25 Years Ago, Matthew McConaughey Made The Perfect Sci-Fi Movie
Few movies are as smart, uplifting, and romantic as Robert Zemeckis’s 1997 classic, Contact.
We’re okay to go! In July of 1997, one of the greatest movies of all time — directed by one of the biggest filmmakers on the planet — hit theaters. The reaction at the time was decidedly mixed. Was this a romance? A science fiction film? A movie about metaphysics, astronomy, religion, and secular faith? The answer is, Contact was all of those things. Three years after he struck gold with Forrest Gump in 1994, Robert Zemeckis directed Contact, a ruminative science fiction novel based on the Carl Sagan novel of the same name. Now, 25 years after its release, Contact remains a classic for a reason.
Contact is, if you squint, a Matthew McConaughey movie, that doesn’t really feel like a Matthew McConaughey movie. Because McConaughey visited very similar material in the 2014 sci-fi epic Interstellar, it’s tempting to think of Contact as a trail run for that movie. But, as great as Interstellar is, of the two McConaughey sci-fi epics, Contact is the more timeless film, thanks in large part to Jodie Foster’s excellent performance combined with Zemeckis’s expert and heartfelt direction.
Before even diving into what Contact is all about, it’s important to remember that in a sense, this movie was Robert Zemeckis returning to high-concept science fiction and fantasy. He became world-famous for directing all three time-traveling Back to the Future movies (1985-1990), the reality-bending Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and the ghostly comedy Death Becomes Her (1992). So, in a sense, although Forrest Gump (1994) was his most famous movie, it’s reasonable that more “out there” movies made up the majority of his oeuvre in the ‘90s. (Proof: In Ready Player One, when an object called “the Zemeckis Cube” is introduced, nobody imagines this as a Forrest Gump reference.) So, thinking about all of that, Contact is perhaps the ultimate Zemeckis movie insofar as it has Oscar-worthy performances and big-idea science fiction.
But, other than the fact that Robert Zemeckis was clearly the perfect person to adapt Carl Sagan’s sprawling sci-fi novel, the reason why Contact works so well is, of course, Matthew McConaughey and Jodie Foster. As star-crossed accidental lovers, McConaughey and Foster play Palmer Joss and Dr. Ellie Arroway. She’s a rational astronomer and astrophysicist, and he’s a new-age Christian who comes across less as a youth pastor, and more like a self-help guru.
Anybody but McConaughey would have turned this character into a joke. On paper, the believability of the character’s position in the film is a tough pill to swallow. While you totally believe in the down-to-Earth logistics of all the space science in the film, believing in McConaughey’s pluralistic, promiscuous, and ultimately good-hearted spiritual pro-science man, is difficult when you step away from the movie. It’s not that people with Palmer’s beliefs don’t exist in real life. They do. But, thinking about Palmer as a real-life person who wielded this much national influence on actual policy would be like if Carl Sagan had dated Oprah Winfrey while Oprah was hypothetically working for the president. (To be clear, McConaughey’s character is the Oprah in this analogy.)
The thing about Contact that’s the most fantastic isn’t Dr. Arroway’s journey across the universe. In the end, the romantic story between her and Palmer is the thing that feels like the biggest leap of faith, not just for them, but for the audience. Contact is a perfect science fiction movie because it effortlessly presents a step-by-step journey toward first contact with aliens as plausible and interesting. But, the film doesn’t use the tension about meeting aliens as the drama that drives the narrative. Instead, how people around the world react is the key.
Somewhat hilariously, the aliens decide that only one person can go fit into this very specific pod they’ve designed, and so, the search for the one human who can represent all of humanity is on. This is the coolest part of the movie. Forget thinking about voting for a world leader, who would you vote for if there was just one human on Earth that could represent all of us as we went on a journey to talk to space aliens for the first time?
McConaughey and Foster shine through all of these conflicts, and there’s never a point that you aren’t utterly engrossed in their realistic debates. For certain sci-fi purists, the movie might render some of these philosophical concepts as too simplistic. But, you can totally feel Carl Sagan’s generous approach to astronomy and science shine through in the film, even if the story takes some liberties with the novel. Part of what made Carl Sagan’s style of talking about space and science so revolutionary is that he took a populist road. He wrote and lectured for everyone. When you watch Cosmos now or read any of his wonderful nonfiction books — from Pale Blue Dot to The Demon-Haunted World — what is so arresting is just how accessible complex ideas seem when Sagan is explaining them to you.
In terms of Sagan’s best books, Contact is up there, but the film version accomplishes something the novel couldn’t. The movie simply makes love a bigger deal, and, so, instead of just teaching the masses about cool space science, it preaches tolerance between spiritualism and hard science. By making the romance between Palmer and Ellie so central to the story, Contact suggests that reconciliation between faith and science is possible through love. In a contemporary world in which certain viewpoints seem forever irreconcilable, Contact seems like a movie that could never be made today. Could someone like Palmer really fall in love with someone like Ellie? In Contact, you believe it, and that’s where the out-there science fiction ideas in the movie are the wildest. If these two can get together, there’s hope for us all.
Where to stream Contact
Contact is available for rent on iTunes, Amazon, and YouTube.