Contact, Carl Sagan

Pocket, 1990 (1997 reprint), 434 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-00410-7

A better movie than the book. A smart summer flick. A motion picture where the science at least tries to be exact. A smart, beautiful, atheist heroine.

Compared to these four impossibilities, alien contact seems almost pedestrian. Yet, CONTACT achieves all of them. The mind wobbles. Only the supervision of the great late Carl Sagan could make it possible.

When a female astronomer (Ellie Arroway) discovers an alien message embedded in a radio signal from Vega, it’s up to her to convince the world of the importance of her discovery. Along the way, she’ll have to face up to the death of her father and the entwined nature of science and religion…

I thought that Contact the novel wasn’t exceptional. Sure, the message detection sequence was superb, as were the various steps toward the construction of the Machine and the selection of the candidates. However, the novel simply tried too hard to reconcile religion and science, the Josh Palmer character was unsympathetic, Ellie Arroway didn’t really grab me and the conclusion, while memorable, (they find an unambiguous message from God in Pi=3.1415…) didn’t quite fit with my atheist convictions. While Sagan was being more or less even-handed, he did so in a very subtle manner. When I heard that a movie was in the making, I first despaired: Subtlety isn’t Hollywood’s greatest strength, and I was ready to see an adaptation with all the craftiness of an elephant in a chemistry lab. Oops.

I went alone to see CONTACT, more out of unfortunate consequences than any desire to see it alone. I even sat in the middle of the fourth row, in complete defiance to usual movie-going behaviour. Waited impatiently as the usual crowd of high-school morons settled around, more interested in smooching than expanding their minds. And then the movie started.

The good news are that CONTACT is the purest, hardest science-fiction movie… ever. The bad news is that it’s good, but not great. As much as I wanted to love the movie, at best I could only like it. As expected, there was too much of a senseless debate on science versus religion. (With no clear winner according to the movie… but it had to cheat badly to do so: The senate hearing scene at the end is completely boffo. I was busy coming up with hard arguments against the “theory” while Ellie’s character simply followed the screenwriter’s direction to play dumb as not to ruin the movie’s point.) It’s no 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, but 2001 is the only motion picture it can be compared to.

But never mind what the movie does wrong. What’s more important is what the movie does right. An exceptional female protagonist. A blind astronomer. Savvy movie-making. Stunning “invisible” digital effects. A solid grasp of science. Effortless scientific vulgarization. In short, smart (if misguided) SF.

Zemeckis has managed the proverbial good science-fiction movie. For this only, I am in awe. CONTACT is a solid contender for the Oscars. While I would have rather have had seen THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, it is comforting to think that at least, CONTACT has been made.

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