophising. But it quickly grabs your attention back, teasing you with seamless CG sequences and, eventually, a dazzling ride across the galaxy resulting in a view of space and time that's beautiful in its encapsulated infinity. "They should have sent a poet," says the dumb-founded Ellie. It's well worth the wait.
In fact, Contact's only real failing is that it pushes your expectations that little bit too high. It continually promises to give you everything Close Encounters couldn't: a glimpse beyond the spaceship door, a long, lingering look at an alien planet. But it doesn't. At least not really. There are aliens (and I'll stop right here, so as not to spoil it), but the sequence leaves you unfulfilled and slightly disappointed, reflecting on what might have been, and what Zemeckis could have done.
But no matter. Contact is an enjoyable, refreshing, thoughtful movie. It sets up a fascinating premise, and urges you to think through the consequences. Above all, it's a Hollywood film with a plot, and worth seeing for that reason alone.
Thoughtful, fascinating, visually spectacular and brilliantly acted, Contact is perhaps the first angst-ridden, pre-millennial self-examination movie to hit the screens. How small are we in the universe? Put your thumb and forefinger together. See the gap that isn't there... well, mankind is that small.