Rarely does a film made from a popular book meet the expectations created by that book. Often, so many compromises are made that the movie is either a dim echo of the original or it is turned into something entirely foreign to the vision first held by the author. Fortunately, this is not the case with Contact. The vision of Carl Segan is faithfully transferred to the screen with some alterations in scope and content but still true to the impact of the novel. Segan died during the production of this film but his wife held on to that dream and saw it through to completion to the benefit of us all.
The cast could not have been better. Jodi Foster as Ellie Arrowway, a scientist determined to search for extra terrestrial intelligence. Matthew McConaughey as Palmer Joss, a religious man set against the dehumanization too often inflected on man by blind devotion to science. Tom Skerritt as David Drumlin, a scientific administrator that has let the financial bottom line deters him from pure science. The danger in such a film is to make the characters too one-dimensional. This was thankfully not done here. Through flashbacks and impressive dialogue, the characters are fleshed out as real human beings. Case in point, the character of Ellie. We see her as a little girl, interested in her hobby of contacting people far away with her ham radio set. Her devotion to her father is touching and adds depth and understanding to what makes her tick as an adult. The scene where after the death of her father Ellie finds no comfort in the words of a priest assuring her the death was Gods will, we see the schism in Ellie between science and religion. In desperation the young girl tries in vain to contact her father through her radio. When later in life she finds herself drawn to Joss, a religious man, the conflict is believable and adds to the content of the story. Not only the conflict between Ellie and Joss professionally but also as a man and a woman once involved with each other. This adds a very touching human side to the debate that is woven throughout the story. Even the smaller parts are cast to perfection. James Woods as the presidential advisor, Angela Basset as the presidential coordinator and a great, pivotal role of the zealot bent on the destruction of the machine from outer space played by Jake Bussey. Mr. Bussey is the image of his father Gary and seems to have taken over the over the top heavy so often mastered by his father.
The direction by Robert Zemeckis is flawless. His use of the camera is nothing short of inspired. The use of techniques such as fades, reflection, zoom-ins and mattes is stunning. The integration of CGI, matte and real action is seamless, with out any detectable flaw. Zemeckis direction builds on top of the realism generated by the screenplay and performances to create a film of incredible scope and vision. Unlike so many modern movies the sound track is never the center of attention. No booming popular songs to distract you from the screen. Music is used as punctuation for the drama and sets the mood. Zemeckis is not even afraid of using silence during key scenes making the viewer even more aware of the action on the screen. Even the very first scene shown in the movie sets the stage for an incredible marriage between direction and special effects. The DVD starts with a loud burst of sound coming from all six speakers at once. You see the planet earth filling the screen. As the scene pans back the speakers now play distinctly different things, songs and news broadcasts. The pan back continues past the moon, past Mars and further outward. All the time the speakers have music and news from further back in time. The surround speakers and sub woofer also become less noticeable. Soon you see the universe and that melts into the eye of a young girl. A short but incredibly done scene.
The DVD is reference quality in how clean the video and audio is presented. The added features are also among the best seen in any DVD. Three separate commentary tracks including the director, FX specialists and Jodi Foster. Fosters commentary was especially welcomed since she could speak not only as a very professional actor but as a noted director in her own right. This is a must for any DVD collection.