I wonder when exactly it was that Robert Zemeckis became a mass-audience healer, dedicated to our enlightenment and improvement. This, after all, is the man who gave us that hilarious ode to insincerity Used Cars (“Mrs. Lopez, do you realize your hair matches the color of these tires?”). And even as recently as 1992 he made the memorably nasty Death Becomes Her — whose box-office failure may explain Zemeckis’ hard left turn into Serious Major Motion Pictures.
In Contact, as in his inescapable Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis tucks us in with an inspirational bedtime story. Both movies are fit for inclusion in William Bennett’s Book of Virtues; they’re companion pieces, really — Gump toured America’s past, while Contact turns its eyes to the future. And both movies have matching strengths and weaknesses. I actually liked Gump before it stopped being a movie and started being a pop-culture religion; I enjoyed its narrative sweep, its satisfying big-movie aura, and the same qualities kept me interested in Contact.
The movie is based on a novel by the late Carl Sagan, an enthusiastic scientist and thinker who was also a tad full of himself, as anyone who watched him on PBS’ Cosmos can attest. Contact is full of itself, too — swollen with hefty talk best left to college students lazing around a bong. Who are we? Why are we here? What is our destiny? Like, wow, man. The movie is like an extremely literal-minded answer to 2001, which hid maddening questions inside the folds of its narcotic mysticism. Contact poses questions only to provide its own warm and fuzzy answers. The universe is like a box of chocolates.
Acting for the first time since the awful Nell in 1994, Jodie Foster is once again alert and grounded, which is the best news about Contact. She’s Ellie Arroway, a brilliant young astronomer driven to find a way to chat with whatever might be Out There. A skeptic and passionate scientist, she doesn’t believe in God but does believe we’re not alone; she’s Mulder and Scully rolled into one — she, too, wants to believe. And that, I’m afraid, turns out to be the emphasis of Contact. We’ve lost ourselves! We need faith in something — anything!
Much of Contact unfolds in an anticipatory hush that’s most welcome in this loud summer. The astrologers wait for a sign from the skies. They wait to figure out what the signal means. They wait for word from the White House. They wait to see who will be picked to go up in a spacecraft whose design has been encoded in the signals. Waiting and more waiting. Yet the movie isn’t boring. Zemeckis still has superb, assured control of his filmmaking, if not his choice of material.
Contact yearns for a marriage of science and religion. The devotees gathering to await alien contact are like the Gump acolytes jogging across America, and Ellie becomes a Gump for Roswell junkies. After her trip through space, everyone thinks she hallucinated it, and her skepticism is thrown back at her. She can’t prove what she saw; it’s like God — you just have to believe. Zemeckis is telling us that our soul matches the color of the cosmos. He’s selling us used pieties.